The 1991 Somali Civil War led many Somali families to scatter around the world, amongst them, my very own. I was born into a home where the constant echoes of hope reminded me of a land I’d never seen. Where my mother’s tongue awakened me every morning only to be left on pause for eight hours by which another tongue aided to my ears. For years, I battled with my Somali identity. I sat in parent-teacher conferences alone because my parents worked multiple jobs to put a roof over my head. I learned the bus route and train stops because I knew that my parents did not have the time or means to pick me up from school. I learned how to fill out forms and documents, only leaving a signature for my mom to sign while she was half asleep in the morning. Even as I was applying to colleges, I remember the anxiety I had looking for scholarships. Attending college meetings on my own was a challenge unto itself. I had to take notes, look at financial aid options, consider transportation, and set up my tours for colleges by myself. I remember telling my parents I was applying for college and seeing them respond with a tired and silent nod. This is what many first-generation students have faced and continue to face. Our parents have been surviving and not yet thriving in the land of the free. The American dream is only half realized by our parents and when I close my eyes, I can finish this so called “American Dream.”
Nevertheless, I was raised in a household where education was valued above all else. My siblings and I were constantly reminded of the sacrifices my parents made to come to this country and of all the pain they faced. Life for my parents did not get easier once they came to America. They faced discrimination, racism, stereotypes, and Islamophobia. It was for that reason that they knew life for my brothers and I would only become easier if we earned an education. With education comes awareness of not only our role in society, but our rights as a human. Because of this belief, I was not given any room to fail. I worked hard in school because I knew that I had so much riding on my education. Neither of my parents have a four-year bachelor's degree, let alone have taken a high school class in America. My knowledge about college and even high school in America was limited to whatever family sitcom I might’ve been watching.
As a first-generation student, you must learn to adapt to a whole different culture and language outside the one you’ve been born into. To be a first-generation student, from a low-income background, and a person of color, the odds are stacked against you. Graduating high school is an accomplishment that many students do not get enough credit for.
I was blessed enough to gain a support system outside my family. At 11-years-old, I was accepted into a college readiness program located in Seattle, Washington called Rainier Scholars. Rainier Scholars is a 12-year program that offers low income students of color a pathway to college. I completed their 14-month intensive program by the end of my 6th grade year. By 7th grade, I was accepted in a private school located in North Seattle. The commute took two busses and a train to get there. My father worked as a taxi driver and my mother worked as a social worker. There was no family time or even drop-offs to school. But believe it or not, I was one of the lucky ones. I was given the opportunity to have college as an option. The reality is, with all the social stigmas, language barriers, and economic disparities that first-generation students face, college becomes an unrealistic dream. Many students must worry about survival; college is the last thing on their minds.
During my time in high school, I held two jobs, volunteered every week, interned, and still assisted my family with daily tasks. I didn’t always have someone there to pat me on the back and tell me I was doing well. I did that myself. I had to work three times as hard to be half of what my classmates were. I am ready for college because I struggled so much to get here. As I have gotten older, I have learned to not only appreciate my parents, but to pay tribute to their sacrifices. Every night I would watch as they tried to figure out how to pay the bills and still provide food. My parents didn’t think this would be their life. They never thought in their wildest dreams that they would leave their home country. They had no choice. They accepted their fate for me so that I may have opportunity to succeed. But all their worries and fears consumed them. They didn’t have time to cheer me on at every mock trial competition I had because they picked up an extra shift to buy me school supplies. They couldn’t always pick me up if I got off work late because they were calling back home to send money. Even as I would reach in to give my mother a hug, I could see in her face that her back was aching and she couldn’t bear my hug much longer.
My story or life isn’t unique. This is the life of many first-generation immigrants. There are so many other factors in life that sometimes college turns into an afterthought. To all the first-generation students heading off to college, I see you. I see all the barriers that stood in your way, and all the hurdles you had to cross. You are not alone.
To the parents, friends, coworkers, and teachers of first-generation students please remember to support your student! I honestly don’t know if there is anything left to say. When we start supporting our first-generation students, in whatever classroom they may be in, we change the overall outlook they have in life. We inspire hope and create beautiful goals. The path for each student is difficult. Without a solid support system, many students fall through the cracks.
To my fellow first-generation undergraduates, congratulations! Even with all the odds stacked against you, you still pushed through. You are a pioneer. But remember, it is okay to fail. You can make mistakes and get back up. It does not make you weak or less than, but in fact it makes you grow even more as a person. Although at times it may feel like you are battling two worlds, remember that these identities make up who you are.
I don’t know what college will be like for me. What I do know is this: I worked too hard to let these four years go by. So, college, bring it on!