Proud to Be First: first-generation students talk about their experiences

NYU seniors Yasmine Elasmar, Brianna Ivette Vera and Michael Guerrero-Calderon reflect on being first-generation graduates — the first in their immediate family to graduate from college.

The following are transcripts from interviews conducted with three students from Proud to Be First, a mentorship program at NYU College of Arts and Science for students who are the first in their family to graduate college. 

Yasmine Elasmar is graduating with a degree in psychology on the pre-med track, and a minor in chemistry. Elasmar talks about her family and what being a first-generation student means. (Image courtesy of Yasmine Elasmar)

Yasmine:

Q: How do you feel about being the first in your family to graduate college? What does this milestone feel like?

A: It’s thanks to the Proud to Be First community that my emotions and anxieties were never overlooked, and I always felt heard. I think my overarching goal is to leave a footprint behind as I transition out of my senior year at NYU. My aim is to provide first-generation students at NYU with the same unconditional support system that uplifted my spirits when I was a first-year student. I want to augment all of the amazing opportunities offered to first-generation students, and in doing so, I can graduate from NYU knowing that I passed on wonderful lessons and experiences onto my mentees. I want to pass the torch and hope that in the future, the mentee that I have now and also other first-generation students will carry on this tradition and continue to make NYU a great home for its students.

(Image courtesy of Yasmine Elasmar)

Q: How does your family interpret these accomplishments of yours?

A: I know my family is very, very proud of me, especially being able to survive four years of undergrad in a really challenging degree. Right now, I’m graduating with a degree in psychology on the pre-med track, and a minor in chemistry. And I know my family has supported me one thousand percent the entirety of my time at NYU. So I know they’re definitely proud of me, they’re always rooting for me, and they share in all of my successes with me. My family has done so much by providing me with housing, sending me extra money, making sure I’m on par with all my classes and always making me feel secure and content with where I am in my life.

I’ve definitely struggled with my own feelings of anxiety and impostor syndrome, especially as a first-generation student in a university where first-generation is also considered, I would say, a minority population. Often when you’re first-generation, there’s also intersectionality with a lot of racial minority backgrounds. So I find myself often feeling a bit lost and behind in terms of where everyone else is in my class.

As a first-year student, I felt like I needed someone with experience. I needed knowledge, and someone who could act as a role model to guide me through those feelings. And so I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a lot of great programs and part of an amazing family. 

Q: Do you plan on pursuing a graduate degree? If so, what?

A: I’m definitely planning on pursuing a graduate degree. I’m deciding to take two years before applying to med schools. My plan is to attend med school in the tri-state area so I can be close to my family in New Jersey and also be in the center of it all in New York. 

I think it’s important that students actually gain work experience before they enter med school so we can in turn be better doctors in our community. And so that’s my plan: I’d be entering med school in 2023. I hope to either work in pediatrics neurology or be an OB-GYN just because there are so many issues with the community and how marginalized communities and women are misrepresented by our healthcare system. And I really want to help close that gap. And it’s also important to me because I’ve often experienced those disparities myself.

Q: Summarize your experience at NYU as a first-generation student in three simple words

A: Challenging, eye-opening and grit.

 

Brianna Ivette Vera talks about her accomplishments and struggles as a first-generation student. (Image courtesy of Brianna Ivette Vera)

Brianna:

Q: How do you feel about being the first in your family to graduate college? What does this milestone feel like?

A: I’m really happy to be the first in my family to graduate college. My mom came here when she was 18 years old, like many immigrants, in search for a better life for her and her future children. And I’m really happy to have made my mom’s dream come true, and my grandma’s dream as well. My mom never finished high school, and my grandmother only got up to the second grade. So I feel really happy for myself and my family that in a span of three generations, we’ve been able to make it to higher education. I’m really just amazed at myself that I’ve been able to do this and also juggle extracurriculars, and two or three jobs at some point. So it’s really a testament to what I’m capable of doing. I used to underestimate myself, especially when I was in high school, but now I know that I’m really capable of doing whatever I set my mind to.

Q: How does your family interpret these accomplishments of yours?

A: My family is also very happy about my accomplishments, especially the fact that I was able to get a full-time job after graduation. I think that was the most stressful part for myself and my family. Graduating college is of course a really important step in the process, but getting a full-time job, paying off loans and starting your career is a huge step in the career path. I think my family is just happy that I’ve been able to graduate college and not really struggle to find a job after graduation.

Q: Do you plan on pursuing a graduate degree? If so, what?

A: I do plan to pursue a graduate degree. I’m planning to take a two-year gap period just to step away from school and also to hope that school resumes to normal. I do not do well on Zoom, but I’m really excited to pursue a graduate degree in a more concentrated field — sustainable development, whether that be in government or working with NGOs.

Q: Summarize your experience at NYU as a first-generation student in three simple words.

A: Transformative, tense and stressful.

 

Michael Guerrero-Calderon is graduating with a major in Global Public Health and Sociology on the pre-health track. Gurrero-Calderon intends to pursue more schooling with a few gap years. (Image courtesy of Michael Guerrero-Calderon)

Michael:

Q: How do you feel about being the first in your family to graduate college? What does this milestone feel like?

A: I am a senior at NYU majoring in Global Public Health and Sociology on the pre-health track. Along with my sister who received her bachelor’s and master’s degree recently, knowing I’m going to be the first in my family to graduate with her does cause me to feel a lot of responsibility on my shoulders.

While this milestone makes me feel proud of myself, I have a lot of anxiety about what my next steps will be, and what I feel like they have to be after college. I want to be someone that not only loves what I do, but also uses the benefits of my career to support my family and do whatever I can to make myself happy. It can be both overwhelming and exciting to be able to graduate, not only high school, but now college.

Q: How does your family interpret these accomplishments of yours?

A: They’ve always praised me for being able to attend NYU on a full-ride scholarship. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to accept my invitation to enroll here. My family’s always excited to see every next step I take on my academic journey, and they always wish nothing but the best for me as my work becomes more rigorous every semester. However, I do know they like to ensure my mental health is in check. As someone who lives with anxiety, they know how overwhelmed I can get with workloads. But their concerns are always in my best interests.

Q: Do you plan on pursuing a graduate degree? If so, what?

A: Definitely. I intend to go to medical school and pursue an MD/MPH in medical school. My intentions are to take a two-year gap in between. Just because with COVID-19, I definitely feel like I need a breather from education and to focus on myself. I want to use the two gap years to gain more clinical exposure, to understand what type of doctor I want to be, and to ensure I have a lot of financial security before taking that big step of paying for medical school. And also just to travel and do whatever I can in between visiting places. Studying abroad taught me that I really do like traveling.

Q: Summarize your experience at NYU as a first-generation student in three simple words.

A: Intense, insightful and inspiring.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Contact Ivy Zhu at [email protected]