This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Mai S. Lee earned her M.A. in Education while serving as staff within a California four-year public institution.
What is something you have wanted to do, but due to the fear of failure you put it off? And you put it off not just for a few days, a few weeks, or even months, but you invest years into that delay process. For me, earning a master’s degree was that goal. Now that I have graduated, I can reflect on my journey thus far and appreciate all the challenges I faced as well as accomplishments I achieved. The purpose of this essay is to reflect on how my experiences as a first-generation Hmong-American woman shaped my journey into and through graduate school.
During my undergraduate studies, I had set a goal for myself to earn a master’s degree. I even went so far as to apply for a graduate program and was admitted right after earning my bachelor’s degree. However, the logical side of me that cringed at the thought of an unbearable amount of student debt and uncertain job prospects won out. A few weeks before that graduate program was set to begin, I withdrew my admission. Looking back at this critical point in my life, which occurred over nine years ago, I believe I made the right decision. I was not ready for the financial burden that graduate school would have brought on, and most importantly, I was not ready to split my efforts between family and academic commitments. So, I did the most practical thing I could think of. I got a full-time job to help alleviate my family’s financial stresses.
You see, I come from a large family of eight children. My parents are immigrants from a high mountainous village in Laos, and although they have lived in the United States for over 33 years now, the dichotomy of American culture and our cultural heritage remains. American culture encourages independence and promotes the idea that we as individuals need to succeed on our own. In contrast, the Hmong culture centers on the value of family and the need for all members’ contribution in order to thrive together. The result of the dichotomy is an almost constant struggle to establish my independence without becoming overwhelmed with the sense of neglect toward my family. Addressing this dichotomy became an actualization for my family when I made the decision to attend graduate school. I was taking on new academic responsibilities, which required a dedicated amount of time and took me away from some cultural responsibilities, for the duration of the program.
My parents have always encouraged my siblings and me to learn English and earn a good education because they believe it is the best road to success. Unfortunately, at the same time, they have struggled as we dedicated less and less time to learning our cultural traditions. The need to balance familial, cultural, and academic expectations is something I have known all my life, but I did not learn that having parents who lack a postsecondary education classified me as a first-generation college student (Redford and Mulvaney Hoyer 2017) until I entered college. Suddenly, “first-generation” existed in my world as a term which defined me through my father’s second grade level education and my mother’s lack of formal schooling. Additionally, I had a term and definition for what I had experienced for years—and I was not alone in feeling this way.
In the years that passed after earning my bachelor’s degree, I gained invaluable work experiences to become the student services professional I am today. However, employment in the higher educational field constantly reminded me of the goal I had set aside for too long. Working with students who confidently moved forward in their educational journeys to earn their degree served as a constant reminder of the road I once thought I, too, would travel. Celebrating these student accomplishments in my professional role sparked a desire to bring forth my own goal of earning a master’s degree, which had been set aside. Three years ago, I took a chance and applied to a graduate program in pursuit of a master’s degree in education, with an emphasis in higher education, administration, and leadership. Thankfully, I was accepted, and now that I have graduated from the two-year program, I can say that I felt the impact of being a first-generation graduate student. Not only did my parents never go to college, but I am the first of my seven siblings to pursue a graduate degree. I could no longer look to my older siblings for guidance on how to survive graduate school as I did in my undergraduate years. Going into my graduate program, I was excited and anxious, but mostly, I was apprehensive about having to navigate this new unknown part of my life alone.
Before writing this essay, I reflected on my experiences as a first-generation graduate student and two things automatically crossed my mind: the challenge of managing academic expectations and comparing myself to my fellow cohort colleagues. Even with years of lived experience and insight into higher education through my employment, I still found myself comparing my skills and achievements to my fellow classmates. It started out with my insecurity around my age because I entered graduate school in my early thirties. Then, I started to doubt whether I still possessed the ability to write an academic paper. This doubt undermined my ability to manage the expectations I had set for myself and what I believed my graduate faculty expected of me.
Having always been an introverted individual, the inability to turn to a family member who understood the intense level of commitment required to succeed in graduate school was very difficult in my first year. I had asked myself on numerous occasions: “Why did you think you can do this?” And each time, after intense self-reflection, I would end up answering my own question with, “Because I have always said I will be the first in my family to earn a master’s degree.” Even more so, I wanted my accomplishments as a first-generation graduate student to represent the possibility of success for any Hmong-American woman who may be considering graduate school.
However, if I am honest with myself and honest with you, I need to acknowledge that my experiences in graduate school also stemmed from my intersectional identities as a Hmong-American woman and having been raised in a working-class family (Hernández 2017). Intersectionality is when two or more social categories, such as race and gender, overlap, potentially reflecting the interconnected layers of injustice which tell the story experienced by an individual (Crenshaw 2016). Having close family members comment on my failure to fulfill the cultural expectation for a woman of my age to already be married and have children is something that I had dedicated many hours to overcome feeling shameful about. At the same time, I had to fight the stigma attached to working-class families, of being viewed as unmotivated to do better and earn more for myself and my family. It is so easy to listen to others’ expectations and expressed disappointment in you and allow it to consume your life. The hardest part is telling yourself that you can do whatever it is you set your mind to because you are smart enough, strong enough, and capable of accomplishing your goal. In graduate school, completing the assignment that is due or reading those three long chapters was sometimes a goal in itself. These were moments when I learned to recognize the small victories and kept myself moving forward.
