Mindful CommunicationMar 20, 2023
I recently spoke with a student at a prestigious law school. She was a first-generation American, the first in her family to go to college, and a student leader at her university. We were discussing a potential financial wellness workshop for an affinity group of first-gen students. As we neared the end of the conversation, she asked me "How do you recommend I respond when my colleagues ask me questions that don't match my lived experience? I want to respond honestly, but I feel awkward as I already feel out of place."
In her instance, a fellow L1 student assumed she had professional tutors to study for her LSAT. That left her, a first-gen college grad/Cubanita from Hialeah, in an awkward position of trying to explain that she had to study alone because either her parents couldn't afford a pricey tutor or they didn't know it was commonplace for aspiring law students to hire one.
What first-gen person hasn't experienced a similar situation in a professional or academic situation?
I resonated so deeply with this question because as a first-gen, I was thrust into academic and professional environments daily that "otherized" me or caused deep insecurity.
I frequently share this example, but one of my first experiences of this was an impromptu performance of a Bruce Springsteen song during Spirit Week at my high school. Sounds fun right? It most definitely was not because I had no idea who Bruce Springsteen was at that time, and feared judgment for my ignorance.
I'm quite sure I had never heard his name or his music before that point. My childhood was filled with salsa (El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Marc Anthony, Hector Lavoe, La India); soul, and R&B music (Earth, Wind & Fire; Michael Jackson; Sade; Whitney Houston) or mbalax (Youssou N'Dour, Thione Seck, Baba Maal). Bruce was nowhere to be found.
My classmates weren't cruel when I mentioned I was clueless as to who Bruce was, but they most definitely looked at me like a being from outer space.
As a young person who was thrust into this situation, I internalized their reactions and my lack of familiarity with being uncultured or "out of the know." I felt insecure because I did not yet understand that each individual has different lived experiences, therefore my unfamiliarity was not a reflection of my worthiness, but one of my culture. I didn't realize that my unfamiliarity with Bruce Springsteen did not mean I was always going to be behind the times, an outcast, or unsuccessful. (Isn't it fascinating how our brains really go from "I don't know this song everyone else does" to "You're going to be an outcast loser and die?" Wild survival mechanism, I tell you.)
The ironic part is that I, like most first-gen folks, would never assume that my white, affluent classmates' lived experience was the same as mine. I'd never dream they knew who Hector Lavoe was, that they grew up eating tostones as an after-school snack, or that they opened Christmas gifts on December 24th as I did, and not on Christmas morning. I certainly wouldn't judge them for not knowing it either.
Both of these situations may sound like non-issues if you've never been in a similar situation, but it truly is annoying at best, and mortifying at worst. Imagine you are reminded on a daily basis that you are different. Constantly being otherized is an exhausting, degrading, overwhelming experience for many first-gen folks.
What is oftentimes just small talk, can provoke deep insecurity in folks who already feel out of place. This is not to say that you cannot discuss things or experiences you enjoy, however, it does require mindfulness and understanding that our lived experiences are most definitely not everyone else's. When we assume they are it is alienating and stress-inducing for first-gen folks. By asking questions that assume a homogenous lived experience, those from a dominant culture deepen that divide. That divide sends our coping mechanism of choice into overdrive-- the desire to hide the parts of ourselves and our experiences that are unique & beautiful. This hiding is a matter of survival which I want to see completely eradicated in all professional environments, but especially financial services.
For those of you who've read this and want to be more mindful of how you engage with others, I'll leave you with a few questions that achieve the same result of getting to
- How do you like to spend your free time?
- What was your college experience like?
- Do you like to spend time outdoors?
- What are some of your favorite outdoor activities?
- What are some of your favorite podcasts?
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