Shelsea is a college student undecided about her future, and wondering whether she wants to be in school at all. But she feels pressured by her Haitian mom to finish her degree. Then, a seasoned college counselor shares strategies for figuring out your own path and engaging your loved ones in the process.
Our expert this week is Sharon Williams, college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School. Sharon recommends the following community organizations and resources to support students along their educational journey:
Jack Kent Cooke Foundation
And for students in the Chicago area:
If you loved this episode, be sure to listen to She Had to Choose Her Career Over Her Parents, and She Loves Her Work, Her Parents Don't Get It.
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Hi, everybody. Today, my guest is Shelsea. Shelsea is a first gen college student and she’s trying to figure out exactly what she wants to do with her education, plus college has been really difficult and it’s got her questioning whether she made the right choice, and she definitely feels a lot of pressure to finish her degree from her Haitian-American family, especially her mom. Let’s get into it.
Hi, my name is Shelsea Merzius. I am 19 years old. I’m from Haiti and I grew up in Hollywood, Florida. And growing up, I called my mother mom. Growing up, my mom perceived education as something very important, especially because in America, she says we have so many more opportunities than we did in our home country, and she really wanted me to use all of my resources. And her favorite quote to say was, “You know, we came into this country with nothing, so why would we ever leave with nothing?” And she thoroughly believed that education was the best way to go far in life and have a really good job and make really good money.
I am currently in my sophomore year of college. It’s going alright. My first year was not the best. Honestly, I contemplated dropping out of school a lot, but we’re still going strong, because we have to go strong. I contemplated dropping out because I just felt like maybe college is not what I wanted to do. I just constantly think, “Maybe it’s not what I really want to do. Maybe I’m just going to college just because I feel like I have to.” But at the same time, I’m not sure what I would do if I didn’t go to college, so I’m kind of stuck.
I’m gonna be in college for four years, and that’s if I decide to stay, and then if I decide to go even further, then I’m gonna be in there for a few more years, and then it’s just gonna be years of my life doing something that I didn’t really enjoy, just to get… I guess get her approval. And I’m not really sure if I’m gonna be okay with that.
I have a brother, but he didn’t go to college. You know, she’s not too happy about that. She actually… She’s always comparing the two of us and he’s older than me, so she’s always comparing us and saying how it’s quite disappointing how I’m younger, but I’m the one that’s in college. Meanwhile, he’s wasting his life away. I’ve told her I don’t like it when she says that, but you know, she’s not gonna really listen to me and she’s just gonna get annoyed that I said that.
Honestly, I felt like I had to go to college because all of my cousins went to college and my mom is constantly comparing them to me, and she’s also told me if I don’t go to college, then I can’t stay in her house, so that was also something that really drove me to go. I’ve tried expressing to her how hard some of my assignments are or how school has been for me. If I tell her I’m working on an assignment or I have a very big project due, then she’ll understand, but she doesn’t really ask me about school. Just she wants to know about my grades, but it’s not like, “Oh, how was that assignment?” She doesn’t really care much for the process, more so the outcome.
There have been instances where I’ve tried to tell my mom that I don’t really think that college is what I want to do, and she’s gotten upset and she’s thought that I was being ridiculous. If my mom were on the phone right now, I would tell her… I would probably tell her honestly, I feel like there is too much pressure around the whole idea of college, and that we don’t all need to go to college to be successful. And I also feel like she puts too much of an importance on it. Not just for the title, like the degree, but also because she wants to show off, and that’s not gonna… At the end of the day, it’s not gonna do anything for us to show off, so we might as well just do what we really want to do and be happy instead of me working on something I don’t like, just for her to look good.
A few things in Shelsea’s story really touched me. As a mom, as a big sister, as an immigrant, as the first one to go to college in the U.S., I really identified with her experience. Like Shelsea, many of us first gens carry our parents’ expectations and dreams with us when we go to college. But what happens if we start to question whether those dreams are even ours? How do we get that conversation going? And even more daunting, how do we begin to figure out what it is that we want? To help us out, I called in an expert.
My name is Sharon Williams. I am a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School in Chicago, Illinois, and this is my 24th year in college counseling, working in independent schools.
You heard Shelsea’s story. What did you hear?
Williams: I heard a story that I’ve heard many times. What I find really interesting is that the context of Shelsea’s story is common of an immigrant family, but not uncommon amongst young people going to college in that the question of how do I figure out who I want to be while still trying to make my parents happy?
So, how does one do that?
