Finding his way with no map

By Keely Savoie

Work more, sleep less. That was the strategy David Hernández, assistant professor of Latina/o- and Latin American studies, adopted to make his way through college with no one to guide him. In his autobiographical essay, which appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hernández describes the disorientation of leaving his poor, Mexican-American family home for college life, which was replete with mystery upon mystery.

Without his family’s support, he had to cobble cash to pay a deposit without a bank account, which he hand-delivered in a huge roll of bills. He had to find his own housing, navigate classes and the campus, and painstakingly build an understanding of an entirely new social network where he was often literally pushed aside, unseen.

For first-generation students, students of color, foster kids and all types of “others,” he wrote, “being normal and feeling welcomed are often out of reach.” The white students who had grown up with the full knowledge and confidence that of course they would go to college seemed to share a secret language and knowledge. For those on the “outside,” the lack of knowledge was overwhelming: “What is a syllabus? Can I write ‘I’ in my papers? What is a mentor?”

The information vacuum “wears students down,” he said, and creates feelings of isolation. Such feelings are exacerbated by the isolation first-generation students feel as they become “permanently dissimilar” from their own families and communities.

Hernández made his own way, as a student and when he returned to college life as a professor, but at the cost of fully experiencing the intellectual side of campus life. With so much of his time and energy dedicated to navigating the logistical side, he was forced to work harder and sleep less. But such an onus should not be on students who fall into the category of “other,” he argues. It should be on the colleges to reach out more aggressively and to make information more available.

His full essay is here.