I'm Good Enough: On Being a First Generation Student at an Elite High School
March 18th, 2018
I’ve always felt as if I had something to prove, even in elementary school when the highest stakes were invitations to someone’s poolside birthday party. This feeling has only intensified as I’ve gotten older.
I go to Hunter College High School, a so-called elite high school on the Upper East Side that boasts a two percent acceptance rate. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by kids whose parents’ professions required prestigious college degrees and landed them in fancy offices. I felt like there were no kids who came from the same background as mine: with parents who worked two jobs just to make ends meet, who needed their kids to write them emails and resumes because their English wasn’t up to par. Of course, I knew this wasn’t true, that there were a lot of kids like me but the feeling, or more so the need, to prove myself wouldn’t go away.
In the process of writing my college applications, proving my self-worth meant examining all aspects of my academic life thus far: my grades, my test scores, and my extracurriculars. My extracurriculars are typical of an overachieving student: sports, clubs, internships, the works. But there are some that aren’t so typical. Odd end jobs that I do on the weekend to save up a bit of cash so I can buy fancy skincare products without having to ask my parents for the cash. Housework that includes but is not limited to couponing, cooking for myself and my family, and wiping the dust off my family’s many shelved movie cabinet. These activities in themselves aren’t that bad--but in comparison to my other classmates’ who can gladly say they’ve worked at their parent’s labs or traveled to some faraway country to do volunteer work, they’re overshadowed and I feel something close to shame just from mentioning them.
It took years of making comparisons between myself and my peers to realize that they don’t have the same concerns or responsibilities that I do. It took me so long and so much emotional anguish to realize that I am good enough; I have made the best of my situation and have gone above and beyond what was expected of me. The course of my entire life has made me realize that the only person I need to compare myself to is me.
Everything about me has changed since I’ve started Hunter: my grades, my relationships, my mental health, my view of the world. These things have changed so much that I almost don’t recognize myself. But I’ve finally realized that maybe I’m not rich and that I’ve experienced things some of my classmates never have. My parents both immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe in the 90’s and started lives for themselves but most importantly, for me and my brother. I’ve seen their struggle firsthand, only spoke Polish until I was four, and have generally grown up differently from my classmates. And that’s OK.
But what isn’t OK is that I’m looked at differently for it. That some of my peers give me sly looks whenever my answer doesn’t come out as eloquently as theirs or when I pronounce a word differently than my friends and they tease me for it. For the longest time, the way my peers made me feel was ashamed. I wanted to magically leave behind my background as a first generation student with first generation concerns and responsibilities. But my circumstances have made me what I am today and this is something I can never forget, something I now know better than to try to leave behind ever again.