With first-generation low-income (FGLI) students having to cling on to the idea that our successes aren’t just ours––that they’re also the successes of our families––the FGLI experience at the University of Chicago is an uphill battle. Since we are the direct result of our parents’ sacrifices, our failures often feel multiplied. As a first-year, when I set foot on campus in September 2019, I felt out of place. Every step I took as I left my parents’ car to enter the Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons intensified the void I felt inside. As my parents left, someone asked me why they would even bother to come if they weren’t going to stay to help me settle in over the next few days. As said student portrayed my parents as unsupportive, I had to bite my tongue from explaining how my parents had to miss work to help me move my belongings in. In the same week, I introduced myself to my friends’ parents, and they immediately asked me what my family did for a living. At that specific moment, I realized that I had to do what I could to advocate for FGLI students on campus. It was something that I was unfamiliar with because back home, no one would ask what my parents did for a living to decide whether or not a connection with me was of worth. During my first year, the atmosphere that encouraged classism and elitism had eaten away at my own self-image. And, as the daughter of Mexican immigrants and as a first-generation, low-income college student, I found it extremely difficult to convince myself that I was deserving of a spot at a top university like UChicago, especially when my own peers made me feel inadequate. The unfortunate reality is: My non-FGLI peers often fail to comprehend that we live in contrasting realities––the pressure we FGLI students face aren’t the same as theirs. We FGLI students feel like we can’t take breaks—we feel that, in order to succeed, we must work tirelessly. We must bear in mind, however, that doing so is ineffective and takes an immense toll on our well-being. We must learn that we are deserving of breaks, and we need to learn how to take them.
The differences between the FGLI and non-FGLI student experiences are dramatic. In fact, it’s almost as if we attend two different schools: For non-FGLI students, college is a time to take risks, fail, learn, and discover. For FGLI students, though, we simply cannot afford to be so carefree. The stakes are too great when you are pressured to end the cycle. This pressure is compounded by the material differences between FGLI and non-FGLI students. With such differences—and with many FGLI students coming from underfunded schools—we feel an immense pressure to keep up. I spent the majority of my time feeling like I had to bridge the gap between my previous education and the education with which UChicago assumes each student comes in. At such an academically rigorous university, it’s difficult to keep up with complex subject areas that are presumed to be background knowledge when, in fact, many FGLI students come from schools that weren’t afforded the support necessary to teach what UChicago considers background knowledge. It’s a recurring cycle of asking yourself whether or not you should spend every waking minute studying and if taking a ten-minute break could hinder your academic success. Thus, FGLI students not only experience more pressure than non-FGLI students, they also tend to work harder.
My non-FGLI peers don’t seem to comprehend these disparities. Worse, many of them seem to believe that we were only admitted on the basis of diversity, not because we worked just as hard—or harder. Consequently, feelings of inadequacy cajole us into sacrificing our mental health in order to get an academic edge. And then, when we FGLI students work when non-FGLI students take breaks, they alienate us for doing so since they don’t understand. Yet, at the same time, we’re all part of this greater grind culture at UChicago, the school where fun comes to die, the school where you’ll hear your peers competing about who got less sleep than the other, as if sleep deprivation is a competition. What this then boils down to is FGLI students attempting an erroneous cost-benefit analysis in which we tend to place little value on our own physical and mental well-being to the point where it is exhausted and deemed as trivial in our road to success.
During such an unprecedented time in history, with the stress of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts our own communities more than others’, in addition to unpleasant home situations, while also attending a university known for being difficult, it’s paramount that FGLI students take breaks and take care of their own mental health. As FGLI students, we need to recognize our own limits and know not to overburden ourselves with an impossible checklist of tasks for the day. Contrary to what UChicago culture espouses, sleep deprivation is detrimental to your well-being and may actually cause you more harm than good. Keeping the latter in mind, it may also help to give yourself a break from your assignments. In fact, there are many benefits that result from taking a brief intermission from your workload. As a second-year student, I wish I would’ve been given this advice earlier because, unfortunately, I’m still unlearning a lot of the habits to which I subjected myself during my first-year. And, as I converse with friends who attend other universities, I’m finding that these experiences aren’t isolated; they materialize on every college campus, with FGLI students often sacrificing their social lives, sleep, and mental health to ensure that they succeed in defying the odds. Remember that you are breaking barriers by even being on campus, and you deserve to be here. So trust me when I say that taking a break now and then will not harm you. You don’t need to change who you are to fit in on campus and prove that you are worth taking a break. What does need to change, though, is the toxic, pervasive grind culture that UChicago students encourage. We need to actively advocate and work towards fostering an environment where getting rest is normalized and not perceived as a detriment to our endeavors.
Jennifer Rivera is a second-year in the College.