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What It Means to Graduate as a First-Generation Immigrant

Maria Jose Jimenez Acosta


Photo via Metin Ozer.

We are reaching that point in the semester when everyone is trying to push through. Frankly, most people stopped caring over a month ago, but as a first-generation immigrant, I cannot bring myself to stop. I can say that I don’t care, but cultural expectations are tugging at my waist, whispering in my ear. I am about to graduate from CEGEP, which is usually a stepping stone, but, while most people are thinking about the next step, I’m looking back on my last semester and wishing I hadn’t let my mental health decline and gotten better grades.

Everything I do here matters. All of your degrees are important accomplishments, especially when you are the first person in your family to complete your whole academic career in the so-called ‘right way.’ I don’t believe there is a right way to learn, but for my mom, the fact that I am the first one in the family to earn my degree in a first-world country is the right way. I cannot mess up. I have gotten a great opportunity, one that my siblings were not given, so it would be selfish for me to let it slip away. Only once have I ever let myself slip for someone who didn’t deserve it, and the weight of that stain on my personal report card still makes me feel like a failure. How could I risk something so big for someone so small?

My education is so important. I cannot afford to switch programs or degrees, fail classes, or ever dare to be unmotivated. My laptop is an extension of my hands and my thoughts, an extension of my family’s words. I am doing this for me, but I am also majorly doing it for my grandma and the lost line of writers in my Colombian heritage. I am doing it for my mom who dreamed big but got little. I am doing it for every single person back home who thought my family could not make it and that my siblings and I would fail. I’m doing it for myself, but also for others. I realize that I should not pressure myself so far as to carry my entire heritage on my back, but deep down, I want to. I want to make my family proud. I dream of paying for my grandmother’s house and of providing my family with greater opportunities. I want to experience everything they couldn’t and allow them to grow and learn with me.

My view on education as a first-generation immigrant is peculiar. Back in Columbia, in most cases, people give up on their education because they need to. Common circumstances lead them there, making it, in most cases, rarely ever a choice. In Canada, most students have the luxury to make choices. While I am well aware that it is not the case for everyone, I have noticed that people decide to drop out or not go back to school for other reasons than obligation. Having been given the chance to pursue my education here, unlike my family members, there is no place for burnout in my household. I was given a unique chance and need to live up to it.

I must prove that my background makes me just as good as anyone else. I learned at a young age that I had to demonstrate I was just as skilled because some teachers assumed I knew less. One of my teachers even deemed that it was shameful for me to have better French grades than the White kids. It hurt because I did not understand what about me made it seem like I inherently could not succeed, but I have learned to enjoy their bitter faces. I have come to realize that although they cut deep, racist comments do not hold any value. I am succeeding even with and regardless of my foreign name.

For most, if not all, first-generation immigrant children of different cultural backgrounds I have interacted with, their education is their primary duty. Many of us were brought here by parents who worked incredibly hard and uprooted their whole lives for us. Nevertheless, as stressful as it may sound, I am forever grateful for my degree, as it means a lot to me.



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