The First Step Abroad: Being First-Gen in London

After having both my sister and I, my mother went back to school to obtain her bachelors degree in Accounting and Management. I remember the nights spent doing homework in my father’s four-door sedan while parked at my mother’s university, one of two on the island of Jamaica, waiting for her to complete her classes for the night.

Although at the time those nights seemed normal, I now realize how difficult it must have been for my mom to complete her degree while working and raising a family. Thus when my family and I moved to the United States when I was 9, one of my parents’ hopes for my sister and I was that we would be able to more easily pursue a college degree.

Although my mother did attend college, the fact that she went to a foreign institution has forged for me a unique type of first generation identity. Though not the first generation in my family to go to college, I am a part of the first generation to attend an American university and to pursue higher education right after high school. Thus I often face many of the same reminders that “traditional” first generation students do. That my story is different from many of my peers.

While for most of my friends attending college was the norm, what their mothers and fathers had done, for my family this journey was in many ways new. I was the first in my nuclear family to navigate the daunting American college application process. Although my parents were always cheering me on, they were not always able to help because they did not understand the U.S. higher education system.

Once I got to college I also realized that my friends often had support systems that knew when they should be applying for internships and had networks they could turn to when the time came to start the job search. However, I knew that I would have to work to build those connections and make those right decisions on my own. Although I was never discouraged by these realities and had parents always ready to lend a listening ear, there was always the lurking fear that I was missing something.

Thus, when I decided to add study abroad to my college experience I could not help but feeling even more like a fish out of water.

Spending a semester studying in a foreign country was a dream I had always had but something that even ignoring the financial constraints, seemed out of my league.

However I drew encouragement from the fact that as an immigrant to this country and first generation college student, change and challenge were things that I was used to.

Nevertheless, I could not help the moments when I felt a bit out of the loop, especially because of the nuanced interplay that my status as a first generation college student has with my socioeconomic background. I quickly realized that many British students expected me to be of a certain social status and financial class because I was able to study abroad. These expectations led to many an awkward conversation about my home school’s generous financial aid packages, making it so that I am in fact paying very little for my term abroad.

Similarly, in conversations with fellow American study abroad students, I was constantly met with the reality that many of them do come from affluent backgrounds. I often found myself with nothing to add when they listed off the numerous European countries they had visited. However, I found that this only made me even more excited to explore while I was abroad and gave me an immense sense of appreciation for the opportunity that I had to see and visit countries I never imagined I would.

Another thing I noticed while I was abroad was that at my U.K. institution there was no organization or society recognizing those students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Admittedly, the idea that first generation college students face unique challenges for which support is needed is fairly new in the U.S., with my own home institution having just created a first generation student union in the past two years. But it has become a major part of my identity in those two years.

I participate in the First Generation Student Union, and was assigned a mentor in my freshman year who was specifically there to help me navigate the process of being first-gen. Consequently, throughout my semester in the U.K. I at times felt that one of the parts of my identity that is so key to me in the U.S. had been stripped away.

Nevertheless, the absence of this community has given me the opportunity to connect with people I perhaps never would have. I made friends with backgrounds wholly unlike my own and had the opportunity to teach them about what it means to be a first generation student and to learn about their life experiences as well.

Thus despite the challenges that being the first to take that step abroad has posed, I know that I could not have made a better choice.

The new perspectives I have gained and connections I have built through studying abroad has allowed me to move beyond my bubble of comfort. To evolve into someone who can see the world beyond the lens of their own lives, who can navigate multiple cultures and life experiences.

Studying abroad has opened my world to new possibilities and led to personal discoveries on how being the first abroad can be an asset.

Alicia Hamilton is a history major at Harvard University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London in the fall of 2016. She was an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.

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