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What Does Being First-Gen Mean to Us?

Each month throughout the year, we'll be spotlighting a SWE Affinity Group. We are excited to highlight SWE's First-Generation Students and Professionals Affinity Group!
What Does Being First-Gen Mean to Us?

Happy September, everyone! With many schools starting this month, we wanted to seize the moment to discuss something that bonds many of us in the first-generation community together — being the first in our families to go to college. However, while this is the traditional definition of being “first-gen,” we wanted to shine some light on how the first-gen identity is something that is chosen, not what others define. It can mean anything to anyone, and our newly-established First-Generation Students and Professionals Affinity Group exists to provide a safe space for everyone to share and learn from each other!

Here is what being first-gen means to some of our amazing members:

  • “I’ve given this some thought, and I think it means pursuing a life path or a career where no one in your close circle has the knowledge to mentor you or offer useful advice for most of the challenges you will face. It also means being a trailblazer who is willing to find your own way to achieve your goals.” – Bianca M.
  • “Neither of my parents graduated from high school, so my twin sister and I were first generation high school/college graduates and engineers.” – Wendy H.
  • “For me, it means existing in two different worlds at once. It took me a long time to embrace being from two cultures and not feeling like I belonged anywhere. Now I feel I belong in multiple places!” – Monick E. (Fun fact: Monick started a podcast called Latina in Alaska where she hopes to help others and share knowledge she’s learned over the years. She recently recorded an episode called “The First-Gen Experience!”)
  • “My first thoughts were sadly: struggle, confusion, and loneliness. It’s HARD. It’s worth it because I know what I want and where I want to be, but still all the above because of the sacrifices and all the differences in both worlds.” – Monick C.
  • “Being first-gen to me is about not being intimidated (scared or limited) by anything and remembering that even the CEO is a person, a human being. If we let socioeconomic structures define and confine us, we won’t reach our full potential.” – Monica H.
  • “It means not having an example to follow and being on your own to figure things out, even if that means finding a network to help. My parents are both college educated, but worked as teachers, so corporate world is so foreign to them. I never had to see them figure out child care and navigating a career ladder the way that I do.” – Sarah K.
  • “It means my family never really ‘getting it.’ Feeling like I can’t be proud of what I accomplished because those that didn’t go to college assume I think I am better than them, though I love them no matter what.” – Amanda W.

Finally, a few words from our AG’s Co-Leads:

What Does Being First-Gen Mean to Us?Hi, everyone! My name is Emily Georgiana Spencer (she/her/hers), and I am one of the Co-Leads for our First-Gen AG. I am a mechanical engineer and most recently worked as a project manager within engineering for a maritime classification society. For myself personally, first-generation has meant being the first in my family to study within the field of engineering. My family members are in other professions, mostly business or the medical field. I would constantly get asked by my extended family why I picked engineering, as they do not understand what engineers do. Thankfully, my parents understood and were always supportive. I would also be questioned by colleagues when I was in my first full-time role, about what my dad did ― never parents ― always an emphasis on my dad. I would be met with confusion when I said he was not an engineer, as though there was a correlation. I do not believe someone’s career choice should be based on others’ professions or opinions. I am proud to be the first and only engineer in my family!


What Does Being First-Gen Mean to Us?Hi, all! I’m Ivy Kwok (she/her/hers), Emily’s counterpart as the other Co-Lead for our newly-established First-Gen AG. At a first-gen event I attended recently, someone asked the incredibly insightful question, “Do your parents know what you do?” This got me thinking about how my first-gen identity as a daughter of immigrants revolves around wanting to honor my parents’ sacrifices and make them proud, even if all they know is the name of my major. In my Asian culture, parents are known to be very (endearingly) strict in pushing their children to pursue specific careers and excel in them. While my family proudly embraces our Chinese heritage, it’s interesting how my parents don’t follow the stereotype since they didn’t have enough of an education to understand what careers are out there and, in turn, have just been supportive of anything I want to do to steer my career. For that, I am ever grateful! Another core memory I have is being an undergraduate senior when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and having to finish my year remotely at home. It was an oddly full-circle moment helping my parents get a taste of the college experience they never had as my virtual classes/meetings got integrated into our family meals. I’m looking forward to intentionally sharing more of my career with my mom and dad as I progress through the rest of my environmental engineering Ph.D.!

Remember, your first-gen identity is how you personally choose to define it. With all that being said, we would love to welcome you all to join our AG or to just collaborate with/support you from afar in all of your educational and professional endeavors!

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