Being First Gen
My background as a first-generation student has been crucial in determining the experiences I’ve had growing up. For me, being first-generation means coming from a low-income family with immigrant parents; well meaning but unable to give advice on how to navigate the U.S. education system and careers that follow after. It also means having little opportunities available to me, including a lack of traveling. I have barely traveled within the U.S. and, before 2019, never overseas.
However, growing up with my background also means that I’ve learned how to make the most out of resources. I’ve tried to take every opportunity I can get, and I’ve developed the strong desire to get out into the world and finally see what it had to offer. This is why I decided to study abroad twice, both this semester through IFSA, as well as over the summer through my home institution itself (thanks to F&M’s generous financial aid policy and excellent off-campus study office).
My First Trip
For 3 weeks last June, I spent my first trip outside of the U.S. I explored Russia as part of a summer travel course, learning all about the wonderful country’s rich history and culture. From visiting all of the major cathedrals, museums, and memorials in Moscow and Saint Petersburg to experiencing Russia’s diversity of food, music, and people, I had a phenomenal time there. But I obviously had to face many challenges as well. Culture shock, language barriers, getting lost, having a strict course itinerary; all of the typical obstacles one might expect while studying in a different country.
However, the biggest challenge I faced, one that I didn’t necessarily expect, was the pressure I felt to meet others’ expectations of study abroad. So many people told me that I was going to have the time of my life. They constantly asked me to share pictures on social media. At one point, people even asked me why I wasn’t posting anything yet. The pressure was on. Throughout those 3 weeks in Russia, I found myself spending a lot of time trying to take the most aesthetic photos possible, edit them, and post them on my Instagram and Snapchat. Too much time, actually. The obligation I felt to publicly and positively showcase my abroad experience put unnecessary stress on my trip. On top of that, I was already stressed by the feeling of being in a completely new environment.
Because I was only in Russia for a short 3 weeks, I felt pressured to make the most out of my time there; especially because it was the first country I’ve ever traveled to. The intention was absolutely correct, but my execution of it wasn’t. I forced myself to do everything possible because I wanted to “do abroad right”. This meant that I barely had any free time or time to myself. Running yourself into the ground like that isn’t healthy. Yet whenever I felt burnt out, overwhelmed, or just off in general, I would be upset at myself for feeling down. Wasn’t I supposed to be having the time of my life?
Towards the final days of the trip, I finally realized that balance truly is the key. It’s a valuable lesson that I’m glad I learned before my semester in Australia. To my fellow first-gens and peers who haven’t traveled before: yes, you should be making the most out of your time abroad by putting yourself out there and creating lots of fun and meaningful memories. But remember that it’s okay to slow down, take a break, and say no sometimes.
You can definitely take pictures as a way of documenting and sharing your experiences and being able to look back on them with fondness. Just remember to put the camera down and enjoy yourself in the present moment. There is no single right way to “do abroad,” and there is nothing wrong with existing simply for yourself and experiencing a new country on your own terms because ultimately, this experience is yours and no one else’s.
After returning home, I deleted Snapchat from my phone and temporarily deactivated my Instagram account. I didn’t use either platform once during my first 3 weeks of arriving in Australia. Instead, I meet new people, and settled into Melbourne. It was absolutely gratifying. I felt so much more mentally balanced by exploring the city for my own sake without comparing myself to anyone. I finally reactivated both of my accounts again in order to connect with the people I’ve met so far. But now I know that I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. These next 4 months here are for me, not for anyone else. I’m looking forward to a fulfilling semester filled with even more doing, learning, and growing.
Samantha Tran is a Moral Psychology (SPM) major and Russian Studies minor at Franklin & Marshall College. She studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Melbourne in Australia in Fall 2019. Samantha is a First-Generation Scholar for IFSA through the First-Generation College Student Scholarship program.