Did you know that most students who go abroad are typically from the higher or middle class? Going into my semester abroad, I already knew the odds were against me. I am a first generation college student, which means neither of my parents pursued higher education. If someone would have asked me two years ago if going abroad was in my future, I probably would have laughed. My family is from the lower middle class, so I did not think college was in our budget. My family can hardly afford to pay for groceries without my mom couponing like crazy, let alone pay for me to leave the country for four months. As a matter of fact, I had to raise all the money myself to study abroad in Cuba. As I near the end of my semester in Havana, Cuba, I am still in disbelief that I made this happen. I have had so many wild, thrilling experiences while being here, and as a first generation student, I have been able to do something uniquely me, and share these firsts with my family.
This is not just my experience, but one for my family as well.
My college education has provided me the opportunity to share newly found knowledge with the people closest in my life. Study abroad has only expanded that opportunity.
During my time abroad, I have experienced several “firsts.” I’m the only one in my family that has a passport, and traveling to Cuba was my first plane ride ever. I’m the first one to live in a foreign country, let alone travel within to amazing places such as the Bay of Pigs, Trinidad, Santiago, or Viñales. After talking to my mom about each of these experiences, I asked her how we could have better prepared for such excursions. She responded with, “I’m not sure that I would do anything differently. We knew this was an experience that had to be carefully thought out and planned in advance due to financial limitations and lack of travel experience. I think we did an excellent job of preparing well in advance by researching locations, setting a budget, saving money, asking questions, and just reading tons of information related to traveling abroad.” I would not have been able to do any traveling without doing proper research beforehand. Luckily, I had access to Gettysburg’s study abroad office, where they put me in touch with people who have been in specific programs, and could answer all my questions. IFSA-Butler also had a handful of information before leaving the country, and my Resident Directors Michelle and Sol were great supports throughout my study abroad experience. Without the great support of Gettysburg, IFSA-Butler, or the internet, my study abroad experience could possibly have never happened.
Along with the traveling “firsts,” there were also food “firsts.” I am used to spaghetti and tacos at least once or twice a week, since they are affordable and fast to make. Being first generation means my family is constantly on the go, for my dad works literally all week as an over-the-road truck driver and my mom maintains our house of five. Between the running, cooking, cleaning, homework, and tackling family matters as they appear more often than not, my house is always looking for a meal on the go. When arriving to Cuba, I was in culture shock when fast food was simply not a thing. Each meal, everyone sits down at the table and eats for at least an hour, conversing back and forth with the others. There is always a pastry in the end. Often, that pastry is ice cream. Coppelia is the gold mine for ice cream, at one peso per scoop. The line wraps around the block, and people wait hours to get their fix. My host mom gets ice cream from Coppelia at least once a week for our dessert after dinner, and I admire her patience. The waiting culture in Cuba is completely foreign to most Americans, for we would have seen the line and left immediately. I find this often still the case for some of the students on my program. For Cubans, it is simply a way of life.
When I asked my mom if she felt me being a first generation student aided or hindered my study abroad experience, she replied, “Being first generation only aids the experience. This is possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity so it makes you appreciate everything about it so much more. It drives you to soak up as much as you can and really immerse yourself in the experience.” With this in mind, I grew a little more patient for the Cuban waiting game and savored Coppelia’s peso ice cream a little more after my first long wait in line. “Cuban time” is a real thing, where everyone just pauses and savors life. I needed that pause to soak up a bit of life and admire the scenery.
Besides being in a completely foreign country with various cultural practices, I found there were also important differences within my program. I found a majority of the students in my program came from that typically higher class, white background, and had often travelled before this experience. Their parents had also pursued higher education, and a majority of these parents had visited their student during the semester. Finding community was my biggest challenge in the beginning of this excursion, because I found it hard to relate to my peers at first. I had never left the country, and I have always had to work if I wanted something. When I explained to a few of my fellow students that I maintain four jobs at home, they couldn’t believe that my parents couldn’t do more to ease my load. What that person often did not understand is that my parents are already doing so much. Balancing a paycheck to paycheck budget, while putting myself through school, is a task all on its own. Then, factoring in the mental support they offer while I’m abroad, only extends that task. With all of this in mind, it is evident that this is a communal effort to get me through this experience.
The last question I asked my mom was how she imagined my experience as a first generation student differing from other students whose parents had completed higher education, in which she responded, “Being first generation has basically been “trial by fire.” Your “firsts” are very much our “firsts” as a family, so we’re all learning as we go. I imagine your experience has been more stressful, but possibly more rewarding because of all the hard work everyone has put in just to make this experience happen. It’s such a huge investment and payoff for all of us.” Being first generation is a heavy task, but it is one each first generation family endures. Study abroad is a challenging excursion for any student, but for a first generation family that has no travel experience, it can be a scary one. If you do your research and form connections, however, it is a feasible feat. Stay focused, determined, and remember that it is an experience not just for yourself, but for your family as well. They’re learning through you, and they’re rooting for you!
Shelby Trail is a Spanish major at Gettysburg College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Universidad de la Habana in Cuba in Spring 2017. She is a First-Generation Scholar for IFSA-Butler through the First-Generation Scholarship Program.