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A letter to first-gen, low-income students studying in their parents’ home country

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Dear Student:  

Congrats on beginning your study abroad journey! It is one that will bring forth exciting adventures, lessons, and experiences that you will reflect on for years to come. I am writing to you as a first-gen, low-income student who studied a semester in Mérida, México – my parents are not from Mérida, but México is the country they emigrated from. México was my host country for four months, but before being here, the relationship of being from a place but not being from a place was one that I didn’t realize would be so complex until I was studying abroad.  

When I would share with people that I was going to study abroad in México, they would usually respond with “that is not abroad for you” or “what a waste.” This response was hardly ever given to students studying abroad on the other side of the world, even if their parents were from there. There is a huge pressure for students, especially low-income students, to study as far away as possible when abroad to fully “take advantage” of the abroad experience. However, through my experiences in a Mexican state that is completely different from my parents’ home state, I was able to deepen my perspective on Mexican politics, culture, thought, and many other aspects of the “Mexican identity” that I had not considered. That being said, the thing that I most clearly understood is the fact that there is not a singular Mexico or Mexican identity, meaning it is very difficult to truly understand what “being Mexican” means to different people. So yes, as a Mexican-American, studying abroad in Mexico is a complete abroad experience – do not let anyone invalidate that accomplishment.  

Thus, I would like to highlight something that I had to keep reminding myself during my time abroad. Just because you are given (that is, earned through hard work) this wonderful opportunity – which is something that you acknowledge many people in your inner/familial circles may not have – does not mean you should feel pressured to say “yes” or agree to everything during your time abroad so as to make it “the best time of your life.” Many times, the other students in my study abroad cohort wanted to experience nightlife / night outs that I did not want. This does not mean that I never went out at night with them. I did for the first couple of weeks, and quickly realized that night life was not what I wanted for my Saturday nights. I wanted to eat/make dinner with my host family, listen to music with them, or follow them around to run errands. This did not mean that I was “missing out” or “isolating myself.”

On the contrary, I was participating in calm, unique experiences with a host family I was learning a lot from (even if my family is also from Mexico). “Simple” activities do not mean “boring/lame” activities, and if you feel that you do not “click” with or “vibe” with the students around you, it is okay to step away and find spaces and activities that make you satisfied with your time abroad. This is especially important when you are not comfortable with certain expenses. Studying abroad is an opportunity to learn and make memories, but they do not necessarily/always have to be “the best months of your life” or “out of this world” moments.  

You got this! Remember to keep in touch with your loved ones at home – it will help reground you and keep moving forward. 

With love, from México, to wherever you may be. 

Shelsy Zarate Chavez Pomona College ‘24 

Shelsy Zarate Chavez is a student at Pomona College and studied abroad with IFSA’s Merida Universities Program in Fall 2022. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.