How being a first-generation college student pushed me to study abroad

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first-generation college studentWhen the world was thirty-three years younger than it is now, my dad graduated high school with his head somewhere in the clouds, because that was the best place to find the kind of birds he was looking for. Gray ones, camo ones, with bodies that were built not grown, stomachs that guzzled gas not grub. He knew who’s wing he wanted to be taken under: the United States Air Force. College didn’t cross his mind, or if it did, it was dismissed quickly, since there was no sense in dreaming about something that wouldn’t come true. His family’s financial situation made it clear. Work, or join the military. He chose the military, and though he didn’t end up enlisting with the Air Force, the Marine Corps took him in as one of their own.

Three years earlier than my dad, my mom walked through her high school doors for the last time, carrying her diploma in one hand and dreams of daycare in the other. Both grips tight. A year later, after contemplating and confirming that yes, she can do this, she decided it was time to start being serious about what she wanted. In the day, she helped in classrooms as a teaching assistant, while in the night she studied hard in classrooms with other vocational school students. She became an expert in killing two birds with one stone — by splitting her life in two, my mom was able to go to school and pay for it at the same time. For her, college didn’t seem like an option, really, since it was for people who knew right after high school what they wanted and the confidence to go achieve it. She couldn’t waste her parent’s money—money that they didn’t even have to send her to college, on things she wasn’t fully sure would be worth it. With the daycare vocational school, the only money she’d be wasting would be her own, but it never came to that. She loved what she was doing.

first-generation college studentMore recently, I cheered wildly with my classmates as our principal said for the final time, “Congratulations, class of 2016!” This was our cue to step off of the stage, find our families and friends, and leave high school behind. When I looked to the future, college was the only thing crossing my mind. Early fall, I flew from Hawaii to Maine to become a member of Colby College’s class of 2020. There, I met other people like me: people who binge Brooklyn Nine-Nine, people who like pineapple on pizza, people who were the first in their immediate family to go to college. In fact, there was even a whole program dedicated to helping first-generation college students. Through attending events and seeing the different ways someone could be a first-generation student, I started to learn more about what it meant to be a first-generation college student, and what that looked like for me.

Being a first-generation college student played a big role in my decision to go abroad. I didn’t know it at the time; I always thought that wanting to study abroad was only because collecting new experiences was my version of a dragon’s hoard. When researching colleges, before even fully understanding what being a first-generation college student meant, I prioritized institutions where studying abroad was heavily encouraged. But, lately, I’ve realized that my love for traveling and trying new things stems from my parents and from being a first-generation college student. Growing up, I heard my dad say, “Why not try it?” and my mom say, “Always try new challenges!” so much that I even started rolling my eyes at how predictable it became. But now that I’m older, I can finally read between the lines: “Why not try it?” and “Always try new challenges!” really meant “I want you to try all the things I couldn’t.” My parents didn’t graduate from a four-year college, but I can, and they couldn’t study abroad, but I can. They’re not letting the opportunities that passed them by pass me by too. They’re happy and excited for me whenever I try anything, and that happiness and excitement grew my love for trying new things.

Because of my parents’ support, and because of outside help, like the IFSA First Generation College Student Scholarship, I can be here in New Zealand, my dream place to study abroad. If you’re a first-generation college student looking to go abroad, my advice would be to find encouragement from your family and friends, support from your advisor or a first-generation college student advisor, and resources from first-generation specific funding or scholarships, like the one I mentioned above. I hope you do go abroad! You deserve it.

Kristiana Petrie is an Environmental Science and Biology double major at Colby College and studied abroad with IFSA at Victoria University of Wellington in Wellington, New Zealand in Spring 2019. She is a First-Generation Scholar for IFSA through the First-Generation Scholarship Program.

Article by Kristiana Petrie