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Multiple Identities of First Generation Students: Strength, Resiliency, Hope and Passion Personified

April 26, 2016 Gloria Aquino Sosa

Inspiration resides within one’s heart and radiates from external sources either known or unknown. An unknown for me was the need to seek support in college. Always anxious to be discovered as Lesbian, I was preoccupied with living two lives. After serving students for over 20 years, I’ve recognized there are many who hide for all kinds of reasons. I’ve also learned that first generation has a distinctive meaning: that strength, resiliency, hope, and passion for a positive future--even through what is concealed--can change lives. I am not a first generation student in the traditional sense. I am in that my identity intersections and insecurities, in the context of my generation, were absolutely “firsts” and would have been well served by the outreach and care of student affairs professionals.

My inspiration for education and leadership originated from my parents who came to the US in 1952 from Cuba. My dad graduated first in his class from the University of Havana (UH) and my mother earned the equivalent to a doctorate in education. Education was and remains a stalwart tenet of Cuban life; even in 1946 my mom attended UH—it certainly helped that her 3 older brothers were there studying medicine and coincidentally living as roommates with my father. After their wedding, my parents moved to Ohio for my father’s medical internship and later to Michigan for his residency. Having come prior to the 1959 Cuban revolution meant my parents had a head start and would be a beacon of hope for their friends and family who came as refugees a few years later. The metaphor of education as discovery and the springboard for creating a future was my parents’ mantra—pursuing higher education was a non-negotiable in our home. 

The privilege I lived as a doctor’s daughter was often lost on me as I navigated life as a first generation child of immigrants and closeted Lesbian in a traditional Latino, machismo-filled household. Academics came easily; I often took for granted others had to work nonstop for their A’s and I could skate by with my photographic memory and sharp writing and reading skills. My parents made academic demands upon me but were not equipped to help me navigate my college experience—especially since I was hiding my sexuality and thus terrified to have conversations with anyone about anything lest they discover my secret. I had no mentor, and I often felt lost and alone. My father would only allow pre-medicine as a major and for to me become a psychiatrist. To reject that path, I chose the only other acceptable one--preparing for law school. After graduating from Michigan State University I managed a sporting goods store, disappointing my parents who were hoping I would attend one of the three law schools to which I was accepted. I suspended obtaining further education in part to stay with my partner, closeted and making a life together. I often wonder what my life would have been like had there been outreach programs, or even navigable spaces to process multiple identity development.

The job after college provided education—it was the late 80’s and while Madonna was breaking through as a feminist icon radiating sexuality, I was being verbally sexually harassed. I was the first female to hold most high level management positions. My achievements meant I was “one of the boys”—code for enduring very uncomfortable verbal banter. The banter was awkward and embarrassing, and I never spoke of it. The hiding continues throughout life; experiences are either buried only to surface when least expected it or to remain on the surface, perhaps forming a cloak of fear preventing action or dreams from taking shape. For me, the cloak began to fall away when I returned to school to earn my Master’s degree in counseling in my early 30’s.

I stumbled upon the student affairs profession through a graduate assistantship at the Office of Equity (now the Center for Multicultural Initiatives-CMI) at Oakland University (OU). I stepped into an opportunity to co-create a center dedicated to multicultural student success through comprehensive supports and high standards setting the stage for my future as a counselor and professor. All of my experiences up to that point taught me to ask students about their lives. Psychosocial pressures can make or break a person’s journey; secrets and pain, if never unearthed, can impede only to generate personal resentment and self-loathing.

The CMI shaped my career by combining counseling as the foundation for academic equity and social justice and providing underrepresented students the personal connection required to achieve. My dissertation addressed the successes of the program, the high retention and graduation rates that endure, the students and alumni who continue to succeed in the global workplace and society. The program won the Noel-Levitz Retention Excellence Award in 2001. The internal drive to be a supportive presence in the lives of others and to work towards eradicating the loneliness one can feel as an “other” has been my daily motivation.

Over the last 2.5 years I have begun a third iteration and replication of that successful program. The marriage between counseling and student affairs is one I cherish; it synthesizes my passions allowing my skillset to thrive by promoting strengths based resilience thinking through my every interaction. The college experience seeks to extract the true individual from the multiple identities we possess; the hope is to flourish while becoming our authentic selves. The poignant metaphor of the reopening of Cuba in the same year I lost my mother demonstrates that inspiration and resilience lives within the past and into the future. I measure my success by those students whom I have had the privilege to serve and who have taught me so much. I daily feel the gratitude and love for my deceased parents who left a legacy of perseverance grounded in the hope of a new world for their children, as do all who see beauty in the human spirit. Student affairs professionals are charged with seeing and lifting that spirit and ensuring it soars. Alex Elle said, “you’re not a victim for sharing your story. You are a survivor setting the world on fire with your truth. And you never know who needs your light, your warmth, and raging courage.” I am grateful this profession allows me to give and receive that “light, warmth, and raging courage.”

Gloria Aquino Sosa, Ph.D, LPC-MI is an Assistant Professor in the Counseling Department at Saint Mary’s College of California, Program Director of the College Student Services Specialization, and is also Faculty Director of the High Potential Sphere of Success. She is co-founder of Next Generation First Generation© (www.nextgenfirstgen.com).