The guilt of being a first-generation student
Opening the door for new dialogue; the emotions and sacrifices that come with being a first-generation university student.

Oh, my parents went to university in their home country, but their credits didn’t transfer over. 

This was a common lie I would tell in class to fit in with my peers. In reality, my parents never went to university. A veil of guilt would wash over me as I realized what I’d just done, telling a lie to protect myself from humiliation. However, what I did not realize at the time, were the lengths my parents went to to provide me with an education they could not receive. 

These moments of doubt and shame are far from uncommon for first-generation university students. There’s something about leaving home and feeling as if you’ve abandoned and betrayed your family. Disrupting intergenerational continuity and becoming the first in your family to go to university is not an easy task. Often, it feels like a loss of a sense of self—a constant state of moratorium. We feel as though we’re rejecting our past and community, which fuels a disconnection between who we are and who we desire to be. Feeling as though we are leaving behind such crucial parts of our identity can make us feel like we have to find ourselves all over again, thus constantly being in the process of finding our sense of self and succumbing to guilt. 

I find there are two types of guilt that first-generation students usually experience: the guilt of not enduring what your parents did, and the guilt that your parents never got to have what you’re going through. 

The first form of guilt speaks to the sacrifices our parents made to get us where we are today. We feel as though we should be suffering as much as they did. Shouldn’t we also work diligently for our kids to live an even better life? Sometimes, it even feels like a form of survivor’s guilt. As if we physically and psychologically made it out of a traumatic and life-threatening event, whereas our parents may not have. We understand that our parents worked hard for us to prosper, but it can feel like we don’t deserve it. Typically, this guilt response can layer with other forms of guilt, such as being the child of immigrants, exacerbating it even more. 

The latter is often a bittersweet feeling, engulfing our every desire when we want to live the lives we want. A single, even momentary episode of joy can lend itself to feelings of guilt and anxiety. Why? Because we feel bad. We feel bad that our parents couldn’t have the fun we’re having now. We feel bad that we are living while our parents are merely surviving. It can feel as though you’re not able to fully enjoy yourself because you’re constantly reminded of your privileges. 

Know that you’re not alone in this. The feeling of breakaway guilt targets more students than you think. Oftentimes, suffering in silence can make one feel more alone. The lack of community and awareness prevents us from getting to know others who may also be suffering. It isn’t talked about nearly enough because the feeling of unwanted guilt can be such a tender topic. It is important to remember that we are not our parents, and we are not our guilt. Talking about feeling shameful is not a shameful act (even if our parents may say it is #collectivisticcultures). 

It’s important to remember that living a life of happiness and fulfilment is not selfish. Feeling guilty assumes the responsibility: you are not at fault for having opportunities and seizing them. You are allowed to live the life you want to live. You are the fruit of your parents’ labour, and there is no point in letting it spoil.


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