‘Your struggles are not just your own’: First-generation students reflect on graduating college

With the sudden switch to online classes, Wichita State seniors didn’t know their last day of in-person courses would be their last.

The feeling of disbelief and disappointment hit particularly hard for first-generation soon-to-be graduates, who were looking forward to having their hard work and struggles acknowledged and celebrated at graduation.

“Commencement and graduation are important to many students, but I think they hold a special significance to first-generation students, and even more significance to first-generation students of color like myself,” senior criminal justice major Rachel Embray said.

“I think the commencement ceremony and final celebration in college are one of the most concrete ways you can highlight social and educational mobility within families and communities, and I think it can really highlight the resilience of families and communities that have been disadvantaged and slighted for generations.”

Courtesy Rachel Embray
Portrait of senior Rachel Embray. Embray will continue her studies at WSU after graduation to pursue a Master’s in Social Work.

Embray said she knew from an early age that she wanted to attend and graduate from college — not just for herself but for her parents.

“The three most influential people in my life are my adoptive parents and my biological father, who is no longer with us. He passed away,” Embray said.

“None of the three key individuals in my life had completed college, and none of them had attended a collegiate commencement ceremony. So I knew I wanted to do that for my family and for me, but [mostly] for my family.”

During her first semester at WSU, Embray had to battle against homesickness, depression, and stress. At one point, she even considered dropping out.

“This can also be a struggle with first generation students —this unconscious feeling of, ‘I have to involve myself in a lot so that I feel like I’m worthy of taking up space here,’” Embray said. “I did that unintentionally my first semester. By the time winter break came around, I was so exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally.

“I was at such a bad place that I was like, ‘How am I supposed to get through this for five more years?’”

Courtesy Sydney Jaeger
Senior Sydney Jaeger (right) with her two sisters. Jaeger grew up in Minneola, Kansas, but has decided to settle down in Wichita, Kansas with her fiance for the time being.

Senior industrial engineering major Sydney Jaeger also had to confront that homesickness — so much so that she would make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Minneola, Kansas, almost every single weekend to be with her family.

“The first two semesters of college, it was like, ‘Dad, please. Can I come home?’ I don’t want to do college. I just want to go home and work,’” Jaeger said. “School is hard. It takes a lot of effort. It’s just a different kind of work ethic than I was used to on the farm.”

Both Embray’s and Jaeger’s parents encouraged their daughters to push through the loneliness of that first year away from home.

“[My dad] had been pretty adamant. He was like, ‘You can decide at the end of the day, but I really encourage you to stick it out. I know you’ve got the work ethic to stick to it,’” Jaeger said. “He’s believed in me throughout the whole process. If it weren’t for him and my mom, I would have not gone in the first place and then definitely just entered the workplace [right out of high school] without their encouragement.”

Courtesy of Grace Armenta
Senior Abel Barraza, a mechanical engineer major, throws his graduation cap in front of the John Bardo Center. Barraza will move to Palmdale, California to start his career with aerospace and defense technology company, Northrop Grumman.

Senior Abel Barraza, a mechanical engineering major, grew up in Dodge City as the youngest of four siblings. He too was the first member of his family to attend university.

“I left [home] right after I graduated from high school,” Barraza said. “That was pretty hard on my mom, since I was the youngest leaving the house and now no one lives there with her. None of the kids are there anymore.”

Although Barraza’s family has supported his educational aspirations, he said they didn’t initially understand his decision to attend college.

“I have so many cousins my age and uncles who are like, ‘Why didn’t you just do a quick career? Why’d you leave at all? There’s so many jobs that pay you this much, etc.,’” Barraza said. “Not a lot of people realize that your job shouldn’t just be for the money. It should be a career that you should enjoy.”

Barraza’s high school teachers praised him for his math and science skills and his love for cars, and he saw college as an opportunity to find a career that combined his skills and passion.

“I wanted to be more than a mechanic. I didn’t just want to work on cars all day long. I wanted to do something more, like design or build them,” Barraza said. “I looked it up and engineering was pretty much exactly that. It was what I wanted to be.”

Although some of his family members were unable to understand his struggles as a college student, he said he kept pursuing his degree to be a role model for his nieces and nephews.

“To be a first-generation student, you’re kind of like a trailblazer,” Barraza said. “I have tons of nieces and nephews, and you want to be that example that there’s other routes to take right after high school. For me, it was to learn from your mistakes so that you could be that person they could all run to and have questions for.”

After graduation, Barraza will be moving to Palmdale, California, to start his career with Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company.

Jaeger toyed around with the idea of moving back home to help out with the farm, but she and her fiance have ultimately decided to settle down in Wichita for the time being.

“I still kind of fall back on [the farm], especially now during a hiring freeze,” Jaeger said.

“I’ve been like, ‘Well, I can always go help with harvest this summer and hope it all kind of passes.’”

Many soon-to-be graduates are facing the same uncertainty in the midst of the pandemic.

“Now everything is changing, you’re worried about what you’re gonna do for income, and it’s just so much more than just a graduation at this point too,” Jaeger said.

Embray has decided to further her studies at WSU through the graduate social work program.

“The School of Social Work is iconic,” Embray said. “I took Intro to Social Work and Intro to Social Welfare in the fall semester, and I was lucky to have Shaunna Miller be my professor for that class. Literally on my first day in class, I was like, ‘I could’ve just majored in this.’”

Although first-generation WSU students won’t get the storybook ending they pictured — wearing their black cap and gown and surrounded by their friends and family at Charles Koch Arena — their accomplishments are not to be diminished.

“[Being a first generation student] means that your accomplishments are not just your own,” Embray said. “They represent generational struggle — sometimes generational trauma that you have been able to overcome in some way.

“Ultimately, I think that it means that you have been able to do what others before you haven’t, and there is an element of appreciation that I think you have to have for the members in your family who came before you and who got you to where you are today.”