The Pressure Of Finding Yourself As A First Generation Student

At first glance, most people think I am Indian, that I am a perfect straight A student, who has this magical and wonderful life. They look at me and think, “Well she has it easy. She was born smart!”

Little do they know that my reality is far from their assumptions. I am not an Indian, I am a Sri Lankan. A minority nonetheless, but like I tell most people, I am a minority within the minority. I fight every day to create my own identity, never truly fitting in anywhere. I am an American born Sri Lankan. Yet I can’t truly call myself an American, I don’t dress the same, like the same things, or live up to their standards of beauty. But, I also can’t claim the identity of a full Sri Lankan either. Despite being able to speak the native language and being raised in a Buddhist household, I’ve been told that my clothes are too tight, or that I look too Western. Growing up I struggled because I was neither this nor that, I was always just something in between.

My parents never went to college, the political circumstances of the country when they were growing up and their financial backgrounds prevented them from pursuing the type of education they dreamed of. I’ve noticed that many times when I meet someone from the same region as my family, the first question they ask is “What do your parents do for a living?” And each time I feel embarrassed. I know that they are expecting me to answer with “Oh, they’re doctors or engineers.” The truth is that I am a first generation student. My parents don’t make much, but I have always had enough to eat, a roof over my head, and clothes to cover my body. They have given me everything I have ever needed and much more.  I admire them for their resilience.and everything they’ve gained in life is a direct reflection of their hard work. Immigrating to a foreign country isn’t easy, but starting a family and trying to give them a future is even harder.

Lawsuits of every kind, cancer, death, affairs, depression; I’ve been through it all. All while I am trying to build myself a future. I was a model student until I hit my freshman year of high school and that was where my life changed, for better and for worse. I struggled to stay ahead in school. And from a straight A student, I started getting B’s and the first two C’s in my life. But I didn’t let that stop me. I knew from a young age that I wanted to help children someday, and I loved science. Naturally, I wanted to become a doctor one day, both for myself and for my parents. The great thing about my parents was that they never forced anything on me. They wanted me to be happy, and if medicine was that thing, then they were 100% behind me. And if later on I changed my mind and wanted to become a teacher, I knew that I would always have their support.

Despite the odds, I graduated with a 4.5, and an IB Diploma. I started building my future at the University of Colorado, Boulder, majoring in Integrative Physiology and Psychology, minoring in Religious Studies, Philosophy and Sociology, while pursuing certificates in Public Health, Neuroscience, and Care Health & Resilience. I also applied to be an RA and I learned that medicine wasn’t the only way in which I could help people. I could have a direct impact on someone’s life just by contributing virtues that came naturally to me, compassion and empathy. I wanted to absorb as much as I could in college, to study everything I was interested in, and to finally discover who I was. They say your college years are the years where you can be selfish. However, in my experience, it was the exact opposite. I became more and more selfless, some days spreading myself so thin that I forgot what it was like to breathe without worrying about what came next. My full schedule meant that I was constantly struggling to keep up in classes, especially my prerequisite classes. I loved the material, but I struggled on exams. My mental health diagnoses didn’t help with that either, but I was resilient. I knew that despite the grades I got on exams, the knowledge I had gained could never be measured in a single score or class grade.

Many freshman students ask me if I had the chance to do it over again would I change anything, and without hesitation, I tell them that if I had the chance, I know that I would do the same. I have learned so much about who I am, and about things, I never knew would be so interesting, like philosophy and global public health. To medical schools, I am more than my GPA and my MCAT score. I understand that those are the necessary measures, but who I am, and my life experiences are what give me the potential to be an inspirational future pediatric oncologist. I know first hand what it is like to experience adolescent cancer, to be the daughter of a cancer patient and how it feels to have to face the healthcare system when you aren’t part of the majority. My GPA is the reflection the hours I have put into all of my classes color-coding notes, the days and nights I have sacrificed trying to stop someone from harming themselves, helping someone through sexual assault or rape, or even working with EMTs to help a resident with alcohol poisoning. It reflects the time I have spent taking care of my father who suffered through years of ailing health and massive health care bills. It is the hours I have spent helping my younger brother with his homework and his college applications. It is the hours I spend making children with cancer smile and laugh. And that is why I am more than my GPA. These experiences have made me who I am today, the optimistic and resilient person you see before you.

I am resilient by birth, passionate by nature, and dedicated by choice. There is an ancient Egyptian proverb that translates into, “A beautiful thing is never perfect.” I see beauty in my scars, in my stories, and in who I am.

I have walked through hell to become her, and I won’t change who she is for anyone

Feature image via author


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