Indistinct chatter reverberated around the grey cement walls of the Mayer Campus Center, emanating from first-year students adrift in a new space, a new experience. The smell of freshly brewed Hotung coffee penetrated my nostrils and awoke me like a spark of electricity. I gripped my phone, prepared to leap at the sight of a text from my orientation coordinator or mentor cohort. “Go to (insert dorm name here).” I was overcome with excitement, fear, hope, and anticipation as I raced to my next destination. I would meet them one-by-one at their dorms: Houston, Tilton, South, etc. It was the first day of the Building Engagement and Access for Students at Tufts (BEAST) pre-orientation, and the official arrival day of first-year students participating in the program.
But how did I even get here? My mama never attended university, prohibited by her documentation status. Seventh grade marked the cessation of my father’s education in El Salvador. When I was accepted to Tufts, I did not know what to expect – an understatement at best. My parents had not attended college, and my perceptions of it were limited to dominant/stereotypical narratives from American Pie and Accepted and stories recounted by college graduates expected to attend university like their parents and generations beyond. “How was I going to pay for textbooks? Internships - How do I secure one? I need to network? First off, what is that? How do I do that if my grandfather is a shuttle-bus driver and my mother a housekeeper? How do I even talk to my professors?” These were the questions that plagued my mind my first year at Tufts, and it was/still is impossible to answer any of them unequivocally.
After a semester of paying for textbooks at the bookstore, I discovered the interlibrary loan (ILLiad) at Tisch Library. I found internships in Washington D.C. and Boston through Tisch College, Google searches, and advice from older peers. Although still not my forte, I found a way to expand my network of contacts that could assist me in my future endeavors. I built relationships with professors by signing up for office hours and speaking to them about my life outside of academics. Despite the many obstacles, the uncertainty and confusion, that I encountered as a first-generation college student, (students who are the first in their family to attend a four-year institution within the United States, according to Tufts’ definition), I was able to adapt and learn through my own unique experiences.
While I was crafting my own answers to these questions, I came to the realization that I was not unaccompanied in my struggles. There was a community, though small and definitely not as well-represented as it should be, of first-gen students at Tufts with a range of identities and experiences. Some were succeeding despite a lack of resources and some were struggling to stay afloat. When we asked BEAST Pre-O students what it meant to be first-gen, some of the words evoked were “confusion,” “Impostor Syndrome,” “struggles,” “obstacles,” “proud,” “resourceful,” and “determined.” Many of these words resonated with my time at Tufts and reflected a multiplicity of identities and experiences. Through student sweat, blood, and tears, BEAST was created. Informed by these student experiences, BEAST was a step toward addressing the barriers first-generation, low-income, and students with undocumented status confront every day on campus.
My experience serving as a mentor for BEAST this summer was fulfilling. It was my opportunity to ensure that first-year students knew about resources on campus from the Office for Student Success and Advising to the Academic Resource Center and the first-gen council through workshops, Q&A sessions, and critical dialogue. More importantly, BEAST sought to introduce first-year students to the first-gen community that existed before them and that was/is actively dismantling structures and policies that did not contribute to student success. While BEAST cannot and will not ever resolve all of the problems first-gen, low-income, and students with undocumented status face, it is one of many victories of a greater movement. To be a part of the inaugural cohort of BEAST peer leaders was truly an indelible experience, and I am hopeful for what is to come.