Stigma

Photo by Kleigh Balugo

By Ash Fuentes

My high school math teacher used to try to scare my class by saying that about 80% of us wouldn’t graduate from college once we got there. We were in the second-lowest math class that we could possibly take as seniors. She would say she had no doubt that we would graduate high school and get accepted into colleges as long as we had her as our math teacher, but she always instilled this idea that more than half of us wouldn’t see the end of college. That we wouldn’t be walking across a stage in a cap and gown for a second time after earning a bachelor’s degree. That our families wouldn’t have someone to be proud of. That part sent chills into my bones. I need to make my family proud.

Maybe she cursed me with the fear of being a college dropout. I know she was just stating the actual statistics–I mean, she was teaching us stats after all–but I was already terrified out of my mind about not finishing college and I hadn’t even started it yet. Even before her constant reminders, I was never confident in my academic ability because of the pressure that’s been branded on me since birth as a first-generation student. Sometimes first-generation students only talk about it when it’s convenient for writing a sympathetic application essay, but the weighted expectations that are tied to first-generation students like an iron ball and chain are nothing mythical.

Indeed, there’s always been a general stigma around not finishing college and this is expressed by many people in society. Although there’s really nothing wrong with not being in college and someone’s education on paper isn’t definitive of their intelligence, I felt an obligation to be one of the first people in my family to do something as special as finishing college. Many of the people that I admire most in my life didn’t get to graduate college and always tell me, “Stay in school,” “Finish college first,” as their way of telling me I have an opportunity to do something they wish they could have.

I’ve already accepted that I am not the studious person I have been portrayed to be. Growing up I was always one of the smart kids, always punctual with deadlines, perfect attendance, stood out to teachers, proud GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) alumnus, the person everyone would flock to for help in class, etc. My brain was programmed to gravitate towards the persona of being an above-average student.

However, now I realize I’m not that dedicated to any subject. I don’t think I’ve liked anything enough. I never study, I don’t really understand what I read, I’m pretty lazy, but I like being told I’m smart and hearing about what a good job I’m doing. I’m a student for praise?

Instead of working towards some occupation that I want to Be, I’m merely an actress, pretending I have made it this far into higher education with ease so that people can document it on camera. I’m determined to turn my twenty-year-long role as the Facebook-brag-post child into a lifetime agreement because I somehow enjoy the stress of having to meet all these unrealistic expectations held above my head.

So now this is where I worry. You mean to tell me I can get through the physical part of being in college easily, but I could still have no degree after 4 years because I am simply indecisive and superficial?

Sure, I like learning. Love it, even. I am interested in so many topics that I can never focus all my passion on one subject enough to confidently declare it as my major. All of the things that I can even remotely see myself doing for a living are all so different from each other. At this rate, I am so desperate to find any subject to major in so I can just get the damn degree that I’m really close to declaring literally anything. Whatever has no math. Should I flip a coin? Spin a wheel? Close my eyes, twirl around, and pick a random thing while I’m dizzy? I don’t fucking know I just want a degree so my mom can frame it in my childhood home and treat it like her show and tell token whenever her friends come over. 

Unfortunately being unable to latch onto anything has made me feel passionless. My hope was taken away from me and I’ve begun to lose sight of a possible degree in my future. My inability to choose a major feels an awful lot like a sign that I’m not meant to ever have one. I wish I could take whatever classes I wanted for the fun of learning, rather than for the sake of being a degree-seeking student. 

Instead of carrying the burden of the typical phrase, “My parents gave up everything to come here and give me a good education,” I want to believe “My parents came here and were able to raise me in an environment where I became privileged enough to control my education.” It might be one of those dreams that never becomes reality.

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