Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fareine Benz

I'm from that awkward, in-between place of not quite being first-generation, but not quite coming from a long line of college graduates. You see, both of my parents immigrated into the United States from the Philippines in the 1980s, neither of them with a college education nor support from their families. They grew up in the same Filipino city, but didn't meet until both of them happened to be at the same place at the same time, at a little party in North Carolina. Several months later, in 1986, they eloped at a Maryland courthouse. My dad was 18, my mom was 21. I was born a year later.
My dad supported me, my mom, and my two younger brothers on an enlisted salary, courtesy of the United States Navy. Looking back, I don't know how he managed to support all of us with just his salary. He didn't believe in taking out loans, so most of our belongings, including our college educations, were paid for up-front, in full. Needless to say, we lived a very frugal childhood.
He always pushed us to do well in school. At times, it felt like our sole purpose of living. We weren't allowed to miss class when we were sick, and anything less than an A on a test was unacceptable. You could say we fit perfectly into the Asian stereotype of overachievers, but my dad just wanted a better life for all of us. He didn't want us to have to resort to emigrating to a whole different country to escape poverty like my mom and him.
When I was seven years old, my dad earned his bachelors degree through a satellite program in the Navy. Back then, I didn't know what that meant to him and my mom. I merely identified his cap and gown as another aspect of school, a depiction of my goal to reach graduation.
Eventually, the time came for me to apply to colleges. I always imagined attending an Ivy League such as Harvard or Yale, or perhaps a large urban institution like NYU. I wanted to be a world-renowned journalist. I was practically a straight-A student, so I was under the impression that I could do anything, be anything, go anywhere.
My dad told me that our family couldn't afford any schools outside our home state of Virginia.
So my aspirations to pursue that Ivy League education were knocked down several notches. After months of arguing whether or not I should attend a school that I could commute to from home and going through dozens of scholarship applications, we finally scrounged up enough funding for me to attend an in-state Master's level institution. I was elated.
But here's the thing: The high school I went to, and the friends I made, mostly came from low-income backgrounds. My dad dedicated his life to making sure his kids attained a college education, but some of my friends did not come from families with the same philosophy. Despite their intellectual capabilities and potential, they ended up dropping out of college.
I hated my freshman year. I didn't feel like I fit in, and I felt as if I was slowly losing my friends from high school. I ended up driving almost four hours to go home every other weekend, because I'd rather be home with my friends and family than at school with a bunch of strangers. I begged my dad to let me transfer to a school back home, but he told me that we worked too hard (and fought too much) to get me into that college, and to give it another semester. It wasn't until my sophomore year, when I started getting involved with the university's activities council, that I found my place at the university. I met new friends who understood me and was able to take part in activities that supplemented my major. Suddenly, life wasn't so bad. I started spending more weekends at school and less time at home. I was happier.
A funny thing happens when you go to college. You change. The way you talk, the way you see the world. College changes you. And when you go home for holiday breaks, there's this disconnect, this feeling of not belonging. There's this divide between you, your friends, and your family. And you stop talking about college to make that feeling of discomfort go away.
I never quite got rid of that feeling, even after I graduated from college in 2008. I ended up getting a job back at home, and all of a sudden I was making far more money than any of my high school friends and family. Our lifestyles were different. I was different. And I couldn't stop thinking, how could these people, these smart, amazing, talented people, not have the chance to earn a college degree? Their grades were good. They had ambition. The only difference between us was that I had a parent who gave everything he had to make sure I went to college, and I was lucky enough to find an organization that made my university finally feel like a home. And then I realized that made all the difference.
I haven't mentioned my mom much. When I was growing up, we used to be really close. She would tell me tales about her dating life before she met my dad, about how she wanted to eventually return to the Philippines, and how my brothers and I were her entire life. She was a stay-at-home mother, and she dropped out of college in the Philippines in favor of moving to the United States. She's an amazing cook, a great listener, and a compassionate person. She'd know exactly what to say whenever a dumb boy broke my heart or when I'd get angry at my dad for having unrealistically high expectations. But when I talk about access, equity, social justice, and the state of higher education in our country, she's completely silent. There's a barrier between us that I don't know how to break, and it just grows every time I see her.
Through this long, disjointed, narrative, I hope you can see why I decided to pursue a career in student affairs. Childhood, friends and family do not go away when you enter college. They follow you through the rest of your life. And if you don't have a support system to challenge you, help you, and comfort you, it is easy to quit. First generation students, children of immigrants, and all types of students face these challenges. And those challenges don't stop after you graduate.
I was lucky enough to have a support system to get me through school. And I want to create that same supportive environment for all students I come in contact with. That's why I chose student affairs.

1 comment: