How First-Generation College Students Carve Their Paths After Graduating

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This year, an estimated 1.9 million students have graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Countless blog posts have been written about how to navigate life after college. “You are out of college so that means that your fraternity/sorority days are over. The best thing that I did was that I bought a fitted suit from Men's Warehouse,” wrote Matthew Langer. Advice has been dispersed on LinkedIn as freely as raffle tickets at a fundraiser. “As I’m getting older, chip up on my shoulder, rolling through life, to roll over and die,” from Mac DeMarco’s Salad Days, plays on repeat.

After college, recent graduates face a number of decisions. Get a job, or go to graduate school? Stay in the same city, move back home, or relocate to a new place? While these are life-changing decisions recent graduates have to contend with, some have a safety net to fall back on. 40 percent of 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds receive some form of financial assistance from their parents. With delayed financial independence, some are proclaiming 25 the new 21.

But for first-generation college graduates (the first in their immediate family to earn a four-year degree), especially those who come from families that struggled economically, their perspective is different.

Gerry Deshycka, a 2017 graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology from Indonesia, said he was taken aback at how career-oriented his peers were. “For me, it’s just school. You study and you go to classes. I do research because I enjoy it but most people have these things planned and a resume,” he said. “I never understood it until now.”

Deshycka grew up in the Indonesian countryside. His elementary school had a graduating class of 40 students and his middle school was one hour away by bus. According to Deshycka, most people he knew were not well-educated. Many of his friends from his hometown did not complete high school. “Every time I go home, I wonder, how the fuck did I make it [to MIT]?”

Bach Tong, a 2017 graduate of Bard College, grew up in Vietnam before moving to Philadelphia, where he attended high school. Like Deshycka, the thought of climbing the corporate ladder after graduation perplexes him. Tong said his leadership in high school antiviolence efforts shaped the course of his education and career path. “The organizing struggle against violence really gave me a new consciousness,” he said. “Now I’m out of college, I can be part of an organization or a larger political structure where I can learn but also help create something positive for society instead of going out, trying to get a job and [making] money.

According to a study published in American Psychological Association, 61 percent of first-generation college students want to give back to their community after graduating, contrasting with the 43 percent of non-first-generation college students who were asked the same question.

Deshycka said he felt pressure from some family members to use his MIT degree to earn a high salary immediately after graduating. “My uncle told me, why don’t you just work? With an MIT education, you get a good salary and maybe you bring your parents [to the U.S.],” Deshycka said. “I don’t think I want to do that. I’m glad I’m born in Indonesia because we have a lot of problems to be solved. I have all this education, all this privilege, but if I did nothing for my country, I don’t feel like [my education is] worth it.”

For Jessica Li, a 2017 graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education, her undergraduate experience in a Boston University business ethics class dissuaded her from pursuing a business degree. Now her career is focused on improving the quality of education for underprivileged children. “I hope to learn from innovative models that align with my values and apply what I learn in Chinese schools for underserved children down the road,” Li said.

Like Deshycka, Li said she feels an obligation to the people who made her education in the U.S. possible. “To me, being a first-generation college student means more than just having access to better education, but also means a changing point for my family. I come from a culture that places great value on respecting elders,” Li said. “The effort my parents and grandparents had put in to make going to college possible for me is something I can never repay.”

Some of their peers are starting to see the value in civic engagement, beyond a line on their resume. Tong said he noticed a shift in sentiment following the 2016 presidential election. “Because of what happened in the election last year and what is happening now with the presidency, a lot of my friends who normally have not considered going into organizing or giving service to society are going that path for a couple years before going back to school. A lot have become really politicized.”

Tong will spend the summer working at the Bard library, while planning to attend graduate school for international relations. Unlike some recent graduates who prioritize securing a full-time salaried job after graduation, Tong said he looks forward to the free time. “I have more time to read. I really look forward to having time to write. I really look forward to freedom,” Tong said. “I also really look forward to not having deadlines for schoolwork.”

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