What It’s Like to be An Asian First-Generation College Student

My first insight into college life wasn’t given to me by my parents, grandparents, or older siblings, unlike my friends and classmates whose family had gone to college before them.

In fact, it actually came from the movies and shows I watched throughout my life.

My idea of what the “college experience” was like came from a mix of things I saw on TV such as Elle Woods’s journey through law school in “Legally Blonde” to the Chanels’ drama-filled lives in “Scream Queens.”

The thing about having parents who never went to college is that you don’t really have an experienced mentor or guide to educate you on what to expect.

My mom and dad weren’t there to correct me on what actually happens in college and what’s fiction.

Their highest level of education was high school; they never attended college in Vietnam due to being too impoverished to afford tuition.

The same situation applied when they moved to the States.

The only thing they could afford to do was go to beauty school.

It was there where they trained to receive their license to work as nail technicians, which they continue doing to this day.

But even if my parents did attend a traditional college, they were also Vietnamese immigrants so the university system in Vietnam most likely differed from the American college system anyways.

On the other hand, the majority of my friends had multiple family members who attended college, so they knew what was coming for them once we graduated high school.

However, I can’t say I was completely lost or clueless when I first came to college.

In my four years being in high school, I was part of a local scholarship program called Focus on Excellence.

It was geared towards high-achieving students whose families were low-income and could not afford private schooling.

They offered to pay for the majority of my tuition during my high school—a private high school in Jacksonville—as long as I kept my grades up.

It wasn’t like any other scholarship program, though.

In addition to their generous scholarship money, they offered monthly workshops for us to brush up on practical skills that we might need during college and in the real world.

The workshops covered things such as personal organization, goal setting, leadership, public speaking, time management and college success.

I feel like I owe part of my success to them because they truly taught me so much.

They gave me a clear glimpse of the real world as well as the practical skills needed for me to shape my future for success.

It wasn’t easy to get where I am today though.

Because my parents never attended college, it was only natural for them to want me to go and they prepared me for my whole life for this moment.

They easily could’ve put me into public school like they did with my brother to save money, but they believed I would be better set up for success in a private school setting.

The rigor of the classes was certainly up there, and I was able to partake in the honors classes due to the good grades I earned during junior high.

I even took AP courses when we were offered the choice.

My parents placed a lot of expectations on me because they wanted me to get the opportunities they never had, which was completely understandable; I would want the same for my own child in the future.

I am thankful to say that they didn’t force or pressure me into doing well like some parents do, but nonetheless, they still wanted me to succeed.

As for me, I personally felt obligated to succeed in everything that I did.

I think these feelings could’ve stemmed from their expectations, which formed a sense of perfectionism in me.

If I don’t get A’s on my report card, I’m a failure (you know, typical Asian thoughts).

If I don’t put in extra effort in this project, I’m going to look like I didn’t try hard enough.

I worked so hard to be good at everything I did that I would let one slip-up define me.

As unrealistic as that sounds, that was my reality.

I felt the need to make my parents proud by securing a good future for myself so that one day when they get too old to work, I could take care of them just as they did for me all my life. 

My parents have always been givers.

My mother went through hell and back to find opportunity in the United States when Vietnam didn’t have any for her.

She did this not only for herself but for her future children, too, and I could see it every day when both she and my dad continue to work hard at the nail salon so that they could provide for my family.

I aspire to one day be like that for my own family—if there’s anything that I admire about my mother, it would be her unwavering fortitude, incredible work ethic, and inner strength.

That’s why I feel so pressured to do well in college. I want to succeed for my family but it’s not easy when you didn’t know the first thing about college and lack the guidance for it.

Thankfully, the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship—a UF scholarship program that tends to the needs of low-income first-generation college students like me—reached out to me prior to the start of my freshman year and they made my transition into UF so much easier. I realized I wasn’t alone—there were so many other bright students in the program who were just like me situationally.

Not only that, my tuition was fully covered so that my parents didn’t have to be more financially burdened for me to pursue a higher education.

Suddenly, the road ahead of me looked so much clearer, and the future I wanted so badly to have was now within my reach and no longer a distant daydream.

Now that I’ve been in college long enough to see how hard it is, I remind myself every day that the struggles I go through now will be contributing to a greater good in the future, and that’s enough to keep me going.