College Readiness

What Every First-Gen Student Needs to Know About Attending a Predominately White Institution

Dear first-generation, low-income, immigrant high school seniors,

You’re about to accomplish a major milestone. Not only have you made your parents proud, but you have made people like me proud. As someone like you, who is about to graduate from the University of Chicago, part of what drives me is the desire to see more of us getting to college graduation, to show everyone that reaching this mountain top is possible.

These next four years are crucial as you grow as a person. Being a first-generation, low-income student comes with more challenges than any other student faces. Many of you will find it difficult to transition into a Predominantly White Institution (PWI).

Once you arrive, you will meet people who don’t want you there and don’t believe you’ve earned the right to be there. I’ve witnessed people in this world proudly wear MAGA hats and not share the same values and ideals that I was raised with.

The battle doesn’t end there.

When attending a college designated PWI, you’ll be a minority at the institution you attend. It is likely there will be times you will struggle academically and not have the proper support from faculty or the university to thrive. You may wonder whether you really belong on this campus.

Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here’s What It Felt Like For Me.

You will almost certainly discover the term “Impostor Syndrome.” This term refers to a pattern of behavior where you will doubt your accomplishments and feel a lack of self-confidence and anxiety. Many college students have felt this at some point, and I’ve been a victim of it as well.

I was an excellent student throughout elementary and high school. When it came to tackling college, I had as much confidence as Michael Jordan did when he hit the game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. Like you, I felt ready to work hard, even relentlessly, and to succeed no matter what it took.

Nevertheless, I remember failing the first test I ever took in college. And it certainly wasn’t the last one. Even after dedicating myself to preparing, it happened again. My third year, that same conflict flared up but with a vengeance. By the end of winter of my junior year, I was placed on academic probation.

It got to the point where I feared I was not going to be able to graduate on time. Having to deal with all of that took a toll on me. I had anxiety attacks. Where before I simply acted, I now began to hesitate. While some faculty I’ve encountered weren’t helpful or sought the best interest of the student, I still placed a lot of blame on myself.

[pullquote position="left"]The worst part of it was I started to believe that my acceptance to this prestigious university was a farce. I thought they should have given my spot to someone else. In the grip of impostor syndrome, I became my own biggest critic.

For a long time, I was alone in this battle. I never felt comfortable approaching my family about this. At my age, my mother was already taking care of two children. My father had come to the U.S. on his own and had to endure what the real world had to offer through many low-paying and menial jobs. I understood the sacrifices they had to make in order for me get to this point. Compared to that, my struggles seemed childish and not worth discussing. Part of me didn’t want them to worry. As the oldest son, I felt like I had to be the strongest, so I made it my duty to set the example for my siblings.

If you go through this, it’s important to realize you aren’t alone. You do belong. It is not your fault that you are attending a place that wasn’t built to support students like us. Seeking counseling was one of the first steps that set me back on the right path.

Speaking with a counselor doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Rather than internalizing the conflict and letting it eat you, being able to talk it out does take away a great weight. It helps to deal with the anxiety that comes with having to meet expectations and goals. You don’t have to walk alone.

You also have to learn to care for yourself. Self-care is key because not every moment has to be about only doing work and feeling stress. The body and soul need to recuperate and enjoy life.

Together, We First-Gen College Students Will Never Be Defeated

Surround yourselves with people who will support you and motivate you to achieve your greatest potential. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a small, tight-knit group of friends who encourage and push me to reach higher heights. I do the same for them. Not only do we ensure each other’s success, but we also create a lifelong bond. I’m proud to say that we are all set to graduate in June.

Remember, you have each other. Get close to the people who share your story and struggle like you. This connection shouldn’t stop with just students in your campus. There are many more of us at other amazing institutions who have the same dreams and ambitions. This is why your story is invaluable and also needs to be heard.

Just this past month, when many high school seniors were accepted to colleges, I was amazed to see the warm thoughts and words of encouragement high school seniors received on social media from one another as well as from college students. Keep that same energy, because together, you won’t be defeated.

Upon reading this, you may feel fear, regret and dread at the thought of spending your next four years at a flawed institution. I certainly wasn’t thrilled every moment of my college career. But no great feat was accomplished without any adversity. Overcoming adversity makes the taste of victory even sweeter.

The kids who bought their way to a college degree aren’t cut from the same cloth we are. We don’t come from families that have money. We weren’t given anything on a silver platter. Don’t be fazed by what life is going to throw your way. Going to college is your destiny. Once you walk across the stage with your diploma in hand, that will be destiny fulfilled.

Photo courtesy of author.
Diestefano "DJ" Loma is a first-generation college student at the University of Chicago majoring in Romance Languages and Literatures, with a minor in Latin American Studies. He is pursuing his passion for journalism and broadcasting. A lifelong Chicagoan, DJ works with the nonprofit organization High Jump, a two-year academic enrichment program geared to academically advanced middle school ...

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