First in the Family

September 13, 2019

Nearly every night I can remember from my pre-kindergarten years, my mom would read with me. It was almost always my choice what book we would dive into that evening; I had a bookshelf of stories we would rotate through. I’m sure for my mom this was a less-than-exhilarating routine of re-reading my favorite installment of Frog and Toad or later Junie B. Jones. But I never lost that love of reading—it continued well into my grade school years, when she often reminded me of her goal, to ensure that I would go away to college the way she and my father had not. It was an aspiration she mentioned so frequently that there was little question of its inevitability.

Not having a college degree caused my mother significant professional anxiety. Whenever she was passed up for a raise or a promotion, she felt that if only she had a degree, she would have the right to take issue with being overlooked. Having a network of alumni to lean on when making geographical or career changes, experiencing a more diverse pool of peers and learning from their backgrounds, getting the opportunity to study abroad, and enjoying the higher income usually associated with a degree were all reasons she was dead set on me going to college. I feel incredibly grateful for this—had she not been so intent on my continued education, I would never have been so intent on relentlessly working toward this goal. This is one enormous advantage I had over many of the people with whom I grew up.

When choosing a school, I accepted the biggest scholarship I received and enrolled at Northeastern University. A month into my time there, I knew it wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to feel a strong sense of community at college, an institution where everyone was at some level in it together. I researched schools where the students were more engaged with on-campus activities, and one of the most prominent results was Georgetown. And so my sophomore year, I transferred.

Georgetown is a difficult school for a first-generation student to attend. I immediately noticed the enormous amount of work students juggle. I survived my first semester, but I realized there was no way I could balance a side job after trying to assist a professor with her research and failing miserably. I couldn’t spend a dozen hours every week on something that had no effect on the five classes I was taking. This furthered the pressure to receive perfect grades; not participating in resume-building extracurriculars made me feel like the only thing I had going for me was my GPA. I felt the need to take a course load packed with upper-level major electives, creating a cycle where I received less-than-stellar grades and felt paralyzing anxiety about my post-graduation goals. Graduating without a job in hand was not an option; I’m paying my way through school via private loans whose interest was already compounding. 

From applying to college to the beginning of my senior year, I have never shaken the feeling that I am flying blind. I’m not sure if I slipped through the cracks, or if everyone encounters some amount of this, but I think that if there were more consistent structures for giving and receiving advice, first-generation college students would have a better experience at Georgetown. When I arrived on campus, I was provided a transfer peer mentor who shared my major. I tried to get in touch with her so that I could get a feel for what courses to take, but she did not come to our scheduled meeting during orientation and hilariously accepted my Facebook friend request after she graduated nine months later. I have never once spoken to the person listed as my “program advisor,” and my deans, who seem to change every single semester, have never conveyed a grasp of the content of my classes. Having someone advise me on what classes to take to be ready for the real world, as well as what extracurriculars would be worthwhile, could have changed my college experience for the better.

One of the career paths that I am considering, like many at Georgetown, is becoming a lawyer. Before I got to college, I had never met a lawyer. I had no idea that your undergraduate GPA is one of the most important aspects of a law school application. It might be self-evident that you should aim for the best GPA possible, but the way some students architect their class schedule around maximizing their GPA was completely foreign to me. The reality is that many students who have the advantage of family members with college experience probably knew to major in something more graduate-school friendly or to take classes that could optimize their chances. On top of legacy admissions, which inexplicably assist applicants who have already been privileged enough to have college-educated—and more likely wealthy—parents, those students will have had yet another leg up on students like me. 

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the great advantage I’ve been given in life by having the opportunity to go to Georgetown. If I had gone to SUNY Binghamton—a common choice for students from Upstate New York—I’m sure I could have come out with a job and a good sense of values just as well, without staring down the barrel of a bajillion dollars in debt in the process. But having gone to Georgetown, my family has experienced a generational change. I will graduate in nine months, and I have already accepted a job. The amount of stress this removes from my future—the notion of being safely employed, presumably for the rest of my career—is hard to comprehend. I will never have the if-only-I-had-gotten-that-degree anxiety. My time here has helped me obtain a promising career, a deep sense of the values that I want to live by, and an informed understanding of why I hold those beliefs, and it will undoubtedly become even more valuable as it sets up a financially stable home for my future family.

Had I not gone to Georgetown, I would not have felt the grind of a class that I really had to struggle to pass. I would not have been surrounded by students so motivated by their goals and passionate about making a difference at both a local and national level. I would not have experienced having so many peers with different backgrounds and lofty ambitions. A common quip from my mother was that I would “really find myself in college.” That seemed like kind of a big ask. But in some ways, I think Georgetown has prompted me to do just that. And I attribute that fact to the conversations (and debates, and arguments) I’ve had with my peers here at school, in class, in my residences, and on the Voice. The intangible, immeasurable value of Georgetown is the people that I met here and the relationship we all share as peers of the same institution. Their sense of drive rubbed off on me and became inspirational in itself. For that reason, I’ll be proud to call Georgetown my alma mater.

Image Credit: Olivia Stevens

Cam Smith
Cam is the Voice's website editor and a senior in the college. He eats too much food, listens to too many podcasts, and complains just the right amount.

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