first generation student

For First-Gens, the Dangerous Complexity of “Well-Timed Luck”

March 19, 2019
How does feeling “lucky,” as opposed to deserving, impact first-generation students’ ability to feel and maybe even be successful?
2013. 11:45pm on the dot. Fifteen minutes left. The city street lamps gradually begin to turn on, one after the other like dominoes falling. I sit in my high school’s college advising office, my mouse hovering over the bright red rectangular box at the bottom of the screen. I scroll back up to the top for what feels like the billionth time.
I couldn’t find the strength to click. I had just spent the last six hours filling out an application for a prestigious scholarship that offers recipients full-tuition coverage and a four-year rotational internship in the financial industry. I found it through a random Google search, and the application was due that day. Only ten applicants in the country would be awarded this incredible opportunity. I knew that meant that others had spent days, if not weeks, working on their applications. This was the twentieth grant application I had submitted, all for the chance to earn a private university education.
I take a deep breath in hopes that eases my worries, but just as I’m about to breathe out, my finger instinctively does what my brain has cautioned against: I click SUBMIT. A confirmation message appears. I close my computer screen, feeling both defeated by the odds against me and hopeful that among all the applications I had submitted, this might be my big break.
Being a first-generation student of color, I have always had an underlying fear that any positive opportunities I received might simply be because of luck and good timing. That day, when I found the scholarship opportunity, I recognized that this was a constant feeling tied to all of my achievements.
For me, growing up in a Latinx first-generation immigrant household, higher education was not a familiar topic to my viejos. They simply knew that attaining an education was the stepping stone to achieving the “American Dream”— a dream that in reality has left an entire generation of driven, ambitious and passionate young immigrants behind, restlessly waiting for the small hint of suerte.
Reflecting on Luck - and Social Capital
Fast forward six years: As I walked up the steps of the Bloomberg building, to attend the 2019 Project Basta Summit, I found myself returning to this question of luck and opportunity.
As the oldest of three siblings, I’ve always been the first to break down barriers, the first to leave in search of my sueños, and the first to wade through the unknown, whether I wanted to or not. I was always the first, but never the most prepared.
Now, as an alumnus of NYU and an employee of a top financial firm, I find myself reflecting on how the idea of being “lucky” as opposed to deserving impacts first-generation students, and if it negates our ability to feel successful and maybe to even be successful.
I had an opportunity to explore this more with other first-gen students at the 2019 Project Basta Summit, one of the largest gatherings of first-gen college students, graduates and professionals. Sponsored by Bloomberg and Project Basta, the daylong summit used of workshops, panels and networking sessions to build bridges of opportunity between employers and first-generation students. It also created a space for first-generation students and people to meet, talk about our experiences and find solutions together.
Every time a panelist spoke about a structural or circumstantial obstacles they faced in the higher education or corporate system, a look of déjà vu spread across the faces of the first-gen attendees. I could tell we all felt less alone. We laughed in unison as we listened to people recount the hiccups they experienced in adapting to norms of higher ed.
The most challenging moments in our individual journeys seemed to act as both the fuel and foundation for the next best versions of ourselves. For my parents, giving me and my siblings the best education this country could offer would become their ultimate legacy in a country that continuously denied their generation the chance to prosper and innovate.
In nearly every conversation—on the panels, and in small discussions with fellow participants—I could sense that my fellow first-gens shared some level of underlying concern that despite our hard work, we are successful primarily because of luck: an opportunity that appeared out of the blue, some magical force that helped us overcome the many obstacles put in our paths.
In many ways, what we might call “luck” is also something real, and unequally distributed: social capital.
I know that luck plays a role in every success story, no matter your background, but in many ways, what we might call “luck” is also something real, and unequally distributed: social capital, or networks of people and relationships, especially those that can help hold open doors of opportunity.
During one of the Summit story-sharing sessions, I talked with a young man who wanted to enter the STEM field after college, who felt deeply concerned that it might not be possible. His uncertainty began to slowly evaporate as he shared his hopes and dreams. A gleam appeared in his eyes and the energy he radiated felt almost poetic.
Those of us around the table who had experienced similar uncertainty a few years back recognized that what we lacked wasn’t intelligence, drive or grit, but social capital—something that could only be built over time and through a network of people. By being at the Summit, we were doing something to set down the foundation.
How I Think About Rebuilding Equity – For Myself and Others
