First-generation students, defined by the George Washington University as students whose parents did not complete a four-year, baccalaureate degree, come to college with the same goals and ambitions of changing the world but arrive on different paths. In fact, they are carving their own in working toward becoming the first in their families to graduate from a four-year institution.
Making up 14% of the undergraduate population at GW, these students face challenges of not having the same shared experience as their peers but counter that by building a robust community among fellow first-generation students.
Prior to the start of National First Generation Week, which started Sunday and runs through Saturday, GW Today asked five officers of the student organization First Gen United (FGU) what it means to them to be a first-generation and the pride they feel in having that identity be a part of who they are. Some of their answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
Helen Vallejos Castro
Sophomore public health major
FGU role: Director of Finance
For me, it’s about being able to have this opportunity that so many of my family members didn’t get to have. Whenever I go back for a fall or winter break, it’s not just my parents telling me how proud and excited they are that I’m doing this. It’s also uncles, aunts and community members who are behind me and are proud of me and what I’m doing here and the work that I’m trying to pursue. So, the pride is immense. I have more pride in who I am and more understanding of who I am, and I’m more and more comfortable being first gen and not having this feeling of imposter syndrome that was very much prevalent in everyday life. This just kind of reassures me that I’m doing very well for myself right now, and it makes me want to give back and help incoming first-generation students and class members be the best selves they can be.
Senior international affairs major
FGU role: President
I think I would be amazed if I looked at myself where I am now compared to when I was just starting out in college. I had no idea how to get through university or handle financial aid. But now I’m graduating college this year and I’ve met an amazing community of people, I’m doing well for myself, and I have a path that I want to take. Having a grasp on my future is something that I’m incredibly proud of myself for, and it's amazing to see everyone else who has also experienced that same kind of anxiety and imposter syndrome succeeding. One of the best things about the first-gen community is helping everyone grow and pursue their dreams.
Sophomore criminal justice major
FGU role: Director of Community Outreach
I felt professionally behind everyone else and that I had to work harder because I was learning so many skills—like networking—that other people had been taught since they were a kid. I felt 19 years behind and that I had to catch up. But it was also coming to terms with who gets to define that. I’m on my own path, and I have so much pride in myself. I’m the youngest of three kids and the only one to have already graduated from a college. (She earned an associate degree in economics at Broward College before coming to GW.) I’m always going to feel very prideful, to be honest, and I’m really happy to have this opportunity.
Senior history and political science major
FGU role: Vice President
For me, being first-gen student is about recognizing my entire journey to get to where I am now, which is finishing my undergrad and hopefully going on to graduate school. It’s also about understanding that it’s not just me that’s been working on this. Growing up, it was my parents making sure that I had my needs met. Once I got here, this entire community has been able to keep me in school, because there were multiple times where I felt like I might not be able to stick around the whole time. But it’s just recognizing and feeling privileged, in a way, to have a really incredible community that has been able to help me pursue my goals. And I feel like I owe it to everyone around me to stay here and finish what I started.
Junior psychology and philosophy major
FGU Role: Co-Director of Membership
I didn’t really realize how intense the difference (between being a first-generation student and non-first-generation student) would be. No one in my family has ever been had a college education, so it’s a very new experience. I felt like when I got to GW, I had to hit the ground running and just outwork everyone around me because I didn’t have that experience and background. But I feel like there is a sense of pride in just knowing that you’re here, and you have the opportunity to be here. I feel so thankful that I’m here every day, and I use it as fuel to find other people in the first-gen community to connect to—maybe younger first-gen students who are feeling the same type of pressure that we’re probably used to by now. So, that’s my big thing. Just being thankful and using that as motivation to do the best you can because everyone is doing the best they can.