Timeka Braithwaite, first-generation student

First-Gen Voices: Finding my Stride and Confidence as a Student #YouthVoice

April 10, 2019
At 15 years old I made the decision to leave my home country of Guyana and come to the United States to live with my father, whom I barely knew. I made this decision because having educational and career opportunities is important to me. In Guyana, unemployment is high and access to jobs is mostly limited by family connections. One can work hard in school and be a great student, and still not be able to build a career. In the U.S. the situation is entirely different.
 
Once in the U.S., I entered 10th grade at Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (BCS), a public “magnet” high school. BCS’s diverse, welcoming community engaged me in a way that completely changed my work ethic. This is an Outward Bound expeditionary learning school that focuses on teaching students both in and out of the classroom. In addition to this, rather than primarily practicing test taking skills, part of the school’s curriculum is to write PBATs in place of the regent examinations. These are essentially really long papers that students have to write and present to a panel for a grade in the core classes. With this, the teachers at this institution challenged all of my weaknesses such as public speaking, writing, socializing etc.
 
I entered BCS with approximately a 2.0 GPA and by the end of the first school year I managed to improve that to 4.0, and maintain that through the remaining two years of high school. I even managed to graduate as the class Valedictorian. The school helped me to explore who I am as a young leader vs. who I would like to become.
 
The school helped me to explore who I am as a young leader vs. who I would like to become.
 

Navigating the College Process

Those of us who aspire to be the first in our families to attend college have to fight and work extra hard to achieve our goals. Before I began the application process, I had no idea where to start. I did not know where to research scholarship programs, how to register for financial aid, what to include in my college essay, how to match colleges with my GPA and test scores etc.
This lack of support from others means first-gen students often don’t know what steps to take when applying to college, and that puts us one step behind many of our peers.
 
For most first-generation college students, attending college will mean a tremendous increase of independence. Part of this will include little to no financial support from your family. Scholarships will be crucial for you to sustain being a fulltime college student. Having some form of guidance is important because it increases your chances of getting into competitive colleges and obtaining scholarships.
 
Luckily for me, I have come across some amazing people and developed relationships through my high school network that have assisted in getting me into and through college to this day.
My recommendation to students lacking any support in their college application process is to see if your school has a college office and college counselor and seek help there.
Also: form relationships with your teachers outside of the classroom. They will be more inclined to help you in whatever ways you need especially when it is time to gather recommendation letters.
 
Additionally, you can also try to connect with recent graduates of your high school to get their advice on what worked and did not work in finding and applying to college. Their support would go a far way to prepare you for steps to take when applying to college and what to expect when you get there.
 

Facing Challenges

Throughout my college-going journey, I have faced many challenges. The one that affected me most came early—I was forced to give up many scholarship opportunities because they required me to leave my home and city to attend college. My father was strongly against this idea, although leaving for college was one of my dreams.
 
In my culture, disobeying your parents with something of this magnitude typically results in being cut off completely and at the time I was not willing to risk this. As a result I decided to stay in the city and attend the college closest to my home, CUNY Medgar Evers where I am currently a Business administration Major.
 
I know that many first-generation students face this same struggle. Parents may not fully understand why we would want to leave for college since they did not have the experience, and they automatically go into protective mode. I don’t blame them. However, in this case, communication is important on both sides. As teenagers, we sometimes don’t acknowledge their perspective. Instead of explaining the process and why having the on-campus experience is important to us, we close off and cause more tension.
 
In my case, my father would not have been willing to listen to my argument or even entertain the idea. However, for some of my friends who faced this situation, the conversations helped: after a compromises with their parents, they were able to work it out and go away for college.
 
Being at Medgar Evars has been great, but leaving the city for college and having an on-campus experience is still important to me. I see it as a way to meet and network with a new group of people. Because most of my fellow CUNY students don’t live on campus, we often just attend classes and go home. We do not bother to form relationships with each other, or get involved on campus. I do it too; it’s as though we’re keeping the same routines as high school.
 
My friends who are living on their college campuses are doing all of these things and more. They are a part of extracurricular activities, preparing to study abroad, and widening their horizons in so many ways. There is nothing I would like more than to become one of these students.
 
Luckily for me, some recent situations have changed where I am now able to follow my dreams and move on campus upstate for fall of 2019. I plan to continue to major in Business Administration and start the process of minoring in pre-law. I haven’t chosen a specific career path yet but in whatever I do, I hope to be involved with people a lot and help them out in ways that will prevent anyone from taking advantage of them on a large scale.


Making Sacrifices

I know that the experiences I’ve shared in this essay represent only some of the hardships first-generation college students face. One piece of advice I would give to my fellow first-gen students, that has helped me through the years, is to embrace your sacrifices and use them as motivation as you move forward. Being the first in your family to finish college is powerful. Everyone’s story has ups and downs, what matters is how you end yours.
 
Being the first in your family to finish college is powerful. Everyone’s story has ups and downs, what matters is how you end yours.