Constructing Your Own Story

My dad has been beef cattle ranching for 13 years, and every summer, since the beginning of my freshman year of high school, I worked alongside him. Cattle farming seemed like what he was destined to do, and although the work was strenuous, my dad loved it. However, from my first summer working there, I realized it was not what I loved. I spent almost every day thinking about what else I could do, how I could utilize my intellectual knowledge that I was learning in school, and how to elevate myself and my family. Nevertheless, due to financial situations, I continued to work alongside my father for four summers. Yet, the most difficult part came when I spoke with him and told him I wanted to do something that no one in our family had done. I wanted to go to college.

Coming from a rural area, the college process was challenging. I found myself relying on myself for guidance, due to no one else being familiar with the college process. At times, my own parents doubted my ability to enter the college of my dreams. Nevertheless, I did it. I was  accepted into the college of my dreams: Dartmouth College. Upon arriving at college, a rush of guilt overtook me. I felt guilty for liking Dartmouth better than home, for wanting to stay here and explore everything about Dartmouth. I felt guilty for leaving behind my family and being excited for and enjoying the opportunities that college had to offer.

I continued to feel that guilt until I spoke with a professor. I asked my Spanish professor to chat over coffee one day. To this day, I still recall the words that lifted the guilt and pressure from me. She stated, “Juan you shouldn’t feel guilty for liking it here, and you most definitely should not feel pressure to take care of your parents.” She went on to tell me that my family was fine. They had established their life way before I came to college. Leaving for college was not disrupting our family structure. She was right. My parents were, in fact, ok. My dad, although still working hard, was doing well at his job, and my mom and siblings were ok. It wasn’t until that moment that I was able to contextualize where I was and how proud my parents were of me.

It is immensely difficult for first-generation students to realize the positive impact that we are doing for our family. The majority of us have been raised in households that discourage showing any form of individual recognition for our efforts. Therefore, it is difficult for us to disconnect ourselves from our family. Yet, during that conversation, I realized that this is my story. That my parents’ struggles, successes, and lives are not mine. I have my own, and I must focus on it. Yes, my goal is to one day aid my family financially, but I can’t do that if I continue to live under the very pressures that I put upon myself. Since I recognized this, I have felt more at ease with myself and college. Thanks to the advice of my Spanish professor, I was able to remove the feeling of being guilty for enjoying college. Furthermore, thanks to this uplift of guilt, I was able to excel and win the William S. Churchill award which recognizes one freshman male for academic achievement, leadership, community service, and who represents Dartmouth in all aspects.

I grew up working the same job as my dad. I helped my mom in household chores and in taking care of my siblings. My life was routine until I entered college. Once I entered college, I had to learn to become independent in many aspects. Additionally, I had to learn to remove feelings of guilt and pressure. It wasn’t until I did so that I started to live and excel. It’s important to recognize that although we can be grateful for our parents and for everything they have done for us, our parents’ stories are not ours. They helped mold us into the people we are today, but it’s up to us to define ourselves and tell our own story.

Juan Quinonez Zepeda is a senior at Dartmouth College and a summer 2019 intern with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

The content of this post reflects the opinions of the individual who wrote it and is not an endorsement or statement from the U.S. Department of Education.