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What Comes Next?: Confessions of a First-Generation College Student (Senior Edition)

I leave things to the last minute. Everything. Even important things. My future is looming, ever-present in my current consciousness, lurking in the shadows of my brain. Nightmares of closing walls haunt my sleep as I try to escape the darkness, but I am stuck. I jerk awake, reality moving me to open my eyes into the mute darkness, hearing nothing but the creaking of my bed as my body shifts, attempting to return to slumber as my beating heart counts down the days, the minutes, the seconds of my entire life. As long as my heart keeps beating, time continues to flush through my bloodstream, keeping my body alive as it is intended — to serve as a future vessel for everyone but myself. Welcome to the United States of America. Bienvenida.

Lately, I find myself sitting near the humming and crackling A/C window unit of my dorm room that is probably decades, if not centuries, older than me. My youthfulness is a blatant contrast to the creak in the wood panels and the mildew-smelling drawers as I flip furiously between the dozen tabs of U.S. News that are stacked neatly beside each other on the top of my browser. Me, una Latina, is sitting in a room that would not have been occupied by a woman of color until the latter half of the 1900s, attempting to sort out her future, just as I beg for a miracle to lead me down the right pathway, hoping not to disappoint those who see my academic career as a recipe for success.

But my lack of generational wealth or academic guidance at home has made the tabs on my computer screen reflect my disoriented thoughts, my panic, because damn I’m a senior and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life.

I imagine that what comes next is a graduate degree, because that seems like everyone’s next step in my field, a step towards making more money, as having a bachelor’s degree is rapidly becoming insufficient. This reality is frustrating considering the leaps and bounds I already faced in order to earn a bachelor’s degree as a first-generation college student who, up until her senior year of high school, had no idea what FAFSA was or what the Common Application meant. Hell, I didn’t even know that there were colleges in North Carolina outside of App State, UNCG, UNC Charlotte and ECU until my junior year of high school. I had no idea of the prestige UNC-Chapel Hill held, much less that one day I would be sitting here as a senior in the final classes I need to fulfill my majors. I am envious of everyone who already knows what choice comes next, but it is not anyone’s fault that being a first-generation college student AND a daughter of immigrants meant that failure was not an option. The only option is to rise up.

Yet, the “real world” scares me more than failure. Instead of fearing failure, I spend my time worrying about finding something I could do long enough to fail at once I leave the cushion of undergrad. But to be honest, I knew it would happen this way. My decision to major in English, followed by the hastily-added Political Science double major when I was trying to fill up my schedule, and my even-more-random choice to minor in health humanities through the English department goes to show that I have no idea what life beyond graduation looks like for me. Hence, the reason for the tabs endlessly lining my Chrome browser, customized in a pretty pale pink that, in the gloom of Zoom University, let me escape into the comfort of my pink childhood bedroom for a moment.

I know I am not the only one at UNC who feels this way — a lot of us have been strong and determined for so long, being afraid to let it slip how desperate we are to maintain certainty amid the tumultuous uncertainty of our pending entrance into the labor market. Especially those of us who come from backgrounds where this is it, this is the time to show that our fuerza can translate into stable and well-paying careers. But I am a Latina who just can’t get enough of people-watching and self-discovery and who wants to write about her observations of our everyday lives as human beings, our world and social structures, and the ways in which we can create better, more fulfilling and equitable outcomes for everybody. I want to continue peeling back the front that humanity puts up, to look deep into the trenches of our individual solitude and collective unity, and to come together through different mediums, particularly through writing and admiring this work. I think this is why I am here, and why I have fought so hard to stay on my current track despite the voices around me that suggest that I should be scared, that I should be worried about what comes next. I know all of this, and I am afraid, worried, and stressed. I clench my teeth as I scan the cost of tuition and fees of the different graduate degrees I am interested in. I skim through hundreds of scholarship results through different search engines and look at top ten lists of schools in my discipline. But, I am also motivated to make a life for myself, one that I am proud to have worked so hard for.

By the time you are reading this, it will be September, and I will likely not be any closer to solving my crisis. But, if there is one takeaway from my story, it is that I believe in us. All of us who are first-generation college students, or anyone who is afraid of what comes next now that we are seniors: we will make it. It might not be smooth sailing at first, but at least we will have every skill, talent and knowledge we have gained here at UNC in our favor. I offer solidarity, and I hope reading makes you feel less alone.

For resources, our University Career Services is a great website to help filter through some pressing questions you may have regarding internships, interview preparation, and more, while also offering an extensive resource guide depending on what you are looking for. You are also able to make an appointment with someone from their office to address any short-term or long-term career plans in the form of career coaching. Additionally, UNC’s Writing Center offers in-person, Zoom, or asynchronous coaching on various forms of writing, including application essays for different programs you might be interested in applying to. Further, here is a link to a handout on application essays  from the Writing Center’s “Tips and Tools” page that can be helpful as you draft your own applications for various programs during this application cycle. Good luck!

Teresa Ruiz Vazquez

Chapel Hill '23

Teresa Ruiz Vazquez is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying English and Political Science.
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