For first-gen students especially, we need social capital to build our industry knowledge, our knowledge of life stage mobility, and our self-branding. These are reservoirs of success that can’t be filled without the development of professional relationships.
Grow your own board of directors.
One piece of advice I received when I entered the workforce that continues to resonate for me is, “Be pro-active about growing your own board of directors.” Similar to a Fortune 500 company board, a personal board of directors should include people with whom you feel a genuine connection, across different areas of your personality. You have to trust them and turn to them for advice, coaching and support; they can also provide you with unbiased insight on your journey, and open new doors to opportunity.
Being a queer first-gen professional of color in the finance industry, I have generally found my board of directors through networking, but it has never been an easy process. At first, I struggled to feel present at events and would rarely seek them out on my own. I was self-conscious about my story and how I would be perceived. I thought that if I just worked hard and kept my head down, I’d succeed—but I learned I needed to “work smart” as much as hard, and find resources that would help me create an environment that affirmed my strengths and supported my needs.
Now that I am a few years into my professional journey, I realize the value of networking in order to develop my social capital. It has helped me to practice telling my story in semi-informal settings and learn how to navigate a room full of people who may not look like me or experience the world as I do. A lot of the traditional structures in our industry—recruiting days, for example—don’t facilitate this.
Another great piece of advice I’ve received is that some of your mentors should come from backgrounds and identities that are different from yours. It’s important to find people who understand the realities of the workplace you inhabit, and who believe in your talent, abilities and what you bring to the table. For me this is hard to do in practice, mainly because I find comfort in finding mentors who look like me and come from similar backgrounds. With them, I feel that there are stories, instances and thoughts that can go unspoken.
Of course, truly rebuilding equity requires more than our own personal work. We need system and structural change, especially in the structures that are responsible for recruiting diverse young people and providing the opportunities and support that we require to enter, stay and move forward in college and the workforce.
Reframing Our Own Stories
Even today, I still find myself retreading back into the narrative of well-timed luck and questioning the opportunities I’ve had. I do so with professional, social and personal goals. I sometimes even do so with achievements for which I have the hard work to show for—including my first big break.
It’s not because I think I am not deserving of this level of access and opportunity. For me, I think it has more to do with the responsibility and personal weight that this level of access and privilege (to a certain extent) carry. Not only am I responsible for bringing my best self to these spaces and performing as well or better than my peers to prove that my candidacy was not just to fill a “diversity quota,” but I am also aware that I need to reach back and keep the doors I went through open for the next generation of talented, ambitious and underrepresented youth coming up behind me. That means speaking up, and that I have a certain responsibility to be visible as a first-gen, to help other first-gens see the value in what they bring to these spaces. This is the personal weight I feel in any space of privilege and access I inhabit, because I owe my success largely to the support and existence of my community. That is where my grit, intelligence and drive were nurtured and where my success will ultimately plant a foundation of opportunity and access.
Not only am I responsible for bringing my best self to these spaces and performing as well or better than my peers to prove that my candidacy was not just to fill a “diversity quota,” but I am also aware that I need to reach back and keep the doors I went through open for the next generation...
2013. I spend the morning glued to my cell phone, which is how the grant said it would notify accepted applicants. My hands sweaty and heart racing, I continuously replay every moment of my interview at the sponsoring financial firm: I had felt out of place from the moment I walked into the corporate offices, seeing all the nicely pressed suits and dresses. Unconsciously, I tugged at my worn-out cardigan, almost hoping it possessed the power of an invisibility cloak. My mother had spent the latter part of that night ironing my only dress shirt and pants.
My phone suddenly starts to vibrate non-stop. I excuse myself from my College Now course and rush into the hallway. I answer. I breathe. After hanging up the call, I looked click on the contact tile: Ma. I send her the good news, aware that I am about to embark on a journey that will both disrupt and grow my sense of self and purpose—and someday maybe change the way I, the “little brown girl from Brooklyn,” feel I’m seen by others walking the floors of a prestigious financial institution. And by myself.

Lesley is a recent graduate from New York University where she majored in Politics, Rights & Development and minored in Latinx Studies. Her academic endeavors have involved research and written works around the Latinx community's relationship to and role within the United States' power structures. Lesley is currently a paralegal in the Structure Investments team at JPMorgan. She is passionated about youth political development, financial literacy, immigration law, LGBTQ politics and intersectional advocacy for marginalized communities.