There is not just one ‘American’ college experience

There are some aspects of American culture that are incredibly consistent, no matter the era. Prom, football games, graduation, the move to a faraway dorm filled with a bunch of strangers — all are included in this bucket list of sorts. The underlying pressure to check off all these boxes to seem normal or give off the illusion of fulfillment is an issue many have to grapple with. These same problems reach an entirely new level, though, for members of the first- and second-generation immigrant community. 

Much of Western culture is centered around independence, personal goals and self-growth. At 18, many kids move away for college and continue to live without their family after graduating. The movies and shows that portray coming-of-age moments for young adults mirror similar life paths in which protagonists find their place in life separate from their family. 

The college experience itself is painted with a similar brush: This is supposed to be the time when one discovers themself far away from their home and roots. Sure, they can be homesick for a little while, but there’s an expiration date for that time. Then it’s off to becoming what Western society defines as an adult: someone whose life path is forged by ourself — or at most, with our college friends. 

These homogeneous cultural norms tend to contrast with a lot of those of non-Western culture that, despite assimilation, are still integral to first- and second-gen immigrant life. Contrasting with the highly valued independence of Western society, the family unit is an essential part of Latinx, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. A decision, whether it be about school, dating, careers or even house decorations, is usually dependent upon the nuclear and extended families’ opinions. If simply going to the mall means that a great aunt, three cousins and some uncles will tag along, then what can we say about something as important as college? 

College is  already branded as a lonely life transition, but its effects are felt even more by first- and second-gen students because of how foreign this lifestyle is to their cultural values. While part of bicultural identity rests upon acceptance of both Western and non-Western cultures, it’s difficult to shake the familial obligations one was raised with. How does one go from attending the weekly family dinner with 15 family members every week to eating dinner with three sort-of-friends at a bland, gray dorm room table? 

It is because of this struggle that many first- and second-gen students attend universities and community colleges close to home. The obligation to the family unit outweighs the values of independence that we’re taught through Western media and interpersonal relationships. First-gen parents and extended family members often expect their kids not to stray far away from home and, if possible, commute from home to university. 

But this doesn’t play into the idealized college experience that shows like “Boy Meets World” equate to happiness and normalcy. Commuting from home feels like a lower-level, alternative reality for people who don’t possess the maturity or financial capital to live on or near campus. First- and second-gen students, therefore, feel like they aren’t “normal” or living a fulfilled life because they aren’t playing into the life path that is expected of them. 

This pressure is ratcheted up when there are economic obligations to the family unit as well. The pseudo-communal style of life of familial closeness means that many children of immigrants must work part-time — and sometimes full-time — jobs to support their parents, siblings and extended family members, in addition to attending college. 

Shaking the feeling that one is somehow abnormal for living a life that is different from their more Americanized peers is integral to recognizing the inherent maturity and beauty that comes with embracing obligation to family. Entering adulthood and prioritizing closeness with family aren’t mutually exclusive entities; one can live with their parents, spend time with their cousins and enjoy their Friday nights at family dinner without having missed some big, independent, transformative experience that many believe is tied to a cutoff of the family unit. 

Discourse, whether it be in writing, on TV or even just in conversation, can help normalize this aspect of generational immigrant subculture. This version of reality isn’t unique to just one second-gen student, and recognizing just how common it is to stray from the common upper-middle class American story can make us feel less guilty for missing weekend parties to instead watch Turkish soap operas with our aunts and cousins.