OPINION: A message to first-generation Latine first-years

A drawing of three latine people standing in three differently-colored hearts. The people reach out of the boundaries of their heart to hold hands. All are smiling, and the background is a rainbow of bright colors.
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

“¡Hola Lizette! ¿Como estas?” This past weekend, the simple sentence almost brought me to tears when I was getting on the bus to the Chicano Latino Student Affairs (CLSA) first-year retreat. Hearing Spanish automatically reminded me of my family and my mom.

As a first-generation student, coming into higher education has been a dream since I can remember. My family wasn’t able to pursue education and they were always extremely supportive in all my academic endeavors. But now that I’m here, I feel stuck.

I feel empowered, yet doubtful. I wake up every morning and feel proud to be here, but I also feel guilty that I left my home and am doing what a lot of my family members weren’t able to do. Why me?

My parents are my biggest support system, so being here without them is a beautiful challenge. I have full ownership of my decisions, but that’s also where the guilt comes in. Why do I have the luxury to be here in college? Why am I enjoying life here when I left my little sister at home? A million questions bombard my mind even when, deep down, I know I shouldn’t feel this way.

What I’ve found to be healing in more ways than one has been finding a community on campus through groups like the CLSA center. The retreat they hosted for Latine first-years allowed me to connect with other students across Claremont. From hearing Spanglish, dancing to reggaeton and norteñas to simply feeling safe with people who looked like me, I felt more empowered to take pride in my identity.

The term “Latinx” has been used recently to promote gender inclusivity to describe communities from Latin America or of Latin-American descent. Spanish is naturally a gendered language, so Latinx has been widely used to respect non-binary or non-gender conforming people.

You can’t really pronounce the “X” in Spanish though, so recently, some scholars and activists have begun using Latine instead as a more inclusive term to describe our thriving and changing community.

I personally identify with the term Chicana, since it connects both the Mexican and American cultures I grew up with. However, Latinidad and identity is different for everyone even within our own community. On campus, I’ve found myself actively looking for spaces where I can celebrate being Latine because of a natural desire to feel safe.

But if there are support systems in place, why do I, and other first-gen students, feel guilty using them?

As first-years, it’s difficult to find these spaces. We’re all new to campus and want to feel like we know what we’re doing, even though we really don’t. If I do find these spaces, it’s scary to ask for help, even more so when I don’t see other people voice their concerns.

Oftentimes, I feel scared to ask for help because I feel like I should already be grateful to be on this campus. Why would I ask for more support?

Culture shock is very real for Latine students entering higher education. Every first-year is entering a new environment, but it gets more complex when imposter syndrome is added into the equation. Emotions of loneliness and depression are more prominent in Latine students when there is a lack of strong ethnic pride. Almost every first-year Latine student I’ve talked to so far has mentioned feeling out of place in one way or another.

What has made us feel better? Having open conversations. This past week, some Latine friends and I sat out on Pitzer’s lawn chairs, watching people go to and from class. We talked about the challenge of not seeing many students who look like us.

Were we trauma-dumping? Perhaps. Did it help? Yes. The simple action of talking about it and learning we weren’t alone in our feelings felt like a sigh of relief.

As Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off on Sept. 15, I want to push myself to not be afraid to ask the scary questions. I want to bring up the fact that adapting to a wealthy town and predominantly white institutions is hard.

Imagine you’re surrounded by students who, in some magnitude, have family members that know what college is like, so a lot of this experience is first nature to them. Imagine missing the language, music and safeness that a lot of Latine families hold dear. There is an added invisible layer that a lot of Latine first-generation students silently navigate.

As new students on campus, safe spaces are essential, especially during our first few weeks. At the Claremont Colleges’ Club fair on Sept. 6, I felt so supported when I approached the Pomona Latinx Alliance table. Smiling students waved me towards them, and I heard my name pronounced the correct way.

However, it can’t just be us supporting each other and talking about these issues. Support shouldn’t just come from affinity spaces.

We need more open dialogue within our classes and within our institutions. At times, it feels like imposter syndrome is a normalized part of our experience. Latine students should not be expected to feel this way. I shouldn’t be applauded for surviving because it shouldn’t be this hard to feel like I belong.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that this shift is difficult or to shed those tears that have been stuck in your eyes.

To any Latine first-years, if no one else tells you, I will. You’ve got this, and we’re here for a reason. And while we’re at it: vamos a ser nosotros mismos y vamos a apoyarnos entre nosotros mismos.

We’re going to be ourselves, and we’re going to support each other.

Lizette Gonzalez PO ’27 is a first-year at Pomona. She grew up in Los Angeles. She is a huge Dodgers baseball fan and you can always find her listening to music.

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