“So who here is First-Generation? Who is the first person in their family to attend college?” These are questions I have found myself answering ‘yes’ to over and over throughout my college career. Professors seem to care a lot about their students who are the first in their family to seek higher education. My school even gives us an additional advisor. Yet, my freshman and First Generation advisors discouraged me from medical school and a career as a surgeon. They seem to think my goals are too ambitious because I don’t yet have many role models to look up to. But I want to be a surgeon because I had many positive experiences with surgeons growing up. It was saddening to hear this from people are supposed to support me while in school. I felt as though they thought that being the first in my family to graduate college is good enough. As first generation students it seems that we should not be expected to do greater things because of our family background. It’s true that everyone’s college experience is different and it’s more difficult when you don’t have an example to look at. However, I’m determined to prove to myself that I can achieve my dreams and make my family proud.
My parents always ask me how college is going and want to support me in everything I do. I appreciate that they never told my sister or me what to do, or pressured us to pursue a specific career. However, it is difficult to explain the struggles of the quarter system, exam preps and everything that college entails when they never experienced it for themselves. As a pre-med with so many prerequisite classes, time management has to be a priority; I can’t wait until the last minute and cram for anything. My parents want to support and guide me through difficult classes, but they don’t know how.
I am fortunate to have my sister, Brittni, along in this journey with me. We are only a year apart so we have always gone through school together. Not all siblings have the opportunity to experience college life together; it’s something I value a great deal. We have always been extremely close and I couldn’t have asked for better support. She is planning to go to law school in just a few months and I couldn’t be more excited for her. By comparing our experiences, we’ve found that her pre-law experience has seemed less stressful and her classes are more tight-knit than mine. Pre-law students don’t seem to have as many prerequisites as pre-meds. For all of the First-Generation college students who don’t have siblings going through it with them, I suggest finding a friend who can relate because when your family can’t physically be there, you will always have that friend who shares the same struggles and doubts.
Here are some tips from one first-generation pre-med to other first-generation pre-meds as well as their parents and family members:
1. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Some parents like to use your friends as examples. “Marie is getting good grades in this class”. You really can’t compare students, especially if they go to different schools. Colleges have different levels of expectations for their students and the curriculum is different so it’s not a balanced playing field. You also have to set your own expectations. Be positive, stay focused and don’t be too harsh on yourself when you don’t receive the grades you anticipated. Many immigrant parents often push their children to be the best and that anything less is “failure”. Luckily, my parents didn’t do this, but I have to remind myself that with one failure I often have many more successes.
2. The emotional support truly does help.
Your parents and family members should be your #1 ally. We already have to worry about cramming in all of the information before our next Biology or Chemistry exam. Sometimes all we need is someone to vent to. There is a lot of pressure to do well. Parents: You may be just across town or across the country, but being there so that your child(ren) can talk on the phone with you will help you understand how college life really is. Sending cards with letters of encouragement and care packages can make challenges feel a little easier.
3. Parents: Don’t try to choose your child’s future for them.
I’ve found that there are parents who did not become what they’d always dreamt of becoming because their paths lead them to other careers. If you didn’t become a doctor or anything else, don’t pressure your children to follow that dream for you. You can’t live your dreams through them. Let them choose their own major. When asked why they want to go to medical school, a majority of first and second year pre-meds that I have talked to start off with, “My parents are pressuring me to become a doctor”. You don’t want your child to be the one who says, “I’m doing this for my parents. I am only doing this to make them happy.” In the end no one will be happy. It’s a competitive world when you’re a pre-med student and it’s not enough to want to be a doctor because your family wants that life for you. You must have the passion and the stamina for this career to sustain yourself through the difficult times. And as a first-gen pre-med, you have to go even further above and beyond to get to where you want to be.
I’ve been fortunate. My desire to become a doctor didn’t come from parental guilt. Even when I was a young child, I knew that I want to make a difference in the world. In first grade I had my tonsils removed and I still remember how I was comforted by the surgeon, prior and post-surgery. And I’ve been able to take an active role as a caregiver for my grandfather, which has strengthened my resolve to become a physician. With the support of my family I am able to face the hard work ahead of me as a pre-med. While they may not always know from their own experiences what I’m doing, I’m grateful that we keep communication open and that I can count on them to help encourage me and support me on my road to being a doctor.
About Breana Várgas:
Breana is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. Currently, she is in the process of earning an MPH degree. She is a Thyroid disease patient and advocate and started a non-profit support group along with her sister, that helps promote thyroid disease and thyroid cancer awareness, called “TalkThyroid.” She is also a Social Media Ambassador for the American Heart Association. Lastly, Breana is very involved in her local Portuguese community, including performing in a cultural Carnaval group (Portuguese traditional musical theater and dance since the age of 3). She is very passionate about medicine and even named her dog Surgeon! Follow him @surgeonthelittleman and @breanamariev on Instagram!