I thought that the struggle of a First Generation Student would end the minute I graduated from college. It was hard enough sitting in classrooms where I felt embarrassed that I barely knew what people were talking about. It was embarrassing to sit in these same classrooms listening to my peers use vocabulary from texts that I rarely understood. Constantly I thought about dropping out of college because I always felt like I did not belong. I’d say that if it wasn’t for my behavioral psychology professor, I probably wouldn’t have completed my first year in college. But once I graduated with my Masters, I thought to myself: “Finally, I can now fulfill the American Dream and feel proud of what I have accomplished”. If only it was truly that easy…
I remembered feeling proud and extremely nervous when I got a phone call for my first career job interview. I was proud that someone believed in me and gave me the opportunity to show them I was capable of the position. But I was nervous about the fact that I really had no professional background experience. What I mean by this is that no one in my family ever worked in an office position. In fact, my mom was the one who cleaned the offices of these professionals and my dad was the one who delivered merchandise to these offices. They never imagined any of us ever working in these offices. I remembered calling my parents, excited to tell them the news of this opportunity and seeking their advice on what to expect in this interview. I remember their response very well; “I don’t know mijo, you’re not cleaning or delivering to them. I don’t think we can offer you advice. Just be professional and dress up like them.”
The struggle of a first generation professionals is very similar to our first generation students who are looking to further their education. We are constantly pondering if we are doing our jobs right, if we are dressed right, if we are speaking right, if we ARE right for the position we hold. Ever since I started, I have drowned myself in any additional tasks or assignments given to me at this school. I have always felt that I needed to prove to others that I am capable of doing the extra work. I was never taught how to slow down because since I first started my career, I have been reminded of how proud people are to see a Latino working in a school.
With that kind of expectation, I felt like I needed to do it all. I felt like a Latino needed to be openly present in everything. “Make our people proud” has been the motto that I have had to live by all my life. I have to do it all, even if it means to sacrifice some of my personal time with my family, friends, and students. My parents have done it all in their jobs, so why shouldn’t I do the same?
As much as we want to solely save the world, we can’t do it alone. If we keep trying to do it all, we have a higher chance of burning out much quicker than most. So what should we, as First Generation Professions, do? It goes without saying that while the following suggestions have worked for me, you must decide for yourself what will work for you:
As a first generation professional, we need to accept the fact that we can’t do it all, especially not alone; something that my colleagues are probably nodding their heads and say hopefully Doug actually believes in that… Trust me, I am working on it. I have gotten stuck on the thought of “If not me, then who.” So I have spent countless hours trying to solve problems on my own on how to best support my students, both those students in and off my caseload. I have been known as one who is the first to arrive and last to leave in my office. Furthermore, with every new assignment that I have taken on, I never really gave up any previous assignments either. This year I was “forced” to give up some of my other duties. As challenging as it was to accept these changes, I have to admit that I have been able to breathe better at work. I have been able to focus and be present on assignments that I have truly enjoyed doing, such as the Minority Scholars Program and assisting in Restorative Justice. I have been able to work closely with my colleagues on finding new ways to support our students in need. Lastly, and probably most important, I have been able to make more time for my family.
Secondly, don’t feel obligated to stick with your own department. We need to connect with others in our schools, especially those that look like us. Every year I have always been asked, “Doug, why are you always hanging out with [insert a person of color current school].” I would always shrug it off and say because I am cool with them. But the reality is, [they] get me. It has been disheartening when I have been bothered by a situation that occurred and a few around me would question me on why I was being “too sensitive” to the situation. As discouraging as it was to experience these moments over and over again, I have been fortunate to have colleagues who can relate to me and offer their support. Moreover, these colleagues would offer suggestions on how to handle the situation in a professionally acceptable way.
Third, you need to network with others in the community or county. I have been blessed to have been surrounded with other professionals who understand my frustration. BOND has been an excellent place to connect with other professionals who look like me and understand my struggle. Through our BOND meeting, I have been given a safe space to listen and talk about issues that I would typically repress and/or let go. At these meetings, I have not felt intimidated by someone’s title or position. Brothers from different schools around the county gather together to discuss, empow, and celebrate each other. I have learned a lot through these meetings and I know that I have gained a great deal of confidence in myself and my work by listening to what others have to say through these networking opportunities.
Lastly, please make sure that you share your experiences with others. Staying quiet does not solve anything. Chances are the struggle that you are currently facing at your school, someone else in another school has been experiencing that as well. We need to let go of our own pride and think that we have to do it all on our own and trust that others can help. In my first few years in education, I was scared to speak up because I felt like I was complaining too much or making excuses. But the reality is, as educators, in addition to teaching, we need to make time to learn as well. Learn from our peers, learn from our students, and learn from other educators. We all have so much we can contribute and we need to share that with each other. Through BOND, I know that at first I was one that didn’t say much because I didn’t feel like I was Professional enough to say anything. But I was constantly encouraged to speak up, to find my voice, and to educate through BOND. I remember the first time another educator at a meeting came over to thank me for bringing up particular issues that I was dealing with. It was at that moment that I started to see myself as a professional.
For educators and professionals who know of first generation professionals in your building, reach out to these educators. Lend them an empathetic ear, an open mind, and a nonjudgmental voice. I truly have been blessed with some great leaders at my school who have always had my back. They have always encouraged me to be the best person I can be at my school and have been supportive of any ideas I have brought to the table. My school family and my BOND brothers are the real reason why I am motivated to come back every year.
As difficult as it has been to be a first generation professional, I would not trade my experience with any one else. I have been happy to share my journey with those who want to hear my story. My journey has given me a deeper insight and a whole new look on what it means to be there for others, especially our students. As I have always told my students, “we all have our own story to tell one day. Make it your own, not someone else’s.”
Douglas Rivera serves as a School Counselor in Montgomery County Public School and is a member of the BOND Project leadership team. Doug is dedicated to advocating and empowering all of his students and colleagues.