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university guide 2018

What It's Like to Be the First Person in Your Family to Go to University

Navigating school becomes a lot more complicated when you can’t rely on your family to show you the way.
All photos courtesy of the interviewees.

If you're fortunate enough to be raised in a financially stable home with parents or older siblings who went to university, your options after finishing school are often fairly simple: continue straight to university, or strap on a heavy backpack and explore a distant continent. Then, upon returning home, after finding yourself via several questionable haircuts, go ahead and secure that degree.

But the choice becomes considerably more complicated if no one else in your family has ever gone to university. For many reasons – often financial and social – higher education isn't an easy option when you can't rely on a family member with experience of the system to help you navigate obstacles such as the student loan process.


To find out exactly how they coped, we spoke to four graduates about what it was like to be the first person in their family to go to uni, and what advice they would give others in the same position.

Amber La Pol, 22, Criminology

VICE: Hey, Amber. How did your family feel when you told them you were going to university?Amber: Firstly, they were very proud of me – I definitely became a showpiece of sorts in my house. Meanwhile, my dad couldn't understand why I wouldn't just study a vocation after finishing school. Instead, I went to university to study criminology.

Did you feel like people with family members who had been to uni had an advantage over you?Definitely. It took me a year to discover that student loans existed – nobody told me, so I was busy working a job on the side. Also, a friend of mine would get help from her parents. For example, they would check her dissertation, while I needed extra tutoring just to get by.

Did you feel extra pressure to prove yourself to your family?
Yes, absolutely. My mum and I would argue a lot, because she often put pressure on me to do better. As and Bs weren't good enough for her; I needed to get an A+ and have two MAs, followed by a PhD, to make her happy. According to her, I had to really throw myself into my studies, which stressed me out. At a point, I had to make it clear to her that she was putting too much pressure on me, and luckily it helped.


Can you talk to your family about your degree?
No, they don't really understand what I'm studying. But I do know they want the best for me.

Nur Can, 28, Psychology

VICE: How did your family feel about the idea of you going off to uni?
Nur: I was the first person in my traditional, conservative Turkish family to go to college – and as a woman, that was an especially big deal. Of course my parents were proud of me – they saw getting into uni as a blessing, and told me that I would put our family name on the map. But at the same time, I was criticised by some extended family members who didn't think it was OK for me – a young, unmarried woman – to leave home. They were especially against the idea of a young woman living in student housing. The stereotypical image of student life – partying, drinking, fraternities and sororities – is the polar opposite of the conservative Turkish value system. My parents told me to lie to family members about the fact that I had moved out of the house to attend uni.

How did that make you feel?
I felt guilty and, at times, a bit ashamed. At a point, I started to actually believe that my lifestyle was wrong. The culture clash was very difficult to navigate. I really let loose while I was studying, so I lived in two different realities: my life as a student and my family life back home.

Did you feel pressure to prove yourself?
I definitely felt this drive to get good grades. For the most part, it was because I was afraid that if I failed, certain people in our local community would claim that they were right all along. So I wanted to make sure that I proved that a woman can absolutely go to college and be a success. I also wanted to make my parents proud for all that they sacrificed in moving to the Netherlands for us, so we could have more opportunities.


Do your parents understand you better now?
Well, not always. Once, when I lived in a small room in Amsterdam, my mum came to visit and couldn't understand why I would choose to live in such a small space. By then I had a Master's degree, but she didn't get why I lived there and why I wasn't married yet.

Do you feel like you were constantly trying to keep up with classmates whose parents had been to uni?
Definitely. Even during parent-teacher meetings back in school, I had to act as an interpreter of sorts between my parents and teachers. Then, at university, I had to take care of everything myself – like figuring out how student loans worked. My classmates all seemed to know how these things operated because their parents had helped them navigate it all. Now that I know how these things work, I help my younger brothers and sisters with their applications for financial aid, signing up for classes, etc.

Do you have any advice for young people in a similar position?
If there's anything I've learned, it's that it doesn't matter what you end up doing; if you differ from the norm, people will always have opinions about you. I noticed that family members stopped trying to force their opinions on me once I stood behind my own decisions more firmly and communicated it with confidence. So do your own thing, be proud of your choices and definitely don't lead a double life. You don't have to make anyone else proud; it's all about having pride in yourself.


Tessa Bosma, 28, Fashion

VICE: How did your family feel about your decision to go to university?
Tessa: They were proud. I'm from a small town where people don't assume you'll go to university. Many locals there end up working for their parents' business, or end up doing something along the same lines and quickly settling down with their partners. Though my parents were happy for me, a lot of people in our small town questioned my decision to go to Amsterdam to study fashion, rather than training in what they saw as a more secure profession, like becoming a doctor or a pilot.

Do you feel like people with family members who went to college were ahead of you?
In practical terms, yes. I noticed how other students understood the system better, especially when it came to getting student loans. I had to arrange and pay for everything myself. My parents tried to help, but everything was new to them. I couldn't go to them with questions about certain classes. Plus, my friends' parents often had higher salaries because they had gone to college, so they could help pay for a portion of their tuition, while I couldn't afford to go on class trips or join certain clubs, so I just focused on my studies.

Did you feel extra pressure to prove yourself to your family?
I felt the pressure after I graduated; I wanted to prove that my fashion degree was worth something. Luckily, I now work at Viktor & Rolf, but that didn't happen overnight.


Haseeb Azizi, 24, International Business and Management

VICE: What did your family think when you went to college?
Hasseb: My parents were super proud that I was going to university. I grew up in an Amsterdam neighbourhood called de Baarsjes, and not every kid my age stayed on the right path. A lot of teenagers spent their time hanging outside, smoking lots of weed. My mum is from Pakistan and my dad comes from Afghanistan. Growing up, they always reminded us that they came to the Netherlands for us and that we had to take every opportunity on offer.

Did you feel extra pressure because of that?
Not necessarily. It was more the pressure from society to prove myself because, being an immigrant, I had to work much harder to achieve things. My parents weren't really involved in my uni life, so it felt like I was living in two different worlds. So because of that, I would keep any problems relating to my studies to myself. I didn't feel like they understood what I was going through. Looking back, I realise that it was kind of lonely.

Do you feel like people with family members who went to uni had an advantage?
Yes, but I'd already felt that way back in school. I went to a vocational high school and always got good grades, but unlike my classmates, my parents weren't able to lobby on my behalf so I could go to a better school. They didn't know the education system here very well, and I noticed that I didn't get the same advice and help when it came to selecting a degree and filling out all the forms.

When it came to landing an internship, I realised I didn't have a large network in the Netherlands. Sometimes, my mates would get an internship through family friends or even family members. I fell behind because of my name and my immigrant background, so I always had to run faster.

Did you feel like your family understood what you were studying?
I studied International Business and Management, so I found myself at family gatherings having to explain very clearly what I was doing, because they couldn't understand what job that would translate to. They'd ask why I wasn’t becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

Do you have any advice for people who are the first in their family to go to college?
Find someone close to you who can advise you on what to do, and don’t be shy about using the internet to look things up. I'm currently coaching my younger brother so he can avoid the same obstacles that I encountered.