Imagine being thrown into the middle of the ocean, where you are surrounded by water and waves. There is no sign of destination, no guideline, and no future. It is terrifying, and it is how I feel being a first-generation college student.
I grew up in poverty. Since the age of 5, I did hard labor with my family in order to have enough food to eat for each day. When it would rain, my house would flood, and my only book was submerged under the water. Growing up in such unstable living conditions, I would never dare to think of college as a place for a kid like me. I thought education was only for smart people in the high-class status of society.
I thought that being a student wasn’t my role in society, so I kept quiet about my dream of higher education. My brother and I had the opportunity to leave Vietnam and to go to college in the United States. To me, going to college felt like being thrown in the middle of the ocean. I was lost, with no one to help me. Coming from a different country, culture, and speaking a different language created even more barriers in the way of my success at school. There was no one like myself; I did not have anyone to be my mentor, to show me the steps or tell me where to go for help. It took me nine months to learn English before I was allowed to take college classes. I failed my very first class in college, which was English 101. At the time, if I had known about the writing center resources, or if I knew how to speak up, to ask for help from the professor, I would not have failed the class, would not have thought I was dumb and should go back to my birth country.
I had no choice but just to keep swimming, keep fighting, and find my own way. I pushed myself out of my shell. I knew I couldn’t waste my family’s efforts to put me in school. I am grateful for my journey, for the community I found in the Diversity Center at South Puget Sound Community College, where people understood my struggles.
For the very first time, I feel visible and valuable. Understanding the struggles first-generation students have gone through—especially those of us who are non-native English speakers—I got involved as a mentor, leader, and resource for first-generation and underrepresented student groups at UW Tacoma. I wanted to make sure no one would have to go through what I went through. I proved that I was not dumb, that I am as good as anyone else is. I am a role model for my little brother as well as fellow first-generation students. I want them to know that education and resources are options for everyone.