This was a surprisingly difficult post to write. I sat on it, even after I knew I would have to take the time, for longer than I care to admit. I’ve included personal vignettes and the general outline of my story, but this, my story of overcoming and of renewal, requires more than a silhouette. In the spaces I became familiar with in undergrad, we had a lot of meetings and discussions about sensitive topics. I remember one activity that involved the facilitators of discussion asking us progressively more personal questions about our family background, race/ethnicity, etc. If yes, we would step into the center of the circle. If no, we would stay where we were.
It is important to acknowledge the role of failure in growth and learning, especially for members of our community. Too often, one or two children in certain families will begin carrying the mantle of ‘success’, with tremendous pressure to do well in every way and at every turn. Not only is this unhealthy for those children, but what about the children who are left back a grade, who struggle and fail at particular subjects, who work right out of high school and put off college? Too often, those children are put aside and left to fend for themselves if they choose to continue their educations, as they are pigeonholed as not being ‘smart’ enough for college.
On the other hand, the children who are pushed to succeed in school and to attend college have an entirely different set of struggles with which to contend. Entering college spaces from a first generation background can be (and was for me) a deeply jarring experience. All your life, you knew that there were kids out there who didn’t have to work to make ends meet, whose parents paid for all of the programs and sports they could fit on a resume, etc. All of a sudden, you’re studying alongside those people and their generation spanning relationship and resultant comfort with higher education. Think about these things for a second. If you’re first generation, mentally step into the circle. If you’re from a low income background, mentally step into the circle. If you had or have a strained relationship with your parents or a unique family structure, mentally step into the circle.
I have found that becoming self-aware is the first step toward understanding how these identities impact and will continue to impact your behaviors, beliefs and general paradigm. Take a second and think about how those or other personally significant identities have helped form who you are today, and whether you are using them to your advantage or letting them use you.
Now the question becomes, how do we take all of these experiences and begin working our way toward full acknowledgment and utilization of them? Anecdotally, I have found that changing your thinking about a situation helps immeasurably. Rather than bemoaning my upbringing, I wear it as a badge of pride. Without that upbringing, how could I have forged the decisiveness and fortitude required to begin a 3 year JD/MBA program at the age of 22? Without that upbringing, how could I have had the time management skills to work full time during my 4 years at Columbia undergrad? Rather than thinking about what growing up the way you did took away from you, think about what it gave you. Think about how it helped you grow. Now go forth and #Practice Excellence, understanding that you should be proud of what you have overcome to get where you are today!