Walter’s parents encouraged him to get an education. They didn’t care where, they “just wanted to see the word university or college at the end.” But as the first to go to college, while at an Ivy League school and then law school, Walter struggled to share his experiences — triumphs or frustrations — with them. Our pro this episode talks about experiencing college with our parents at our side.
Our expert in the episode is Sol Cordova, a Licensed Professional Counselor and the owner of Mind & Sol Therapy in Austin, Texas. A first generation college graduate herself, she spends her time focusing on first generation Americans as the transition into college and the early career space.
Check out Sol's Mind & Sol Therapy If you loved this episode, be sure to check out Struggling to Become More than a Dutiful Daughter and How to Get Help When You're the Designated Translator.
We’d love to hear your stories of triumph and frustration so send us a detailed voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org. You might be on a future episode!
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Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming back to How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything, and welcome if you’re joining us for the first time. I’m Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. So far, I’ve been loving my conversations with adult children of immigrant parents and key experts about ways we can grow closer together and better understand one another across the generational gap. Today, I want to talk about something that a lot of us first gens might go through that our parents might never go through: college. While our parents might encourage us to go to school, and while they expect really good grades, they’re not as familiar with the ins and outs of the school systems that we maneuver and we navigate, and all the difficulties that we face as students. So, in this episode, we’ve invited Walter to share what it’s like to experience just that.
Let’s get into it.
Walter Garcia: My name is Walter Garcia. I am Mexican American, and I call my mom ama and my father apa. So, both my folks immigrated to this country from Mexico and when they got here, they were, like many other immigrants, pretty poor. But my mom in particular, despite our poverty, she insisted that I try to do as well as possible in school. And what that translated for me growing up was her wanting to see at all possible moments an A on my report card. She didn’t quite care how I managed to get it done, but if she saw anything but an A, I was in trouble. So, there’d be times where I’d be rushing out to the mailbox, knowing full well that the report card was about to come and trying to make sure that everything was what my mom wanted to see.
My parents just wanted me to pursue a higher education, so interestingly enough, and this is a cute thing, but also obviously speaks to kind of their background, right? They both only attended school up until the sixth grade in Mexico, so for them, the important part was to see university or college at the end of any name. Whether it was Brown or whether it was Harvard or whatever, and frankly, it didn’t really hit my parents, I think, until graduation day, where I had finished delivering the speech. That’s something that I also don’t think they quite realized, what it entailed to be valedictorian, because they saw me go up there, and they’re like “Que estas haciendo,” right? And so, I remember at the end of my speech, I was saying goodbye to some friends, and some teachers came up to me to congratulate me, as well. And one teacher in particular, she hugs my mom and she says, “Do you know how big of a deal it is for your son to get into a school like Brown?”I remember my mom just kind of looked at her and smiled, right? Didn’t want to answer the question too much. And then the teacher answered the question herself. She said, “It’s a huge deal.” And I remember just my mom looking at me, staring at me for a couple of seconds. And there were so many challenging moments at Brown. That goes without saying. It was full of difficulties, not just academically, but I think it’s really that difference of environment in general. Am I good enough? Do I fit in? When you look around and you don’t see many people like you, it leads to those types of questions. And certainly, sharing triumphs with parents, at least my parents in particular, is really interesting. Just because a lot of times it comes with tons of questions.
During the summer of 2013, so this was the summer after my junior year, I had the good fortune to be an intern at the White House. And that was a true blessing, right? I’ve long enjoyed politics. I love the idea that we can make better this country, and the opportunity to get to work for President Barack Obama was something that I just couldn’t pass up. My parents saw the end result, which was me taking a nice, fancy picture with the president, but when they actually tried to investigate how I went about doing that, it was just kind of starting from the very beginning, right?
“Well, there’s this website through which I could apply to, and then I had to ask for letters of recommendations, and the experience itself was difficult.” But at the same time, you don’t want to say that it’s too difficult for fear of worrying them. So, as much as I am proud of what I’ve done, I also know that those conversations, in terms of sharing triumphs, can be difficult at times, because you don’t want to speak down to your parents, but at the same time, you’re wondering to what extent is it okay to share and what level of detail is required.
And law school gets even worse, I think. I attend Northwestern and I love it. It’s a difficult experience. All law schools are. But as a first-generation American, a first-generation graduate of high school, of college, and now the first in my family to go to law school, it has been immensely challenging. So, both undergrad, as well as law school, it’s been full of those challenges. So your second summer, you have the opportunity to work, if you have certain grades, at a law firm. And I happened to have gotten an opportunity to work at a good law firm here in downtown Los Angeles, and the idea behind it was, “Well, I’m gonna go ahead and be back home. Why don’t I go ahead and save some money by living at home?” I figured it’s not going to be me spending that much time at home. Interestingly, because of the coronavirus situation, that has completely changed.
In many ways, living at home is a blessing. I get to connect with my family, and I get to go ahead and get to know folks once again in some way, because people change, habits change, but it is challenging. I am adjusting slowly but surely, I would say. It just definitely requires quite a bit of patience. Something that I don’t usually have, I’ll admit.
I can completely relate to what Walter is going through. I was the first person in my family to go to college in the United States and it was not easy. There was so much that my mom didn’t understand, there was so much that I didn’t understand, and there were so many things that I just didn’t know how to share with her. So, I want to spend a little bit of time today talking about ways that we can be better prepared when that happens. And of course, I’ve invited an expert.
Sol Cordova: My name is Sol Cordova. I’m an LPC, which stands for licensed professional counselor, in Austin, Texas. The thing that I focus on in my practice is helping adult children of immigrant parents who are struggling with belonging, with worthiness, a lot of empowerment, both in the personal realm and in the career space.
So, you heard Walter’s story. What do you hear in his story?
Cordova: There is this big piece of how do we continue to have a relationship with our parents after going to college, after graduating from college, and then starting your professional life? I feel like that’s one thing that I do see a lot in my practice. Another really cool thing that I noticed with Walter, it sounds like his parents were very involved in helping him understand that college or an education was the key to success. The key out of poverty. I want to say that a lot of our parents have that in mind, and are able to instill that in us, but then there’s other parents that might not totally understand that piece.
It was very clear what the priority was for him as a kid. You get good grades. You do well in school. We handle the rest. But that was very abstract, because the parents actually don’t know what it actually takes to get the good grades, to get into an Ivy League like Brown, and then to succeed there and to graduate as a valedictorian. So, can you talk about that gap between the parents’ concrete notion that education is your way out, but very abstract understanding of what that actually entails for their child?
Cordova: I feel like sometimes this is where the relationship starts to shift in a way that it’s difficult to reconnect. Because the student is put into that space of having to go out and figure a lot of this stuff on their own. One thing that I do want to highlight, and want to give the, “Yes!” to the parents, right? That this is a set of values that they do continue to inculcar los, right? They keep talking about them. They keep saying this is important and this is something that you need to do. And even though we don’t know exactly how to do it, there’s some trust there that the student will be able to figure that out. Sometimes we learn this value, this coping strategy, this really great thing from our parents, from watching them have two jobs, from watching them be a great parent, put food on the table. Watching them do this thing for us, so that we can have this opportunity to figure out how it is that we’re gonna get education to be the key. Not only for ourselves, but also for our family.
So, how can we explain and help our parents understand what it is actually like?
Cordova: It really depends on the type of relationship that we have with our parents, starting from the get go. If we’re securely attached with our parents, that means that our parents would have shown us the ability to stay curious with our feelings, the ability to stay open to trying to understand what it is that we’re going through. Then it might be much easier for that student to talk to their parents about this. Right?
Because the parents might not have any clue about what it means to look for an internship, or what it means to study for finals. “And what? You only have one exam? That’s all you have to do?” Well, there’s so much more that goes into that. But if you have that relationship with the parent, it’s much easier to sit down and try to explain in a way that maybe they will understand. And this reminds me, actually, of pláticas, right? The art of conversation. Because a lot of our parents tend to still have that storytelling kind of way of talking about things. And that’s something that we, as first-gen students, or adults now, sometimes don’t have. Right?
In the U.S., it’s valued, let’s see the list, right? Getting to the point. Don’t beat around the bush. Tell me exactly what you need and what you mean by that. And our parents tend to not be so much like that. What was it that Walter shared? “Oh, like I open the computer,” or I pictured him saying this. Like, “I open the computer to get this internship at the White House with President Barack Obama, and I got the application, and I submitted the application.” And I feel like that’s a very list way of doing things. Maybe that’s how Walter went about actually finishing and accomplishing this big feat. But when explaining it to our parents, I feel like it has to be more of the story behind it. Right? Like, “My teacher talked about this and I got really inspired, and got really excited, because… Well, you know, mom. This is something that I’m wanting to do when I grow up, so I thought it would be so great if I could get this. And so, it was really hard, and I went through the process of asking my teachers and getting their advice.” And doing it more like that.
That was a scenario in which Walter was extremely well supported by his parents, who sacrificed greatly for him and his sister, and they had a closeness, and it was still very difficult for him to bridge that gap in understanding. What if you don’t have a good relationship with your parents?