In the third semester of my graduate program, I still could not fully explain how I had been able to manage my work/life balance. Working full-time and managing a full-time graduate course load challenged me to become more efficient at time management and staying organized to remain aware of various responsibilities. The most helpful thing I am glad to have done was speak honestly with my immediate family and my partner before the program began. We discussed my absence to come for the duration of the program, and I was honest about the need to miss out on family gatherings during the academic terms to focus on my studies. This required my family’s understanding and acceptance of my absence, and this especially required my partner’s support for the lack of time I would be able to dedicate to us. My faculty encouraged us to do this during orientation, but it takes going through it to really experience and learn to cope with the disappointment you feel in not being able to spend an evening or a weekend with loved ones. You have to be kind to yourself and know that the sacrifices you make in missing events to instead read three chapters and two different articles before the next class meeting will not last forever.
I am incredibly thankful to have an understanding partner who was unwavering in his support for my desire to pursue a graduate degree. No matter what difficulties I experienced at work, he listened to me talk through them before reminding me that although I could not control what happens at work, I could control how I performed in my graduate study. Most of all, he knew the expectations I had set for myself to succeed and he held me to them—especially when I did not care to be reminded of them. We all have different support systems; no matter what that looks like in each of our lives, at the end of the day it is also helpful to connect with our fellow cohort members who are also on this journey with us. What helped me to manage others’ expectations actually came thorough my graduate courses and listening to fellow classmates share their similar struggles. At times, the best way to get through a tough time was simply knowing that I was able to reach out for help if needed. Every institution should be understanding of the fact that students enter a learning environment carrying responsibilities and concerns from outside of the classroom, so faculty should be understanding if a student reaches out about the need to miss class due to a reason out of their control.
In some way or other, I had encountered a different challenge each semester since my program began. When I finally got through to the end of the first semester, my family experienced a tragedy. My maternal grandmother, our last living grandparent, fell ill and remained unconscious for two days. During this time, my family was informed by the hospice nurse to brace for the worse, and within two days my grandmother passed away. This tragedy that struck our family was hard enough on its own, but for me it was numbing because it occurred the week of my class finals. Our family then spent the winter break preparing for grandma’s funeral set to take place within two weeks. I wish I could say I quickly recovered and got back into studying just as intently the next semester. The truth is that I struggled for the next three months to cope with the loss and its impact on my family, especially my mom.
I cannot say that I opened up and sought solace amongst my cohort members, some of whom I had gotten close to. In fact, whenever someone asked how my winter break went, I only alluded to having spent time with family and never provided details. To this day, it is hard to talk about what my family and I went through, but I am able to share it here (in writing) because I now know what it meant when my program faculty encouraged us to practice self-care. More so, I share this to say that institutions need to make sure not to overlook the needs of their graduate students, most of whom may very well be in desperate need of care but are too busy to stop and properly address it. Know that many of the wonderful services, such as counseling or stress management techniques, offered to undergraduate students are useful to graduate students as well. Yes, graduate students are more experienced in terms of already having passed one level of collegiate learning, but institutions would do well to remember that the graduate level involves its own intensity and students can benefit from an opportunity to share their challenges without judgement.
Personally, I am not comfortable sharing certain struggles with a classmate or faculty out of the (maybe irrational) fear that I would be judged for it. No one else can understand what I am going through unless they identify with and experience everything as I do—this is what I used to believe. I do not believe this anymore because, as I have sat in class and listened to my colleagues share their challenges, I sympathized with their experiences. This allowed me to realize that they, too, can be sympathetic to my challenges without having gone through the exact same situations.
What I had to learn the hard way is that our mental and emotional wellbeing greatly impacts our academic performance regardless of age or level of work experience. This is not some profound new information that I am sharing. Keeping myself occupied with class assignments and managing my time to remain organized in order to fulfill responsibilities helped provide structure and control in my life. I credit my faculty for creating classroom spaces which were welcoming of student voices as well as cultivating a learning environment that valued our readings as much as the validity of our lived experiences. Having professors genuinely checking in with us throughout the semester, and being empathetic with challenges we shared, was extremely helpful knowing that our concerns will not be ignored. If more faculty are able to do this, I believe it would greatly benefit other students in their graduate journey as well.
It is my belief that all institutions would serve their students well in creating spaces where students feel supported and safe to share their beliefs and concerns. The details of such spaces will vary at each institution, but the most important aspect is to allow students into the classroom space knowing their ideas, lived experiences, and opinions will be heard and valued. This may require faculty to re-think the learning structure of their classroom as well. In the time that I have formally studied higher education, I have learned that students are searching for knowledge—whether they are explicitly aware of it or not—and the graduate classroom space is one venue which should be most welcoming to providing it.
In electing to pursue a graduate degree, I chose to challenge myself to learn more and do more with my position in higher education. Every day, I continue to fight to move forward and beyond the stigmas surrounding my identities. As both a working professional in higher education and a former graduate student, I had the unique opportunity to view the campus environment from different perspectives and evaluate what changes I can make for future growth. This was a personal journey that I had chosen, but I had wonderful supporters and met many more along the way. Higher education is a field of vast opportunities for improvement and success; mine as a Hmong-American woman is just one of many that I know are to come.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “The Urgency of Intersectionality.” Filmed October 2016 at TEDWomen, San Francisco, CA. Video, 18:49. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o
Hernández, Ebelia. “Critical Theoretical Perspectives.” In Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession, edited by John H. Schuh, Susan R. Jones, and Vasti Torres, 205-219. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.
Redford, Jeremy, and Kathleen Mulvaney Hoyer. “First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students: A Comparison of High School and Postsecondary Experiences.” Stats in Brief, U.S. Department of Education, September 2017. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018009.pdf