While I got to sit in classes all day, my parents had to stand at work doing manual labor, writes UW graduate Christy Pham.

Share story

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth essay we’re publishing as part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Our Student Voices columnists are high-school and college students writing about education issues that matter to them. Know a student with a story to tell about school? Email Education Lab’s engagement editor, Dahlia Bazzaz: dbazzaz@seattletimes.com.)

As a college student, I experienced a wide range of emotions: Excitement, doubt, shock, embarrassment and pride.

What I didn’t expect was guilt.

In June, I graduated from the University of Washington, becoming one of the first in my family to earn a degree from a four-year university.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

My parents’ schooling stopped in third grade. Born in Vietnam, they didn’t go further because their families couldn’t afford to send them to school. They also had the extra responsibility of caring for their younger siblings. In 1986, my dad immigrated to the U.S. as a Vietnam War refugee. In 1993, my mom followed him. Two years later, I was born.

For my first three years in college, I lived on campus because I wanted to immerse myself in student life. I moved back home my senior year to save money.

That’s when I started noticing how different our lives were becoming.

While I got to sit in classes all day, my parents had to stand at work doing manual labor. While I pursued a technology degree, my parents had to overcome their technological illiteracy. While I had opportunities to pursue internships, hear renowned speakers and study abroad, they stayed home to work, spending their evenings cooking and cleaning our house.

What thickened my guilt was my inability to communicate my day when I came home. Although I grew up in a Vietnamese-speaking household, I gradually lost the language as I enrolled in the English-speaking education system.

No matter how often I reminded myself that my parents wanted me to go to college, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was nonetheless experiencing things they never would.

As it turns out, this feeling isn’t uncommon. It’s called “breakaway guilt,” a term used to describe the conflict between family membership and educational mobility. In 1989, researcher Howard London noted that mobility “involves not just gain but loss — most of all the loss of a familiar past, including a past self.”

“Even though I know they’re super proud of me, I think they’re also careful of me becoming someone who doesn’t want to interact with them,” says first-generation college student Jenny Morales, another recent UW graduate. Morales is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, and the youngest of four siblings. She lives near campus, but visits her family in Yakima two or three times a month if there are family events she can’t miss.

“I’m always stuck between those two roles where I need to be relatable and stick to my culture and where I come from, but then also I have a different perspective,” says Morales.

What helped me cope with breakaway guilt

In the 2016-17 academic school year, 29 percent of undergraduate students enrolled at the UW were low-income and first-generation.

Entering college, I was fortunate to be enrolled in a program designed to help underrepresented ethnic minority, economically disadvantaged, and first-generation college students. Called the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP), it is a national state-funded academic success program, with counselors trained to help students navigate academic, financial and personal matters.

My first quarter at UW, I contemplated dropping a class due to the unexpected rigor and confusion over what midterms, curved grades and office hours were. Feeling like a failure, I didn’t want or know how to tell my parents. It was an EOP counselor who made me feel like it was OK to drop it, that I was going to be OK these next few years. Many of the counselors are first-generation college students themselves, making it easier for me to open up to them.

As I moved forward, I also made sure to reach back. As a student ambassador for UW’s Multicultural Outreach & Recruitment, I helped high-school students from ethnic minority communities, many of whom were also first-generation, apply to college. Many of these students had faced adversity, yet were reluctant to share that in their college applications.

UW Admissions Counselor Helen Enguerra said students shouldn’t be afraid to write about their adversity because it shows grit, which you need in college.

Despite feeling torn over my guilt, I never sought counseling.

Natacha Foo Kune, director of the Counseling Center at UW, says cultural stigmas are one of the barriers first-generation students of color face in seeking counseling.

“If you’re a student of color, and culturally you’ve been taught, ‘Don’t air dirty laundry of your family in front of strangers,’ or you’ve been taught, ‘Therapy is for crazy people,’ those are all barriers,” says Kune.

If I had sought out counseling, I might have learned strategies to reconcile my guilt. Kune suggests cooking food as one meaningful way to connect with your family. Kune says the guilt isn’t bad in and of itself, but it is better to cope with it than push it away.

Universities can also do more to engage parents of first-generation college students.

At Chaminade University of Honolulu, where 8 percent of the student body is from the Pacific islands, the university used a grant from The Council of Independent Colleges to create materials like videos for parents and students about university life in different languages. In one such video, Micronesian students talk about their majors, classes and jobs as well as how they retain their culture through clubs and events.

If a similar video were made for my parents, I think it would have been easier to feel like I was going through college with them rather than without them.

Where I am today

Since graduating this spring, I’ve been able to focus more on my relationships with my parents. I’ve been spending time in the kitchen with my mom, teaching my dad how to use his new Fitbit, and practicing my Vietnamese. In September, I’ll be traveling with my mom to Vietnam for the first time.

My guilt hasn’t disappeared completely. I want to get a well-paying job, yet am not entirely comfortable making more money than my parents do. Still, I’m determined to use my education to further break the cycle of poverty in my family.

My parents might not be college educated, but they are hardworking, resourceful and loving — all traits they’ve passed down to me.

My parents are gardeners. Since immigrating, they’ve worked hard to establish roots here and build a better life for us.

So today, I’m planting these words: Thank you.