How I Navigated Life as a First-Generation College Student

Read this reflective narrative about a first generation student at the University of Notre Dame.

As a first-generation student, hundreds of miles from home, José struggled to find his place in school. He spent his first semester soaking in all the first-year experiences he could — and lost himself to a crowd and habits that left him burnt out. Here’s how he found his way back to himself.

I am a proud first-generation, low-income Latino college student. I have made friends from places my family has only ever read about and experienced a culture comparatively bizarre to theirs. What they consider foreign is familiar to me. But one common perspective uniting our worlds is the abundance of opportunity in the US.

This manifested itself in the success my family has achieved here and my potential of attaining a higher level of it, as the only one born and raised in the States. My parents have stressed this to me from a young age and through their continued support, I had the chance of a lifetime — to attend college through scholarships and government aid without the burden of having to worry of applying for residence or DACA.  It was an opportunity I could not waste.

I took that to heart during my college applications. I was unsure of my future, but I had received offers from a variety of great schools. Admittedly, what managed to catch my eye was the financial aid package the University of Notre Dame sent in. It was better than any other I ended up receiving, and on a whim, I opened my acceptance letter and immediately committed to the school. At the time, the only thing on my mind was getting to the next stage and doing so in a manner that wouldn’t burden my family. I learned very quickly just how unprepared I was for what lay ahead.

The proceeding summer was a blur, and before I knew it, we were getting ready to drive from Dallas to South Bend, a 16-hour journey. I remember loading up the car. The dry Texas heat peered through the summer night and wrapped me in one last wave of familiar comfort. I had just finished packing up my life, and somehow, the entirety of it fit into the trunk of my Camry. A subliminal sense of anxiety rushed through my body as a wave of questions flooded my mind.

Did I pack enough? What if I’m forgetting something? Where can I buy it? I wonder what my room will look like. Is my phone charged? I wonder what my roommate is like — will we be friends? What about my friends, will they forget about me? No, they wouldn’t. Will they miss me? I hope. 

The drive was long and the anxious thoughts racing through my mind never left, but upon entering South Bend, I was greeted by the now-familiar sight of the Golden Dome. I was overcome with a sense of awe. The reality that I was stepping onto one of the most beautiful campuses in America struck me. In that moment of arrival, my anxiety turned to excitement and my nervous worries into hopeful curiosities.

Bright-eyed and eager to fit in, I was very social during the welcome weekend, something atypical of me. While I was making more connections in a day than I usually would in a year, my priorities faltered; I was dead-set on having all the fun a first-year college experience had to offer instead of navigating campus life and settling into my studies. I lost sight of my genuine nature and was trying to live out a vision of college that was not true to myself or the goals I most valued. 

I started going to what seemed like an endless string of parties — hazy nights and vague memories of conversations with hundreds of new faces, the majority of which I would never really see again. In such a short amount of time, I found I was burning myself out. 

I was using my social life to mask the deep-ridden anxiety stored within my heart. I had never been without my family or my friends for so long, and I was in a long-distance relationship at the time that meant everything to me. I had heard students in my position talk about the feelings of isolation and homesickness, but it was a different beast actually experiencing the intense solitude. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t relay this information to anyone else, nor did I seek the proper guidance and support I needed.

Though I had hundreds of people around me to build a genuine connection with, doing so required time and effort, and due to my irresponsible habits and surface-level persona, I was in the business of neither. On top of that, classes soon began and COVID had left me a shell of my former self. I missed lectures frequently, sat alone, didn’t bother introducing myself to professors, treated deadlines as suggestions and sleep as a cheap commodity I could get more of later.

The most notable experience in this string of irresponsibility was receiving my first mid-term grade. Calculus I. I will never forget the horror that sank into my heart when I saw a 42 on the exam paper. I had failed my first-ever exam. I lost 20 pounds and wasn’t eating well, if at all. I missed my family dearly and was afraid my friends were doing better without me. My girlfriend and I were on the brink of splitting up. Slowly but surely, it felt as if I was losing control over my own life before it even started.

It would have been easy to give up, to say that the reason I wasn’t thriving was due to the number of new factors that were out of my control. However, the crossroads I was placed at forced me to harshly reexamine myself, a sobering experience. I realized things were not going to get easier unless I put the effort in to make them so.

Though the rest of my first semester was arduous, bit by bit, I changed my habits and sought guidance from people who knew more than me or who had gone through what I had before. I built a safety net on which I could fall back on and trusted them with my life. Whether that was asking a TA for help on the homework, telling a friend I needed to vent, staying back a couple of minutes after class to get to know the professor, and most importantly, making time to check in with my loved ones back home. Despite the academic hole I dug myself, I managed to pass Calculus I, and every other class I took as well. My girlfriend and I did split up, but from this, I grew as a person and experienced many new friendships that sustained me through heartbreak and now bring me so much continued joy. 

To say my first semester at Notre Dame was the most challenging experience of my life would be an understatement. Reflecting on it, I realize just how unprepared I was going into it — and how many others in my position will face the same obstacles and challenges. On the other hand, attending this school has left me so incredibly fulfilled as well. Due to everything that I faced, every hardship I was burdened with, I had to find the strength to overcome it and I would not change a single thing.

To those like me, I offer comfort and guidance in the fact that I have done it, and so have countless others. There are so many resources available to you and the amount of people willing to step up and support you in your times of need is surprising. Take the leap. Chase your dreams. Run headfirst into struggle, and make sure that when you encounter it, you don’t do it alone. You can and will succeed — with a community behind you.

Be in the know with Grotto