First-Gen Student? You Belong!

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An art class sketches in the Arboretum near Lake Spafford on May 1, 2018.
Karin Higgins/UC Davis

My name is Olivia-Alexis and I’m a first-generation college student who just graduated with a bachelor’s degree. My parents are second- and first-generation immigrants (my mother from Mexico and my father from the Philippines). They both worked hard so I could have college opportunities they never had.

As a first-gen undergrad, I had to overcome the challenge of imposter syndrome — feeling like you’re unqualified, not smart enough or not creative enough to be a college student at a top-ranked university. However, through personal and professional growth on my college campus, I ultimately discovered that I had indeed earned my place, and that I have a lot to offer the world!

When I arrived at UC Davis in 2018 as a nervous freshman from a low-income neighborhood in San Diego, I hadn’t even heard the term “imposter syndrome.” But I soon learned it was the quiet loneliness I felt as I watched my peers speak up confidently in class about things I couldn’t even start to wrap my mind around.

For me, imposter syndrome wasn’t necessarily thinking I wasn’t good enough, but thinking I could never fit in. Classmates would talk about being involved in such amazing sounding programs in their high schools, or how their parents—who were doctors or lawyers—also went to UC Davis. Others would say they’re going to professor office hours to get letters of recommendation from faculty for grad school. They benefited from wisdom that was passed down by generations of family members who attended universities and had gone through it all before. I didn't even know where to begin to get a letter of recommendation, or why I would need one in the first place.

I had at least heard in passing from acquaintances about how important networking was in college. (Having just graduated from UC Davis in December, I still hear, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” on a loop in my head.) I knew my family: my father who was, and still very much is, a blue collar worker; and my mom who struggled through community college at the same time I struggled through undergrad. Neither of them were going to point me in the direction of well-connected friends who were attorneys—something I was aspiring to be at the time.

It triggered such mixed feelings, because all of those students who seemed like they knew exactly what they were doing were probably some of the nicest people I’d met. I just didn’t have anyone to relate to… no one to affirm my anxious thoughts about not belonging. And sometimes I felt like because I didn’t fit in I didn’t deserve to be in college.

I had to try something to get connected to others who could help me fit in. Eventually I went out on a limb and showed up to student club meetings that centered around community identity. Suddenly, my identity as a low-income, first-generation student of Mexican and Filipino background no longer felt alien. Being a first-gen student became less a disadvantage and more a bridge from my island of isolation to a mass of people who’ve been through very similar hardships. As cheesy as it sounds, the meaningful conversations I had with people in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and the Filipino American community (AKA the Fil-Am) at UC Davis allowed me to slowly piece together the gaps in my knowledge about college.  

Because of the people in these organizations, I became less afraid to seek out resources that could help me get the advantages that I once resented my better-connected classmates for having. Seminars (which quickly turned to webinars due to the pandemic) taught me things about LinkedIn, when to ask for a letter of recommendation, why professor office hours and professional networking are important, and so much more.

As difficult as it was to take the first step toward seeking out resources, it quickly became my remedy to the isolating feeling of impostor syndrome. And while this didn’t solve every worry that accompanied my feelings of being an outsider, it did give me the confidence to speak up in class and feel like I was supposed to be here; that I had earned the privilege to be here.   

Are you or do you hope to be a first-generation college student, too? Take it from me: surround yourself with people who also once felt like they didn’t belong or didn’t deserve to be in university, and life becomes a lot less lonely.

Olivia-Alexis Sanchez posing on top of an Egghead with her graduation stole.
Photo Credit: Selena De La Torre

 

Olivia-Alexis Sanchez is from San Diego, California, and recently became the first person in her family to graduate from college. She earned her B.A. in political science—public service with a minor in community development from UC Davis. On campus, she was academic chair for Pilipinx in Business and Law (PIBL), a campus tour guide for four years and the recruitment chair for the Student Ambassador Council with Undergraduate Admissions. She’s getting ready to apply to law school after taking a gap year to gain career experience in a public service setting. 

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