Pride, Accomplishments, and Degrees: On Being a First Generation Graduate Student

Women in my family don’t go to graduate school.

Women in my family barely get degrees at all.

Perhaps it wasn’t so unusual for the times that my grandmother never went to college. Even with a high school education, she was able to do a variety of things from teaching kindergarten to having a real estate career.

My mom received only slightly more education, obtaining an associate’s degree rather than the four year degree she had initially intended to get. Unlike many women in the cult, she didn’t go to her IFB school in pursuit of her M.R.S. degree (where you get a husband instead of a diploma), but like most women in IFB schools, she left with one.

I also didn’t go to Bob Jones University to find me a man. Even though the pressure to “date” was astronomically high for girls there (especially those who were deemed fit for being a preacher’s wife), I managed to avoid a serious relationship until my junior year.

When I dropped out just before beginning my senior year and got married, I seemed to be on my way to fulfilling the pattern set up for me by my foremothers. There was little expectation that I would get my bachelor’s. My mother clicked her tongue as she told me that I would regret my decision later.

Dire predictions weren’t far behind my vows:  “First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes baby in a baby carriage.” If betting were allowed, I suspect that half the cult would have put their money on my being pregnant within a few months.

I was still determined to graduate, though. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their anger, disappointment, and expectations of my failure, I fought like a banshee to transfer to a new university…a secular one, where I realized that the three years I’d spent previously at BJU were as good as wasted.

When I finally received my diploma, it didn’t strike me as particularly unusual…except maybe the timing. I was aware that I had broken “out of order” by marrying first and graduating after, but it never occurred to me that I was doing something momentous for my family history.

This past week, though, I realized that not only am I one of the few women who received a four-year degree in my family. I’m also one of the few who has received a secular degree from a non-religious school (even considering my extended family, I can only think of one other cousin, two if I count the men too).

Now I’m working towards a Master’s.

There’s a part of me that feels incredibly out of place with this realization. I’ve never considered myself on the spectrum of “first generation to go to college” before, but I suppose on some levels that’s what I am.

What is it that makes one generation conform to the norms and expectations that they’ve been taught and makes another generation break out and do things that have never been done before?

There’s nothing in my upbringing that would suggest I would leave a cult and fight to create a life that didn’t follow the religious, gender, or cultural roles I’d been given as a child…but somehow, even as I seemed to repeat familiar patterns, I changed them—changed me.

It’s hard to believe that in a time when women earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men that my realization is such a big deal, but it feels like it’s completely transformed my perspective.

I spent so much of my time as a child trying to be “the best”—to gain the pride, approval, and affection of my parents through my achievements and academic performance. But it was always in the shadow of my father’s accomplishments. If I got an A on a test, he would tell about getting an A+ on his seminary test. I simply couldn’t outshine him, but I continued to try. For some reason, I thought that would guarantee my parents’ love.

Of course, I realize now that basing my worthiness on my academic performance is ridiculous. My parents’ approval is tenuous and fleeting, and I’ve come to accept that they will never truly be proud of who I am since pretty much everything about me goes against their beliefs.

Nevertheless it’s a struggle that still crept in even just a few years ago, the childlike anticipation of praise when I finally got my undergraduate degree, followed by the bitter disappointment of realizing that it wasn’t good enough…just like everything else.

It’s ironic that my parents can’t recognize the accomplishment that I’ve already made. The nuances of breaking my own glass ceiling are lost on them.

But I see it. I know that despite how much of a failure they think I am, I’ve already done more than they have. And in seeing it, there’s a kind of comfort that even if I fail, I’ve already succeeded. For the first time, being proud of myself is all that I need.

 

 

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