Sometimes our adversities can set us on the trajectory for our lives. If you do not allow yourself to be defeated by your circumstances, you can use them to strengthen yourself and your career goals. That is precisely what Erin McClarty did when she overcame the trials of her youth. From a first generation to college student, to a flourishing professional, Erin is an inspiration to any student who may feel as if they are struggling.
Please talk a little bit about your background.
I grew up on the Southwest side of Houston with two sisters and a brother. We didn’t live under the poverty line, but times were tough. Luckily, I had an engaged stay-at-home dad – before it was trendy – and a super strong mom.
For my family, there’s been no shortage of life lessons. Our part of town was a bit rough around the edges. I’d just started 2nd grade when we were whisked away to a school district that, albeit, was safer, but was also lacking in diversity - or at least integration of its diverse communities. As our area evolved, and we navigated the changes, we lost out mother to breast cancer in 2003. Then we lost our father to health complications in 2010. This leads into why I do what I do: combat powerlessness.
I’m the product of a community that’s often forgotten, and when given attention, is taken advantage of. My parents’ deaths, the struggle of those around us, the violence, the strife and the frustration: it’s all a manifestation of disempowerment. Of not knowing and not being equipped. I committed to helping people understand the ways in which they can shape their communities. Equipping them with tools to build these small ecosystems of enfranchisement, knowledge and engagement to defend against the onslaught of injustices these communities deal with daily.
As a First Gen student, what aspects did you struggle with the most, and how did you overcome them?
Typically, First Gen’s come from a community similar to mine and have had their share of challenges. So much so, it leaves them [read we] most susceptible to those “Gremlin Tapes” Brene Brown talks about in her book Daring Greatly.
Without knowing it, I personalized my challenges. Seeing them as validation of something everyone could see: that I wasn’t “enough”. I wasn’t smart “enough”. I wasn’t pretty “enough”. I wasn’t rich “enough”. I wasn’t good “enough”.
I just wasn’t “enough”.
Because if I were, I wouldn’t consistently be punished the way I was, or at least what I thought was punishment. Doomed to face the constant challenges that came with being: 1) A young girl of color, 2) In a racially hostile environment, 3) Coming from a financially unstable background. Clearly, this meant something was wrong with me.
I powered through this, and my way of coping was to bust my behind in everything I did. From the age 16 on, I worked full-time, took all AP classes, and graduated high school #50 out of 900. Then I graduated with honors from college and lastly from law school .03 below the honors line (that STILL irks me). But it wasn’t until I talked to a “facilitator” that I was really able to heal. I say facilitator, because people look a little funny when I say therapist. And before your biases set in, it’s important to understand my therapist didn’t “fix” anything because we’re not plates and nothing was broken. What she did was allow me to reframe my lessons and experiences, rid myself of all the false narratives I’d internalized, and ultimately choose to grow.
So to answer the question, the key to my late “resurgence” of sorts was acknowledging the beauty in struggle. I was an amazing person because of what I went through, not in spite of what I went through. And my accomplishments are a direct result of my challenges, not anomalies from them. I’ve taken ownership of that story.
What other unique challenges do you feel First Gen students face that their peers may not? How can they overcome these?
Being First Gen can be lonesome and isolating. It’s important to understand you aren’t alone, in how you feel or what you’re facing. It’s important to understand not only that you can overcome the challenges, but that you can thrive in doing so. It’s important to ignore the negative narratives you tell yourself, the discouraging things others may say, or the negative things you may see out in the world. It’s important not to get bogged down by the day to day. You have to have a larger vision of yourself that you use as a constant reminder. And stay vigilant about it when it’s under attack, when it seems unreachable or when those doubts creep back up.
This can be a super cheesy exercise, but writing out who you will be and what you will accomplish in 10 years can be amazing. Not to get all Yoda on you, but note I said “will be” and “will accomplish”; no trying here. Post this somewhere as a reminder.
What strengths do First Gen students have that their peers may not?
Empathy and resilience. I keep this quote in my office and it’s the first thing I see when I walk in every day.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
- Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
With age, First Gen students will find that all of those challenges, struggles, and near misses allow them to relate to other human beings in way no one else can. It almost gives them a third sense.
And because they’ve had to fight so hard, it builds up a resilience that truly makes them unconquerable.
What would you hope to teach the students about the experiences and skill sets needed for first generation students?
You must, you have to reframe your narrative. It’s a matter of looking at your experiences and how they add value to you or the community around you. Then sharing that value with the world. And that’s what we’ll do in our session: we’ll give you the tools and framework to think through who you are and translate that to the value you add to your schools, family, relationships, employers, and the world.
Erin McClarty’s story is an inspiration to any first generation to college student that feels they have all obstacles stacked against them. She will speak to a class of 100 exceptional students at the GlobalMindED First Generation Student Leadership Pre-Conference this June 21 in Denver, CO. If you are interested in being a part of this year’s class, please submit your application here.