Growing up, it was not expected that I attend college. My parents pushed for good grades, and set me up to pursue higher education, but it was never expected that I actually make it there. They didn’t make it there, and neither did their parents. So why me? How could I be the first person to break the cycle, and wrap my fingers around something of such high value?
When college application season began, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to pursue this higher education my parents spoke of. It seemed like a lot of work, and such a money constraint. I had always seen commercials about student loan debt, and if I couldn’t afford my cell phone bill, how am I supposed to pay off $20,000 in debt by the end of ten, twenty years? I didn’t want to put myself, or my family, through that at all. When I expressed these concerns to our college advisor, she took a deep breath and laid out the facts. That evening, I applied to Gettysburg and Penn State, hoping maybe one would accept me. That spring, I received the first college acceptance letter in my family ever.
There are so many firsts that came with that letter. First FAFSA application, first loan, first move in day, first round of finals, first mental breakdown, and the list goes on. Then the pressure fell heavy when I had to pick a major. I chose to be a Spanish major at Gettysburg, knowing it would come with its challenges. I knew study abroad was required, and I knew I would have to fund it myself completely. So I went right to work. While people partied on the weekends, I worked sixteen hours Saturday and Sunday. While people studied hard for their exam the next day, I made their coffee, at an on campus job, to keep them up all night. Each dollar I made I stashed away for that first abroad experience. My parents have never been abroad, and they had no idea how to help me plan. So I took things day by day.
I’m thankful for Gettysburg’s Center for Global Education for sending me in the right direction, otherwise I probably would have been completely lost. After speaking with Rebecca, I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and how to do it. She had me speak to other students who had gone through the Cuba program, and gave me course descriptions of my potential future classes. She also gave me information on scholarships and how my financial aid would transfer to a different university. I had no idea that financial aid would even transfer to another country. I’m not sure my parents did either. I filled out my first application, booked my first plane ticket, packed my first luggage tote, and took my first steps on Cuba’s crumbling streets. College was not expected of me, let alone planning to leave the country!
While I continue to live in Havana for the remainder of my spring semester, I am reminded every day of the “firsts” I am encountering.
I am the first in my family to attend classes at a collegiate level, as well as the first to attend these classes in a foreign country. I am the first to live with a host family, getting to know a magnificent group of people outside of my comfort zone. I am the first to hop in a maquina, a car held together with random parts that will take you anywhere along línea y 23 for 10 moneda nacional. I am the first to try fried plantains, hike the mountains of Viñales, and explore a dark cave. I’m pretty positive there are several more “firsts” to come.
At times, it does feel overwhelming to embark on all these firsts. While I am surrounded by people in my program who have never been to Cuba, a lot of them have traveled outside of the country before. Often, they discuss the differences between countries, what sights they have seen, and some of their favorite experiences. Traveling for fun was not something my family did, and if we did, the financial constraint was enough to make my mom never want to do it again. So I find myself often sitting on the side, listening to their experiences, hoping that maybe I too can experience some of the things they have. I remind myself that I am the start of something new, and everything that I do is something unseen by my family. I remind myself that it wasn’t expected that I even go abroad, that this is something foreign not just to me, but the people close to me as well. This is my experience- I am not going to have the same experience as the others in my program- and I wouldn’t want to.
Being first in your family to do something is scary and stressful, but completely rewarding. Being able to prove that you can break the cycle, that you can conquer the unknown and unseen, is vital in changing societal norms. I am blessed to be the first in my family to break the cycle and prove to society that despite your background, anything is possible. I am paving a path for my siblings to beat the cycle and make a name for themselves. No matter how hard things can be, if you keep set goals in mind and stay focused, nothing can stand in your way. I am realizing each day that I am beating the odds and that being first generation is uncommon. I am so grateful for where I come from and the person I am becoming. I’m thankful for my parents and the people in my life who have pushed me to be where I am today. Without those people, I would not have had the drive to pursue higher education, let alone have the courage to study abroad in Cuba.
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.