First-generation and unashamed: Planning to be the first in the family to attend college

Do not be ashamed of your culture, and do not hide yourself just because you are different.

Gisell Castaneda
Gisell Castaneda (ThreeSixty photo)

I am not ashamed to be a first-generation college student.

As a senior at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis, I plan to be the first in my family to go to college and to become either a civil engineer or a journalist. I have always been so curious about building structures and bridges. Growing up, I asked my parents, “Como hicieron eso?” (“How did they make that?”) I never received the response I was hoping for, so I plan on figuring it out myself.

My parents don’t understand this. They came to the United States to help their families in Mexico. My Mexican grandparents are farmers with big families. My mom and dad didn’t want to be burdens. They came to Minnesota and planned to send money back to their families. Both my parents found cleaning jobs with relatives who were already here. They earned enough money to send some back to Mexico and accomplish their goal.

My parents tried to help me in school as much as they could, but sometimes there was nothing they could do. They couldn’t really help me in preschool. I remember being in Head Start and looking at all of the students who were able to communicate fluently and easily build relationships. I wanted to have my own friends so badly, but because I knew no English and I was so used to my Mexican culture, it was difficult fitting in. I felt alone and scared.

I taught myself how to speak English and I tried my very best doing homework. In kindergarten, Mrs. Denise was assigned to help me understand what the teacher wanted. Starting in first grade, I was on my own. My main concern was fitting in and not calling attention to myself. I didn’t want people to know I was still struggling to understand the teacher’s tasks and English.

In middle school, I felt completely alone because I had no one to help me out. I had trouble finding my classrooms. When I got to class, I didn’t know enough English to explain why teachers shouldn’t give me a tardy. I also had trouble adjusting to the new homework load.

Then there was lunch. In elementary school we sat with our class during lunch break, but in middle school you sat with your friends. I had trouble making new friends, so I was often alone.

My mom and I found out about Cristo Rey when I was in eighth grade. We visited the school and I instantly fell in love with it. Finally, I was going to have friends who were able to relate to my culture. Cristo Rey is not only majority Latino, but it also offers a corporate work study program, in which students work for Twin Cities businesses and corporations five full days each month, as well as preparation for college.

I work at Fredrikson & Byron, a law firm in downtown Minneapolis. I help in the immigration department. I do computer work and I also help translate Spanish emails to English. My fluency in two languages has made me realize that I have a skill that can help others. Being in a college prep high school has challenged me a lot, but I am finally able to think about my future and set a goal I want to achieve.

My cousin graduated high school in 2015. We were all so proud of him. He was the first one in our family to graduate. But then he made a decision I did not expect. He decided to work instead of going to college. I was confused; I didn’t understand why he would stop his education after receiving his diploma.

My cousin’s decision made me think harder about my own future.

I want to graduate, I want to go to college and I want to explore the outside world and opportunities colleges offer. My parents are counting on me to find a major and graduate college. They want me to be a teacher or a doctor. They don’t really know much about civil engineering or journalism, so I will have to show them.

Earlier this year, I was part of a University of St. Thomas and Cristo Rey research program on first-generation college students. That helped me see I was not the only one who struggled. The knowledge I gained from this program makes it clear: All parents should be supportive, understanding and patient. As for students, do not be ashamed of your culture, and do not hide yourself just because you are different.

Stand out and show off your skills. Being different is beautiful.