Border-Crossers: Being a First-Generation College Student at Yale-NUS
story | Abdul Hamid, Guest Columnist
photo | Dickson Phua
At times it can feel like one is on the run, trying to evade detection. The charade, presumably, is up whenever a question like where did you go for the break? or an assertion like Delta definitely has better seats is met with a less than satisfactory response. I usually lie: I had a lot of work to do; I didn’t know that; I’ve never taken Delta. A quizzical look is returned, conversation sags—briefly—but the moment passes. One crosses the border, undetected, until the next wrong question.
That I am able to write this does not mean I wish to speak for other first-generation college students, many of whom will surely refuse such identification. This is not something you stitch onto a sleeve, because such a label carries with it the suggestion that one needs assistance, and I need help is not something any of us first-generation college students would readily admit to—even if we, objectively speaking, do require help navigating an elite (and elitist) institution like Yale-NUS College.
I say “able to” because none of this would have found a home in sentences at the beginning of freshman year. For two reasons: firstly, I am now comfortable enough to admit that this has not been an easy experience—and am able to say why without shame, and secondly, that the anxiety that comes with passing through an environment that takes so many things for granted has largely disappeared. Perhaps this means I have become accustomed to living a comfortable life on campus. Or maybe I am now able to remove myself from the bubble of good taste and see it as yet another environment in which a certain group of people exist, isolated (for good, for ill: who knows) from how other people exist in other spaces.
For instance, my other space is a three-room HDB flat in Bedok, in the eastern part of Singapore. I come from a single-parent family, and my mother has worked in low-wage support staff positions in airports, condominiums and office buildings to provide for my three siblings and me. I have never been enrolled in any of the premier public schools in Singapore that are well resourced and connected. In short, I am, according to most measures of excellence in Singapore, entirely unremarkable.
Moving from one space to another, and calling it displacement, then, seems almost a disservice. There are frictions. They happen everyday. Here are several:
One: the culture where everyone is friendly and agreeable was highly unusual to me, and where I come from. Where I come from, any form of help has terms and conditions, and is associated with feelings of helplessness and unwanted dependency.
Two: for a majority of students here, sitting on a plane is akin to sitting on a bus. Travel is exalted as a means to discovering oneself. The converse of that implies that to live in a country for an extended period of time must mean that you are somehow deficient, as if your other half-person is left undiscovered at some exotic locale.
Three: premature financial freedom, even if it is largely at your parent’s expense, is financial freedom nonetheless. I circumvented this by trading my future time for present money—and I am thankful that I was awarded a scholarship from an external organization, for not having one would mean I would have never even considered Yale-NUS an option.
To me these are self-evident, and have formed the backbone of all of my interactions with students, staff and faculty here at Yale-NUS. I can summarize my past anxiety as being in a position where one is constantly aware of what the stakes are, and what failure implies: student debt that one cannot crawl out from; no second chances at alternative institutions or immediate employment via family networks; lost time, because there is only one shot at passing the threshold of not having much.
This is not a template for understanding the experiences of a first-generation college student in Yale-NUS. These are the reflections of one student who thinks that he will graduate with a liberal arts degree by the skin of his teeth. I am sure there are others, though for various reasons entirely justified they will be more concerned with getting through the other side of a four-year undergraduate education than to pontificate about the realities of inequality. They will be concerned with survival. They will be plagued continuously with the thought that they do not belong in an institution full of high-achieving affluent students. But they nonetheless exist. They are here. Look out for them, even if they adamantly refuse to look out for themselves.