Great Expectations: Confessions of a First Generation American

Every parent dreams of their child having a better life than they did. However, there’s an added layer of expectations when your parents are immigrants. Although I was born in London, England, my parents are Nigerian and our family immigrated to the United States before I was even a year old. No, I don’t meet the cookie-cutter definition of a first-generation American, but I identify with the many fears, joys, and concerns that first-generation American students experience. I love being a part of this ubiquitous Nigerian community, knowing and relishing in my roots, eating fufu at home and shamelessly imitating my parents’ accents. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) At the same time, there seems to be this overarching conflict that stems from trying to find a balance between preserving the culture and values that your parents instilled into you and fitting into this amorphous puzzle that is the United States.


Since the school year just started, many students - like myself - are asking the question: how can I combine my passions and interests with a profession that will actually put food on the table? Now, imagine asking that question as the child of an immigrant, knowing that 1) your parents are stringent supporters of a field that you may or may not be interested in (stereotypically medicine, law, or engineering) and 2) they have sacrificed everything - literally everything - to bring you to the famously dubbed “land of opportunity”. Before leaving for college, I expected to receive the standard Nigerian version of the “You’re Going to College” talk: “Pray every day. Focus on your studies. Don’t follow boyfriends.” However, my father surprised me (to some extent) when he opened up with the importance of maintaining a high GPA for medical school rather than (what I like to call) “The Three Pillars of Success”. At that moment, I laughed to hide how overwhelmed I was, and proceeded to share tidbits of our conversation on Twitter. In seconds, a friend of mine (whose parents are Honduran), messaged me saying, “Why did my parents say the same thing?!” It was comforting knowing I wasn’t alone, but also slightly exhausting knowing that we have to continuously play into this role. Just when we thought we’d be able to have full autonomy in deciding our futures, we’re reeled right back in. Then, it dawned on me why they, along with many other immigrant parents, were steering me in that direction.


Yes, every parent just wants their child to have a better life than they did, but immigrant parents also want to know that their sacrifices were not made in vain. With medicine, we see the power to cure, to heal, to help, to live more comfortably, but what we choose not to look at are the added years of stress. Furthermore, if you’re not completely invested in it, medicine is absolute hell. From a parental standpoint, medicine is the key to sustainability and self-sufficiency. With the title “doctor”, you can open your private practice and not be completely subjected to the discrimination you would experience working for/under someone else. Being a black woman in America, the latter is very important to me; I distinctly remember the numerous stories my father and mother would tell me about their experiences with their colleagues in various hospitals, the exclusion, the belittling, etc.


Now, while there is no utopia in terms of a workplace and nothing good comes without some strife, there is a part of me that feels indebted to my parents because of all they have gone through to get me to this point. I don’t want to squander everything, nor do I want to disappoint them. Their concerns are rooted in love, but they are also rooted in fear.  I strive for self-sufficiency, for independence, for a more than decent salary, but that can be found in a variety of professions and occupations. How do we as first-generation American students prove this to them though? There is no easy answer.

You’re probably wondering, “Who are you as a freshman in college to even be qualified enough to give this sort of advice?” I’m not “qualified. In fact, I ask myself these same questions every day. But what I am encouraging myself and others like me to know is that this school year, when it comes to choosing a major, it is ultimately up to us. It is our life. What alters the dynamic is deciding what we want our life to be: a continuation of what’s expected of us or a testament to our parent’s story and to why they came to this country in the first place? For some first-generation American students, those two things are one and the same - and that is great! On the other hand, some of us are in constant limbo - and that’s ok, too. 50%-70% of college students change their major at least once. Regardless of what you plan to do or what you’ve been told you need to do, I encourage you to take everything one day at a time, and grab hold of the opportunities that are put in your path. Be realistic, but open to the vast world ahead of you.


Ruth Samuel