Williams: It’s a challenge. I think within the context of the immigrant family, the narrative of education is the great equalizer. I have heard that. I myself am not, but I am first generation, and so that was a message that resonated strongly with me. I grew up in a household where life was never about what happens after high school. The question was always what happens after college.
Now, she ends it, and I just wanted to reach out and give her this big mama hug once she said, “I want to do what I really want to do.” My question to her, as lovingly as possible, is, “Baby, what do you want to do?” I’m fortunate to be in an independent school where I have a relatively small caseload and I have the option to be able to interact more personally with my families, to help them dissect not just where you’re gonna go, but why are you gonna go there? And I know we have these conversations with kids sometimes, probably rarely with parents. We need to back it up and let’s talk about the why, and when we get to the why, the how and the what become much more palatable and much more important to distinguish.
And I can’t fault the mother. I get it. When you look at the great American dream and what we have access to, this idea of an education is what is going to get you to that next level. What we don’t often unpack is what is it about that educational experience that gets you to the next level?
I think if we think about it in terms of the breadth of the experience, it’s not just what you’re doing in the classroom, but how are you learning building your social capital? How are you learning to network? How are you learning to explore both what you want to study and who you are as a person? If we shift the conversation to mom, and again, this is part of the conversation with a lot of parents, it’s like this lockstep process. You go to high school, you go to college, you get a job. And then how do we help mom unpack the idea that there’s some variation in that trajectory, that that doesn’t necessarily mean college is off the table, but that if we give her the space and grace to explore, that experience is gonna be much more meaningful for her because she’s doing it for a purpose and not for a person.
So, can you talk to me about how you help parents understand the gap that there is between wanting your kid to go to college and the how that actually happens? Because if they don’t have an experience of it, they really have no clue.
Williams: Exactly. I think it’s really important if we can to have those conversations much earlier rather than later. And to walk them through what it takes to get into college. I think a lot of times, families, they don’t start to think about it until we’re ready to start filling out the applications. And we have to find a balance between having these conversations early enough in high school so that they are creating portfolios that will give them options in terms of what colleges they’ll go to, but also understanding the experience and that it’s not just about getting into college. As I like to say, it’s not about getting to, it’s getting through.
And thinking about what is college, right? And so many times, they just think, “Okay, these are the names of the colleges I’ve heard of. These are the schools that are gonna get my child to a greater life, so these are the ones we’re gonna get in.” Without any idea of the difference in lifestyle, the challenges that particularly that first generation students are gonna face in terms of, “Yeah, I can manage this calculus class, but I can’t handle having a white roommate and I’ve gone to an all Latinx school or an all African American school.” It’s like, “How do I make those differences?”
And so, I think we need to incorporate in this conversation the cultural differences that students will experience in college and help parents understand that yes, we’re gonna be proud of the degrees that we get, but we also want to be cognizant of the experiences they’re gonna have while getting those and how you support them through the non-tangible challenges that they’re gonna face. Those conversations I think should be part of the college counseling process.
I want to ask you, how do you work with students? How do you counsel students who are undecided? Whose path is very blurry, who could go to college, or not go to college? How do you counsel them and straddle that balance between what they want, but are not sure about, and what their family is pressuring to do?
Williams: That can be really hard, because I think particularly with first generation and immigrant families, there’s this set ideology of what you do in college. It’s like you go to college and you’re gonna be a doctor, you’re gonna be a lawyer, you’re gonna be an engineer, right? And you could say, “I’m excited to go to college, but I’m gonna study philosophy. I want to be a dancer.” Those aren’t the acceptable career trajectories. For the student in particular, what are the things that drive you? What are the things that interest you? Maybe we don’t know the major, but what is it you think you want to be as a result of your college experience? And maybe then we backtrack. It’s like, “I know that I want to be an entrepreneur.” Well, an entrepreneur doing what?
You know, let’s unpack what that means. I want to create my own business. Well, your own business doing what? And so, we have to be in this… I like to call it sort of a Socratic method in a sense of asking questions and giving them the space to answer and then making sure that particularly as counselors, how are we making sure they have the resources to be able to answer those questions?
Okay, so besides caring counselors and advisors like you in their schools, who else can first gen students reach out to to find an ally, to find another supportive adult who can also advocate for them in front of their families?
Williams: You know, I think it really depends on the school community that they’re coming from. I think if students are fortunate to build relationships with faculty or teachers that they respect. I think that position of teacher, or professor, holds a lot of weight with some families in certain cultures. If there is a dean of students, a person of color in their space, and sometimes that voice is not an administrator or a teacher. I know in some spaces, it’s the office secretary. It’s the guy who hands out towels in the gym. You know, it’s a coach. Coaches can be extremely powerful in supporting this process.
