What it's like to be a first-gen student at an Ivy League school: 'It felt like we grew up in different universes'

Alfredo Dominguez is a first-generation college student at Columbia University.

ByABC News via logo
August 23, 2018, 4:04 AM

Alfredo Dominguez is a first-generation college senior at Columbia University who's studying Ethnicity and Race Studies. He was raised in a town in the Southeast of Houston called Pasadena. Below he reflects on his experience in his own words for our "GMA" First-Gen series.

I am the proud son of two Mexican immigrants who did everything they could to make sure I could succeed. My parents exceed any expectations that could be put on two immigrants raising nine kids with little knowledge of English, no formal education and no money. In some ways I did succeed, my parents are always quick to remind me how proud they are of me.

I do not know when I realized that Columbia was not a place that was made for me, if it was the website using words I didn't recognize or if it was the look on my future classmates' faces to my "urban" dialect.

I falsely believed that my academic success would give me a blank slate from which to build my new life, but the reverberations of generational trauma and poverty became an unshakable dark hue that stained every moment I spent on Columbia's campus.

I had issues relating to students because it felt like we grew up in different universes.

PHOTO: Columbia University Alfredo Dominguez and his family.
Columbia University Alfredo Dominguez and his family.
Courtesy Alfredo Dominguez

I struggled academically. The gap between the education my peers received versus the education I received was made apparent in the first months. I didn’t know if I was going to make it.

I was alone, hundreds of miles away from the place I had always known, and the community -- people that had always supported me.

It felt like we grew up in different universes

I was a community’s success story. How could I admit failure so early? Furthermore, myself, like most first-gen college students were the only ones lucky enough to make it out of their communities, and get the opportunity to bask in the privilege afforded to Ivy League students.

"GMA" is spotlighting the stories of first-generation students. Explore our full coverage.

There is nagging guilt in knowing that there were other people who deserved it as much as I did. There was a time when I bought into the neoliberal idea that I worked the hardest or was the smartest, and that explains the reason that I get to enjoy a wealth of opportunity my entire community could not imagine. The harrowing truth is that the reason I am here as opposed to my equally bright and capable peers was a difference in luck and opportunity.

PHOTO: Columbia University Alfredo Dominguez shares his experiences being a first generation college student.
Columbia University Alfredo Dominguez shares his experiences being a first generation college student.
Courtesy Alfredo Dominguez

In addition, you also have the pressure of being the "successful" one in your family, the one that is always the topic of exciting small talk at family parties, the face for opportunity for a generation of nieces and nephews.

I felt like I had no space to fail, that I couldn’t let everyone down.

Yet, I failed, I did bad on exams, I was placed on academic probation, and I had never been sadder. Yet here I am still, three years later, going into my senior year fresh off being elected as Columbia College's first University Senator that is first-generation and some great internships under my belt. My future is looking bright, so I hear from my friends, even though I have failed and will continue to fail in the future.

I am now seeing a psychologist full-time, and I take antidepressants. I am not ashamed of the mental health issues I have anymore, rather I am proud that I sought the help I needed.

I encourage you to do the same. Fail. Fail hard as you can. Then, pick the pieces back up and get the help you will need.

Take that year off, transfer, get on medication, do whatever you need to.

Fail hard as you can

Yes, college, in particular places like Columbia, were not made for first generation or low-income students, so do everything in your power to make your time in college an experience that you make it out of in one piece. It will be hard, but I believe in you. If this brown mama’s boy can figure it out, so can you.

Never forget that you are powerful, amazing, and loved right now. Nothing that happens during college will change that.