How Far You Will Go
BY PRISCILLA CONSOLO | NOVEMBER 2019
It was the last day of college orientation and already I had realized that I was crossing into a new dimension. Oftentimes, we talk about college freshmen “entering a new chapter” or “starting a new phase” in life. This wasn’t quite either of those. Instead, it was more like I had journeyed into another reality, a different world that was so unlike my own.
I was a freshman at Fordham University’s College at Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On paper, I shared much in common with my classmates. We were all approximately the same age, had just graduated from high school, and had academic records strong enough to be admitted into a private, esteemed educational institution that was considered to be among the best in New York City. And yet, the more I looked around, the more I listened to conversations, and the more I tried to participate in discussions, the more I sensed that my life had been remarkably different from most of my peers. It was a culture shock that I had least expected.
My first days of college left me feeling uneasy on a regular basis. It wasn’t just that I perceived I didn’t fit in; it was, largely, a matter of fact. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and attended overcrowded, underfunded public schools my whole life. My family was blue-collar, working-class, something I never comprehended until I started applying to colleges and received application fee waivers for being “low-income” and “underprivileged.” Up until that point, I considered myself to be your ordinary, typical teenager; my life had been normal. But at Fordham, as a first-generation college student whose father worked as a trash collector for a living, it became apparent very quickly that I was no longer like everyone else.
Starting college is a major life adjustment for anyone, especially for first-generation students. It can be difficult when you have no one in your family who understands the challenges of college; for there were many times I wished I could simply call up my parents and ask them for advice. Plus, first-generation students in higher education, who typically belong to diverse, socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds like myself, tend to experience “imposter syndrome.” As studies have shown, “imposter syndrome” causes persistent feelings of self-doubt and internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud,” with imposters believing that their intelligence or abilities have been overestimated. With these thoughts, “imposters” imagine that they have either deceived other people into thinking that they are more capable than they actually are, or that their success can only be attributed to luck, despite formal recognition of accomplishments. Hence, while there may be external validation of high competence, “imposter syndrome” results in first-generation college students convinced that they do not deserve their achievements. Sadly, it is an experience I know all too well.
Oftentimes during my years at Fordham, I would spend most of the day at college with people who were more privileged than me, who would talk about the exotic trips they were planning for school breaks, the enriched courses and extracurricular activities that had been offered by their high schools, and spending money on clothes and other luxuries in amounts that were nowhere near what I could afford. It was hard to feel “normal” when I was working part-time earning minimum wage, struggling to pay for my MetroCard, and eating peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch. In the four years of college, I only ever traveled on vacation once and it was on a tight budget. I never purchased food or coffee from Starbucks or the cafeteria on campus. And unlike most of my classmates, I bought my clothes on clearance and didn’t have fancy Apple electronics. When they talked about learning philosophy in summer camp and attending private music lessons, I thought about how I had used a fifty-year old global history textbook during my sophomore year of high school. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt inferior to them and like I didn’t belong. My accomplishments, however remarkable they had seemed before starting college, now seemed so minuscule and trifling. More and more, I felt insecure about myself and my place at a reputable school like Fordham. What started as me asking myself, “How did I get here?” soon turned into me telling myself, “I shouldn’t be here.”
When I’d leave school in the late afternoon or early evening, it was like traveling from one world to another. Commuting via the subway, it was as if the train served as a magical time machine. Except, I wasn’t traveling so much through time as I was traveling between parallel universes. At Fordham, I was surrounded by people who had plenty; when I came back home to southern Brooklyn, scarcity was abundant. In my own family, I watched my parents struggle to make ends meet. It only worsened the imposter syndrome effect, while isolating me all the more. I had never felt so alone in my entire life.
But not all hope was lost. It was on that third day of college orientation, before the semester even officially started, that I met the first of several mentors I would come to heavily rely on during my college years. He was my history professor and assigned advisor. One day, I was talking to him after class and he recognized my deep Brooklyn accent. I told him that I was from the Gravesend neighborhood and he replied that he had grown up in Bensonhurst – the community adjacent to mine — in a very ethnic, working-class family much like my own. And like me, he had been the first in his family to go to college. It sounds so simple, but those words meant so much; the fact of his mere existence as an example of a person who had traveled the a parallel path caused the vast loneliness to subside. Because we shared much in common, he symbolized the incarnation of someone like me, yet he served as someone who could provide tremendous wisdom as a result of a personal appreciation of our unique experiences.
After establishing my relationship with my college advisor, I learned that first-generation students need three allies, the first being mentors. I had several mentors during college – all of whom were seasoned professionals who provided me with invaluable guidance and insight. Through them, I didn’t just learn; they opened my eyes to new possibilities. My mentors told me how to navigate the competitive workings of higher education and the workplace, gave me advice about how to apply for prestigious fellowships and research grants, and served as references for any opportunity that came knocking at my door.
My mentors also encouraged me to make friends amongst my peers. As a first-generation student, it was easy to feel detached from my classmates. But once I was comfortable being myself, I soon realized that there were indeed other people to whom I could relate in some way. Maybe not everyone shared my same story, indeed, few did, but I was able to find numerous classmates who had diverse backgrounds, including many other first-generation college students. Perhaps we were in the minority amongst the entire graduating class or student population as a whole, but we were still there. By forming these friendships, I discovered that I had peers who shared much in common with me, and through our similarities we were able to form special relationships, knowing that we could deeply understand each other in a way that few others could. It was helpful sometimes to simply have someone who would listen to my problems and truly appreciate the challenges I faced. And, once I felt secure in my own skin, I was able to make friends even with my classmates who didn’t come from similar backgrounds. By being more at ease with my identity, I started to make connections with people who had vastly different life experiences from me too. From them I learned some valuable lessons, including inside knowledge that I would have never acquired otherwise. For these reasons, I realized that the second most important ally of first-generation students is our peers.
And that leads me to my last point: your final ally must be yourself. It may sound cliché, but I have found it to be true. Like many of you reading this, I was hesitant to trust my abilities because I was the first in my family to attend college and then graduate school. My self-confidence was low when I began both college at Fordham and law school at NYU. But with people believing in what I could do, I too started to have faith that I had earned my place at these acclaimed institutions. In hindsight, I wish that I had known that I was worthy of my accomplishments as early as others had recognized my potential, instead of spending so much time doubting myself. But with some time and some support from others, I learned the importance of valuing oneself. As I discovered through my own journey, once I knew my worth, no one could take it from me. No one could define it either. My self-doubt dissipated. With my feet securely rooted, I was able to branch out more. Because I believed in my worthiness to study at institutions like Fordham and NYU, I felt confident in my own potential and took ownership of my identity. I was no longer afraid that I would fail because I was different from others. Rather, I found strength in my diverse background, which empowered me to take risks, subsequently leading to more opportunities for me to showcase my talents. While I always attempted to stay realistic in my ambitions, I discovered that only I could set the limits of what I could do. And those parameters no longer stemmed from some ill-conceived notion that I was confined by my background. Instead, I knew that I could do more than ever before. And so, my mantra became a phrase someone shared with me one day when I felt discouraged from a setback — and one that I hope all first-generation college or graduate school students will heed as well: “Where you came from should shape who you are, but it should never determine just how far you will go.”