I think for students who have the benefit of getting involved in different community-based organizations, a lot of times because they’re in the community, parents will see them as a trusted ally in the process and hear that message coming from them. For example, part of this would depend on where they are in the process, but I know for example for younger students, if you look for someplace like the Jack Cooke Kent Foundation, they offer a scholarship program for older students, but they also have a support network for younger students starting as young as eighth grade. Posse is another one across the board again that works primarily with seniors, but I think if you were to reach out to a Posse organization in your hometown, they could direct you to other CBOs that feed into their organization.
Another one to look at particularly in those middle grades is QuestBridge, and all of these kinds of organizations will also support students. Not only once they graduate, but once they’re in college, and can help them navigate these kinds of difficult conversations.
So, Shelsea shared with us that she has thought about dropping out because she feels lost and she doesn’t feel like she’s getting support, the support that she needs. What would you advise someone who’s thinking about dropping out?
The big question for me with Shelsea is what kind of support are you getting? What kind of support does your school offer? Sometimes it’s a matter of the school has it, but you don’t know how to access it, right? Sometimes, this idea that you come into these spaces, and this is what I meant by building that social capital, a lot of times our kids coming from, particularly if they’re coming from public high schools, they don’t know how to have those conversations. And they feel like if they do, it sort of negates their right to be there. You know, they come in with this idea that everybody knows how to navigate this, so if I act like I don’t, I’m kind of… It’s this almost imposter syndrome that they’re dealing with.
And so, I would want to know from her, does she know what her resources are? Does she know how to access those? And if she doesn’t, let’s sit down. Let’s spend some time on your school’s website and figure it out. If you’re in college to be in college, let’s step back then from just in college and when you tell me, “I want to do what I really want to do,” what is that? Can you name it? And if you can’t, let’s figure out a way to help you find it.
One thing I would ask her to do is to make an appointment with her career placement office and find out if they have assessments that she can take. A lot of times, colleges will have like the Myers-Briggs, or Holland test, or some sort of career profiler, where she can take sort of a… It’s an inventory of herself. And get an idea, what is she suited for? What are her natural inclinations? If she’s even thought about that. Has she given herself the space to sit down and actually think about what it is she really wants to do? What brings her joy?
So, I think part of the challenge is, and I was a little bit like this, I mean, I got to college and for me it was I discovered the social aspect of school and I was having a darn good time. But it’s like and I lost my scholarship my first semester and it’s like, “Okay, I can’t tell my mom about this until I fix it.” Right? And then, so when I secured a replacement, then I was like, “Oh, by the way mommy, this happened.” You know, and I would think for Shelsea it’s like, “Okay, I don’t want to tell my mother what I don’t want to do because I don’t have a plan to replace it,” right?
Williams: So, let’s help her come up with a plan and let’s see if either A, she does belong in college, she just needs to figure out a plan, or two, she doesn’t belong there now, and how do we… What do we do in the meantime? How do we keep her a productive individual while she’s figuring out who she wants to be and when she wants to be it?
Sharon, you’re a gift. Thank you so much.
Williams: Oh, you are so welcome. I appreciate you reaching out and if I can support you in any other ways, please feel free to reach out again.
All right, let’s recap what we learned from Sharon. Find the why. As you make college or career plans, identify why you want to do those things, why you have those goals. Once you are clear on the why, the what and the how will become much easier to figure out and to share with your parents. Emphasize the whole experience. Keep in mind and remind your parents that college is about more than a degree. It’s the entire experience. Cultivating relationships, exploring new interests, getting to know yourself on a deeper level, those are the things that will serve you in the end, both personally and professionally. And remember, get help! Trusted counselors, teachers, coaches, family friends, or community-based organizations can support you and help you identify your options. It may feel like it sometimes, but you don’t have to do this on your own.
To get you started, in the show notes we’ve linked to a bunch of organizations Sharon recommends. Good luck.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for listening, and thank you for sharing us, and thank you for rating us, and thank you for tweeting at us. We absolutely love being in contact with you when we drop episodes, in between episodes, on weekends, all the time. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Virginia Lora produced this episode. Kojin Tashiro mixed it. Manuela Bedoya is our social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. I’m the show’s creator, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. On Twitter and Instagram, we’re @TalktoMamiPapi. Please, please subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody. Same place next week.
Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “Under Pressure from Mom to Finish, But Questioning If College Is for Her.”
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything,
Lantigua Williams & Co., January 18, 2021. TalkToMamiPapi.com.