Editor’s note: Earlier this year, #DegreesNYC, a collective impact project co-led by Young Invincibles and Goddard Riverside Options Center, released our Blueprint for Collective Action on Postsecondary Access and Success in NYC. As part of this work, we talked with New York students who shared their experiences with the city’s higher education system, and where they believe the community can support their success. Below is a post from Samantha Verdugo, a student at Hunter College.
Being the first in my family to go to college was daunting. I didn’t think of myself as a first-generation, low-income student until I applied for college senior year of high school. I come from an under-resourced public high school in Washington Heights, where my peers shared similar backgrounds as me. In a lot of ways, it was a bubble. Although we did have the opportunity to take college classes and had some great teachers, we didn’t have enough college counselors, nor did we have funding for clubs or extracurricular activities to explore our passions. I did not know what it meant to strive for more, mainly because I wasn’t guided by a mentor and my mother only received a high-school education and didn’t speak English. Senior year of high-school, it became evident that I had to seek mentors on my own and find external resources to be able to develop and hone my passion for writing. Non-profit organizations such as Girls Write Now and Peer Health Exchange taught me the impact a mentor can make on the lives of others. As I finished high school and began preparing for college, it became clear that I had to navigate these education systems and seek help on my own.
For some time, I felt as though the struggle of being a first-generation, low-income student in college was an experience that was unique to me because I hadn’t met other people on campus who talked about those struggles. That changed when I joined Peer Health Exchange during my first semester at Hunter. Through PHE, I became a mentor for high-school students and saw first-hand the impact near-peer mentorship can have for students who come from under-resourced high schools like mine. As a freshman, I lived with my mother and uncle and commuted to and from college, as the majority of Hunter students do. As my commitments on campus grew, my family did not understand why I had to stay late on campus to study, attend networking events, or go to club meetings. To them, extracurricular activities were just that — something “extra” that would get in the way of achieving my long-term goal of pursuing medicine. There were several instances where I felt frustrated, of course, but I soon realized that my family did not understand the work I was doing simply because they, unfortunately, didn’t have the opportunity to attend college themselves. It felt as though I was going through the college journey by myself, so I made it a point to seek out mentors and advisors at Hunter early on just like I did senior year of high school.
Being a first-generation, low-income student also comes with an immense pressure to succeed and not conform to certain stereotypes society or even other people might have against you. For some time, particularly when I started dorming in the Upper West Side this semester, I dealt with imposter syndrome and even had nightmares about my family’s well-being. “Why aren’t they getting an education with me? Am I selfish for leaving them behind in the Heights to pursue my own goals? Am I a financial burden?” These thoughts consumed me to the point where I had to visit a counselor at the Wellness Center on campus. Mental health is taboo in the Hispanic culture; more often than not, people from my community are taught to “be strong” and uphold a facade of being healthy instead of learning to unpack and cope with their struggles. I was disappointed to find out that the mental health counseling Hunter offered was only short-term. Every student at Hunter is entitled to just 10 free counseling sessions by appointment only. If a student wanted to continue with counseling after the 10 sessions, they had to be referred to a provider outside campus, which includes paying a fifteen-dollar co-payment every week. Paying a weekly fee for a counselor outside of campus, assuming the student has health insurance, can easily become a burden for any first-gen/low-income student.
Even though I felt as though asking for help was a sign of weakness, partly because of cultural stigma, I went through with counseling because my intuition told me it would be the right move to make for my mental health and academic success. While I was able to benefit from on-campus counseling, not all students can or do. It’s crucial that we expand and strengthen mental-health and other wraparound services for all students. For example, students at Hunter would tremendously benefit from the physical expansion of the Wellness Center (the Wellness Center only occupies a single hallway of an entire floor), additional mental-health counselors and mentors who look like them and with whom they can identify with, and long-term mental-health counseling to avoid the re-traumatization that comes with jumping from counselor to counselor. Ultimately, it boils down to expanding funding for offices like the Wellness Center that facilitate and respect student experiences on campus.
The college journey for first-generation students can be an intimidating and confusing one, but it can also be an empowering and uplifting journey. Despite my family not always understanding my choices, they still support me and I’m certain that one day they’ll fully understand the scope of my work. Until then, my role is to empower my family by example, to show that education is the key to unlocking any door you want to achieve your dreams, no matter how treacherous the journey may be.
Samantha Verdugo is a student at Hunter College in New York majoring in Human Rights and Biology. She is also the Diversity Director for Peer Health Exchange at the Hunter College Chapter.