As a First-Gen Grad, My Degree Isn’t Just Mine — It’s Also My Community’s

·5 min read

Commencement season has arrived, y el cuerpo lo sabe. I’m ready to feel the culmination of my sleepless nights, endless reading, and questionable Zoom learning as I walk across a stage to graduate while waving to family and friends somewhere in the crowd. I say somewhere because, knowing me, I’ll more than likely refuse to wear my glasses, which means that I won’t be able to see more than three feet away that day. But, like my mom always says, “¡la belleza cuesta, mija!”

As I look forward to this momentous and exciting day, I’m reflecting on what this means for me: a queer Mexican immigrant, single momma, and intersectional scholar. It took me an entire decade to complete a “four-year” degree. While there’s often shame in not graduating “on time,” I stopped beating myself up about it years ago. I am proud and genuinely happy with the beautiful and unconventional journey that has brought me here. However, despite this confidence in myself and my joy in this achievement, I am constantly fighting an internal battle born out of the U.S. education system: the myth of meritocracy, instilled in us by capitalism, and the myth of individualism, ingrained in us by Western thought.

In the U.S., we are taught the fantasy of meritocracy, the idea that success, specifically financial success, is accessible to everyone through hard work. We are told through our K-12 education system, government, and media that if we don’t make our dreams come true or pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, that this so-called failure is on us — not the systems that benefit some and harm many. At the same time, individualism, a doctrine in which independence and individual freedom are prioritized over interdependence and collective unity, reinforces meritocracy by making us believe that our accomplishments and successes are a result of our independent, self-reliant hard work. Together, both of these ideologies uphold capitalism and white supremacy by absolving the systemic racism and economic inequality that prevent many communities of color and immigrants from reaching these arbitrary markers for success.

As a soon-to-be college graduate, I challenge and resist these myths, and am proof of the power in collectivism. It’s true that I worked hard to achieve this milestone. As a brown woman, eldest child, queer mom, and hood scholar who illegally border-crossed into this country, I had to navigate new and unknown spaces without prior experience or role models. Through trial and error, however, I managed to survive and thrive. I cleaned white people’s houses, Jewish synagogues, and nasty office toilets. I have worked at restaurants, aquarium kiosks, and at a law firm whose toxic environment left me traumatized for life. I drove for ride-share companies, and I even served lawsuits to very rude and entitled rich people as a private contractor. Like many other poor people in the U.S., I was a Jack of all trades in the pursuit of, let’s be frank, not being poor.

From the view of both myths, my hard work and perseverance grant me the privilege of claiming the self-made title that’s so often sought in this country. I did it. I pay my own bills, and have been doing so since the age of 14. I feed, clothe, nurture, and care for my son. I read. I learn. I study hard for my exams. I stay up late and pull all-nighters writing my papers. I earn my 4.0s. I graduated with high Latin honors. I am accepted to grad school. I have the next six years of my life planned out exactly how I envisioned them. I did it.

With such accolades, this bootstrap mentality then asks us to continue selling these myths to others, to use our story as evidence and encouragement for people on a similar journey. You’ve heard it before: If I, as a 1.5 generation immigrant, can accomplish this, then you, fellow hardworking individual, can, too.

Except, I’m not here to sell anyone anything. To start, I am a terrible salesperson. I really am. It’s the reason I never made any commissions at sales jobs and why I was eventually let go from my first kiosk job as a teenager. But, more importantly, I’m not going to sell someone bullshit. In case no one has let you in on this little secret: our education system is very fucking rigged and very broken. And where I come from, it’s impossible to navigate higher education or break down barriers on your own. There’s no way. If someone says there is, they’re lying.

Even though it’ll be my name on my college diploma, there is a village of people and communities that made this degree possible. My mother’s defiant strength, prayers, care, sleepless nights, and strenuous labor provided me and my siblings with opportunities beyond our wildest dreams. In partially raising my younger siblings, they taught me how to multitask, negotiate, and care for others. As a teen, a family in my neighborhood provided me with shelter, food, spiritual guidance, and an address to use so I could stay in school. As an adult, I have friends who took me in as their own during my darkest moments. My son’s father has always taken great care of our child so that I never had to worry about whom to leave him with while I worked or attended classes. There were educators who taught me lessons beyond the four walls of their classrooms and instilled in me a purpose to someday pursue teaching. And then there’s my son, whose kindness, curiosity, wild imagination, and unconditional love has continuously provided me with a purpose greater than myself as well as hope for a kinder, equitable world.

This degree isn’t just mine; it’s because of and for all of us. I did not accomplish this level of success alone. I was fed and cared for by others, so that I could study, learn, and achieve. I fell apart each time I thought I was doing it alone, only to be picked up by others and be reminded that I wasn’t. I found myself, my passions, and my purpose in this world thanks to their relentless love and support.

Happy commencement season to you — and to all the communities that helped make this moment possible.

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