Cordova: Yeah. That gets tricky, because freshman, sophomore, even junior year, the student needs the most support. And family can be that support. I go back to the term familismo, right? The sense of belonging, mutual support, not just for the individual, but for the betterment of the family. And if there’s a good relationship, then that familismo can be that protective factor that the student needs to get through school. But in this case, this is where I love that a lot of institutions, or some institutions, are including more services for first-gen kiddos. Having the ability to go to group therapy, to do individual work with a therapist. Having mentors that are available to students, the first and second year of college, especially.
Because there’s so much that the student can gain from being able to talk about this with someone that one, knows what’s going on, like knows the path, that can maybe help the student put words to their emotions, to their experiences, and to help them brainstorm what it is that they want from that connection with their family right now. Knowing that maybe the parent might not yet be available to give that type of support to the student, but maybe it’s just being able to talk to mom or dad about… I don’t know, like, “I took a test. I thought about you. I made it.” And that’s it. And that’s okay.
So, actually, let’s talk about that return to home, because Walter went back home, because his plans were completely thwarted due to COVID. He’s working from home. And so, now he’s finding that there are a lot of family norms and cultural norms that he’s outgrown, because he became a slightly modified version of himself. Just different. But it’s butting heads with the way that his family wants to continue to interact with him, the way that it used to be.
Cordova: And it’s so hard, too, when we go back home, because in a way, we kind of go back to those regular norms. We’re back to being that 15-year-old kid with our parents, because our parents still… I don’t know if this is for all parents, but for some. They still see us as their kid. And respeto or respect is so important to our parents. That and trust. So, it’s hard, but I think if done well, you’re able to talk more about… I want to say boundaries, but at the same time, I don’t know why I’m shying away from boundaries right now.
I feel like it’s more about introducing things that you have made decisions about as decisions that you have made. At least for me, that was very difficult, to just be like, “Well, no. I don’t do that anymore.” Or, “I don’t eat that anymore.” Or, “No, I don’t want to participate in that anymore.” Those were decisions that I made.
Cordova: And here’s why, right? Let me also share with you my process of how I came to this decision. Let me try and understand where you’re coming from and let me help you understand where I’m coming from. Let’s start communicating better so that we can be living together in a more cohesive way.
What kinds of conversations should we be having with our prospective college students and young people about to go full blown into their independence, so that we can remain connected?
Cordova: I feel like this is where there are these nonprofit educational organizations, like Breakthrough, or Con Mi MADRE. Both of these organizations do a great job of helping the student and the parent come together as they are going through this process together. And that’s so important, because the student is not just doing it by themselves, right? The parent is able to see, “Look at how hard my kid’s working at this, to get this final result. To get into college.” And there’s more investment there of the entire family. Which is so different if the kid is the one, or the student is the one that’s doing all of this by themselves in the background. And then when the student gets into college, the parents, the entire family, has this entire already storyline of how hard it was to get there, and that the journey doesn’t end there. It continues.
So, I was the first to go to college in my family, and so I then became basically an advocate for all my other siblings to help my parents understand what they were going through. And I think that made a huge difference, because there’s four of us, so by the time the third one went to college, my mom had it all down. I feel like finding a buddy, either in another friend, or in another family member, who has gone through the experience, to sort of do a little bit of translation work might be helpful.
Cordova: Yes. Oh, my goodness, yes. I mean, that’s another thing that I love about the organizations, like Con Mi MADRE and Breakthrough, because there’s generations of families that go through this, that are in this program, and then you see the moms come together, and the veteran moms talk about how at first, their kid wouldn’t talk, or maybe the mom was calling them all the time until the student got really upset, right? “Stop calling me, mom! I got this!” Or whatnot. But they were able to share these tools, these resources, which is really beautiful to see.
All right, let’s recap what we learned from Sol. Use the power of storytelling to share about your college life with your family. You can also use it to share about your first job, your internship. Tell them a good story. Take advantage of therapy, mentoring, and other group support systems on campus, especially those designed for first-gen college students. Explain the new norms and behaviors in your life and how you came to those decisions. Reach out for support from organizations, like BreakthroughCollaborative.org and ConMiMADRE.org.
Find a buddy. In your family, among friends, in your neighborhood, someone who has gone through this before and can help you explain and probably understand what to expect and what you are going through. And remember, your family supports you and wants you to do well, but you may have to take the lead in getting them to understand this new phase in your life and theirs.
Thank you so much for listening. We still have stickers, so DM us your address or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will send you a free set with a personalized note. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Micaela Rodríguez produced this episode. Kojin Tashiro mixed it. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. We love hearing your stories of triumph and frustration, so send them to email@example.com, even if you don’t want to be on the show. Your story might inspire a future episode. On social media, you can follow us, talk to us, share things with us at talktomamipapi.com, and please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody! Same place next week.
Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “He’s the First to Go to College.””
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything,
Lantigua Williams & Co., May 29, 2020. TalkToMamiPapi.com.