The Thread

What It’s Like Being A First-Generation College Student in the Pandemic

Article In The Thread
New America / Shutterstock
May 4, 2021

I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in December 2020, but for all intents and purposes, my on-campus college experience ended abruptly on March 9, 2020.

The day started normally. I met with a professor that morning to check in about an upcoming assignment and to share my post-graduation aspirations. I went to my Chicanos and Health Care class. After class, I picked up a cup of coffee and headed to work, not knowing that I had just attended the last in-person class of my undergraduate career. Around 1 pm, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ emailed to ask that all students and professors transition to online classes effective Tuesday, March 10 until, at least, after the spring break scheduled for the last week of March, due to rising reports of a deadly disease sweeping the nation. As text messages and emails from friends and professors flooded my phone, unsure of what the next weeks or months would be like, I did the only thing in my power—I continued the last normal day of my college life.

On, of all days, Friday the 13th, campus sent notice that all in-person classes and activities would be cancelled for the rest of the academic semester. The hope of graduation ceremonies, last study sessions, and final dinners and outings with friends vanished. For me, a first-generation, low-income Latina, crossing the stage and participating in graduation ceremonies symbolized a celebration that would honor the sacrifices of my immigrant parents. Now, finding closure to my undergraduate journey would look very different as we transitioned to academic life behind computer screens.

Crossing the stage and participating in graduation ceremonies symbolized a celebration that would honor the sacrifices of my immigrant parents.

As days of lockdown turned into weeks, my future began to feel more uncertain, the pandemic adding new layers of anxiety. As COVID-19 cases mounted on campus, fear grew of exposure to a virus we knew little about. For many Berkeley students the decision of what to do next was fairly easy—go back home. But for me, it was not so simple. I feared going home and exposing my parents, who both have underlying medical conditions. My fear of my parents’ safety is constant due to my mother’s job at a local produce store, which already places her and my father at greater risk. For both their sake and mine, I decided to remain at my off-campus apartment to finish the semester. It was not an easy decision; I would have to face the pandemic and quarantine alone.

Online classes were immediately frustrating. My first challenge was my unstable internet connection and not being able to afford an upgrade to a plan with higher bandwidth. However, thanks to the Student Technology Equity Program (STEP) at UC Berkeley, I received a hotspot device that improved my internet connection and prevented me from being kicked out of Zoom class every couple of minutes. I thought improving my internet connection would help ease the difficulty of being fully present and active in my classes. I was wrong.

The stress and anxiety I had been experiencing before the switch to Zoom did not diminish after my internet connection improved. The next challenges came one right after the other: concentrating on finishing my senior honors thesis, midterms, class assignments. How was I supposed to adjust to online learning literally overnight when a deadly virus was spreading like wildfire and infecting communities that looked like me at higher rates than my white, affluent peers? I am grateful for the professors who recognized the sudden switch to Zoom, as recommended by the university, was overwhelming and difficult for students. I felt supported by professors who took class time to check-in with us and help process the severity of the global pandemic and its impact on our lives.

As the months went on and fall semester started, I adjusted to online classes, but my mental and emotional well-being degraded. I engaged in my classes as best I could, keeping up with my assignments, but the lack of face-to-face interaction with others took a serious toll on my mental health.

Throughout undergrad, I struggled with imposter syndrome. As a first-generation, low-income Latina, I constantly questioned my intellectual abilities, unfamiliar with navigating the social and cultural systems of higher education. While UC Berkeley promotes diversity, it is still a predominately white institution with a fairly wealthy student body, which compounded the feeling that I did not belong there. Now, during a global pandemic, those feelings intensified as I anxiously did schoolwork alone in my bedroom that over the months had become my classroom, library, office, and leisure space. My interactions were limited to short virtual breakout groups during class, FaceTimes with family and friends, and online study sessions with classmates. I spent many long study nights thinking about how lonely online learning is.

Pre-pandemic, going to class was an opportunity to meet other students and create a sense of community by surrounding myself with peers who shared similar backgrounds as mine. Creating these communities in the classroom fostered a sense of belonging, minimizing my feelings of imposter syndrome. I often doubted myself because I was not equipped with the cultural capital of my peers from more affluent backgrounds, but discussing these experiences with other first-gen and low-income students comforted me in knowing I was not alone. However, seeing my friends and professors only as a collection of tiny squares on a computer screen made it harder to foster a sense of community, making it difficult to find the motivation to power through day after day.

It took me less than a day to get help from tech support. It took me weeks to find a counselor.

Participating in class discussions became more difficult in the fall, when I accepted that the pandemic would not have a clear end date. Not only was I concerned about my and my family’s health and safety, I constantly thought of how much harder it was going to be to navigate the job search and post-graduation options being a low-income first-generation college graduate during a global pandemic; I could not afford to not have a job secured. I questioned whether I was “doing enough” because I always felt the need to prove myself, lacking the physical presence of my community that had always supported me. I began questioning why, in an educational system already filled with endless obstacles for underrepresented students like myself, there was a widening gap in access to resources to support our education during these “trying times.”

I dug through my inbox in search of one of the many campus emails promising that we were “in this together.” Overwhelmed by the many notices and unclear guidelines, I searched for guidance on how to seek counseling services on campus. About an hour into the search, I was able to schedule an intake appointment with a UC Berkeley counselor who encouraged me to seek a counselor outside of the university who would be able to see me more consistently. This was not the advice I expected. High demand for counseling services pushed students to search for services outside of the university, and I felt more overwhelmed when I realized I had to call various outside providers and hope that one would call back. Outside counseling also presented a financial barrier in the required co-payment for each session.

College students across the country have reported an increasing need for counseling support for years, and demand has been on the rise since the pandemic. Searching for these services, especially when limited, can be overwhelming. When the pandemic started, connectivity issues heightened existing education inequities. Students struggled to connect online, and the loss of federal work-study jobs that support students’ rent and food expenses intensified the level of stress and anxiety that students faced. Access to tech devices like computers and hotspots are important in helping students access the course content, however, access to counseling services to support students’ emotional and mental wellness is also vitally important yet not readily available. It took me less than a day to get help from tech support. It took me weeks to find a counselor.

Despite the expense, seeking outside counseling was invaluable to me. Through counseling, I came to understand myself better and began to overcome my struggles with imposter syndrome. It helped me find closure to my undergraduate career, despite all the anxiety and loneliness I felt.

Closure to my undergraduate career at UC Berkeley looked a lot different than I had expected. Though originally intending to graduate in Spring 2020, I extended my graduation to Fall 2020 to give me time to rediscover myself, my goals and my visions. My classes that semester aligned with my interest in education policy and immigration, and offered opportunities, like getting this internship at New America, that have contributed to my personal and professional growth in the last year.

It has taken a community to get me to where I am today, and while I was not able to cross the stage with my parents at the Chicanx Latinx Graduation in May 2020 due to the pandemic,

I am grateful to have been able to watch the UC Berkeley commencement ceremony with my parents and siblings. As I sat in my living room and watched the inspiring keynote speech by California Representative Barbara Lee, I felt a sense of pride to be able to call myself a first-generation UC Berkeley Alumna from the Salinas Valley. It was in that moment, surrounded by my proud parents and two siblings that I realized, as cliché as it sounds, I was right where I needed to be. I had the closure I needed.

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