Higher Education & Survivor’s Guilt: Or No, You’re Not A Selfish POS

Nina In the Heights Christy Leos

In The Heights recently hit theaters and HBO Max, and I found it to be pure joy. For one, it perfectly encapsulates the feelings of being pulled in two directions and finding where you belong. For all of you preparing for your first year of college, current students, and alumni, Nina’s story can be incredibly relatable. (Beware: light spoilers ahead.) A student with the weight of her community on her shoulders, Nina sings,

They say, “You’re going places”
So how can I say that, while I was away
I had so much to hide?

As a Latinx person, when you work toward success, it can feel like everything is on you, and even worse, you may even find yourself whitewashing your speech, activities, and identity to get ahead.

I am the one who made it out (Ah)
The one who always made the grade
But maybe I should have just stayed home (Mira, Nina)
When I was a child I stayed wide awake
Climbed to the highest place
On every fire escape
Restless to climb (Respira)
I got every scholarship
Saved every dollar
The first to go to college

As the lyrics washed over me, tears welling up in my eyes, I was reminded of my own journey.

It’s 2011; nights of homework with my mother breathing down my neck had finally paid off: I received a QuestBridge Scholarship for low-income, high achieving students. With a four-year ride to Rice University, I was ready to start the rest of my life. Everyone was excited for me; my mentors, parents, and my friends. My mom and dad were anxious about me leaving home, the uncertain smiles forming on their faces as I told them the good news. They had always kept my siblings and me close; in fact, many of my family members had not left Victoria since, well, forever. But how could my parents refuse?

Of course, one girl in my class said I got the scholarship because I’m Hispanic. I said nothing, but I felt the confusion in my stomach and on my face. It was as if I had achieved something dishonorably. But I shook it off, packed my grandmother’s suitcases, and became the first person in my family to attend college.

Rice University was great; I went to interesting classes, was included in late-night conversations on campus, published my first poem in a review and even read it to a crowd. But school was also challenging. Feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and guilt weighed on my mind. All I had ever needed my whole life was my family, and yet, I ran away to college. To what? Make something of myself, to succeed, to do better than my parents – and they supported me in that goal.

Ah, but there’s the problem: does ‘doing better’ than my parents mean I am better than them, and if so, how could I not feel guilty? By definition and in all practicality, attaining higher levels of education than them was a journey I could only do on my own – they could not be there to guide me.

And the loneliness? The loneliness was suffocating. Connecting with people and making friends has always been hard for me, but on a campus filled with students whose backstories did not match mine? Nearly impossible. Beyond the academic, I spent my youth learning how to:

  • Take care of farm animals
  • Avoid being attacked by snakes, scorpions, and one particularly violent rooster
  • Plant vegetables and tend our acre of land
  • Make hundreds of tamales during the Christmas season

I did not think my peers could relate to these experiences (or would even want to), so I hid myself.

Take this one time when I was sitting with a group of students who were comparing colleges. Rice, Harvard, Stanford; it all felt pretentious, but what did I know? This wasn’t my world. So, I listened and finally said, “well, community college is just as good, right?” In retrospect, if you had to compare schools based on resume appeal and professor experience, that was a silly thing to say. But my thought was, if you had to choose between no education and affordable education, the answer was clear. Not to mention, many of my high school peers were attending Victoria College for two years, then switching to the University of Houston-Victoria or another four-year college. Their path to success was just as valid, right?

Big mistake. The guy across from me laughed incredulously and said, no, there’s no comparison, the arrogance dripping from his words. College was an uphill battle, but fortunately, my parents eventually saw me graduate.

How to Attend College Without Feeling Guilty & Hiding Yourself Away

That’s a bit of a tall order; you’re going to feel all the feelings, and you definitely shouldn’t bottle them in. Here’s my advice:

  • Talk to people: Don’t hole up in your room like a hermit, only emerging for food and classes. If I could go back, I would have reached out more, gotten more involved with the Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice (HACER), and attended more than one meeting of the QuestBridge scholars. Talk to others about your struggles and be vulnerable. You are not alone.
  • Be selfish: Yes, that’s right. I’m giving you permission to be unapologetically successful and focus your energy on yourself. Of course, in emergency and important situations, be there for others, but feel free to put your classes, dreams, and self-care first. Strike a balance you can live with and don’t look back.
  • Know that imposter syndrome is a b*tch: Remember, you are here by merit and the kindness of your community. Who cares if the application or scholarship fine print says “marginalized”? You worked hard, as did the people who taught you, you took a chance when applying, and now you’re ready to kick butt and take names. All of us need help from time to time, so when it comes, don’t be ashamed.

Finally, know that you have nothing to hide: not your family, your people, or yourself.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support via phone or chat for people in distress, resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Correction: A previous version of this article named Society of Latino Alumni of Rice (SOLAR) instead of Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice (HACER) as the Latinx group for current Rice students.

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