Wendy Buendia '20

A Day in the Life of a First Generation Student

By Sarah Nguyen '19

June 2019 Profile Issue 


Wendy Buendia just got home from a long day at school. She sets her backpack down and calls for her Yorkie to go on a walk. Strolling down the street, she’s thinking about the assignments she needs to do, her list of chores, and what she should make for dinner that night.


Like most teenagers, Wendy thinks about these kinds of things a lot. Born to Bolivian parents who immigrated to the US in the 90s, Wendy is a junior at SSSAS who is now preparing for the college process. As a kid, the only college she knew of was Harvard. “My parents always say Harvard, Harvard, Harvard. That was the only college that I knew of until third grade when I actually started to know more,” Wendy recalls. “Middle school was when I found out more about colleges.” It’s a lot of work going through the college process when it’s also your parents’ first time - just ask Wendy herself, a first-generation student who feels like she had to grow up faster and be more independent to help her family.


What are some challenges you have as a first-gen student?


“I would say mostly the college process because my parents don’t know their way around [the process]. The only college they knew was Harvard. And they’ll say why don’t you get into Harvard. I’m like ummm I don’t how I’m getting into Harvard. But also they didn’t know about SAT tutors, they didn’t know about prep. I mean they didn’t even know about the SAT or the ACT, so I had to go and I had to do more research - and I think in some ways that actually helped me more. I’ve found out more stuff and I know more than people whose parents have gone to college because I found these things by myself. Over there, the school’s completely different than here. Over there, you choose to go to school in the morning or the afternoon. Here, they’re not used to the whole day. They speak two different languages so sometimes I help them with translating stuff. And also cultural stuff, say, when we first came, I remember when we came to pre-K or early elementary school years, we came to school and it was a holiday, but we didn’t know because we didn’t know all the holidays that they had around here. So we kinda had to get used to it and we’re still getting used to it.”


Were you born here or did you move here when you were younger?

“I was born here, but my family travels to Bolivia every summer. And one time I lived there for almost a whole year and I almost had to repeat I think Pre-K or kindergarten, not quite sure...I mean, I kinda got a little behind on English.”


What are some differences you see in being a first gen student versus a continuing gen student?

“For example, I do have some friends who their parents were first-gen like me and they were second-gen. And they still have some of those problems but it's mostly they get on more smoothly than before. But first-gen you know it’s like a unique experience. Especially upbringing… it’s way different. You remember that first-gen affinity group? When we talked about things like those stereotypes of white people and how they do certain things. You connect with the community of people who don’t live in either world and they live in a small world. So I guess that would be one. And again, the college process.”


And I know that you kinda answered this already, but does being a first-gen student have an effect on your perspective on school and college in general?

“Yes, well my parents both didn’t finish high school, they went to work like maybe in the tenth grade. For me, they couldn’t really help me like you know… parents here who finish high school, they could help out with maybe their homework or something...Youtube was my tutor. When you’re a senior, you have to do stuff like FAFSA and you’ll have to deal with your parents' taxes to figure out financial aid because they’re not familiar with it. Not that you are either, but that’s how things turn out.”


Can you tell me a little bit about your parent’s educational background?

“Both of them didn’t finish high school. Over there, during that time, they both went to work. My mom, she was living, well both my parents were living in Bolivia during the time. My mom went to work off in a factory. It wasn’t like an industrial factory, it was like a farm factory where you had to raise these animals and help ship them out and stuff. My dad, he went off to the military. He got some basic education, but he still didn’t finish high school, then he left the military and he went off to the Amazonian part of Bolivia, the jungle, and he also worked near my mom. Then they moved here [America] in the 90s. Then my dad finished his GED here at NOVA.”


As a first gen student, do you find it easy or difficult to come forward to seek help for something you might know the answer to had you been a continuing gen student?

“I guess it depends, because like you said, some things I feel like I can handle, and find my way around on my own. Other times I try to find the answer but I can’t so I do have to ask for help. Like I know I eventually have to ask people like my college counselor about FAFSA. Like I know about it, but I don’t know all of it. Like financial aid, I’m going to have to worry about that at some point. Like all these documents I have to submit to colleges. And maybe some experiences, not college experiences, but maybe social life experiences, like you can’t just go to your parents because they don’t know. My parents aren’t religious, but they’re traditional. So I can’t say I did this or I did that.”


How’s your life at home similar or different than your life at school?

“At home, I have to help cook. I had to learn how to cook when I was in middle school because my parents had to work kinda late at night, at irregular hours. So I had to cook and then I had to learn to take care of my brother and myself. I think that’s one big one, maybe just growing up faster. I think that might actually be better for a person to grow- I mean still have good childhood experience and what not, but I kind of had both. School provided that kind of child stuff, so you know, you hang out with your friends, you’re learning stuff and you’re kinda goofing off at the same time. At home, you have to become an adult so like separate worlds, but they both helped me a ton. Because there are situations where others don’t know what to do, I do, and it helps me and I think it’s really good.”


What’s your day like when you come home from school?

“We have a small Yorkie, so I take him out for a walk. I get back, I start doing my homework because I focus better in the afternoon than at night because at night I get sleepy and I just can’t concentrate. After that, I start, you know, to clean up my room, clean up everywhere, trying to get things organized. My brother gets home late, he comes home maybe 5, 6 and my parents go pick him up in Washington DC. He’s a freshman at St. Albans. He does track so that’s why it takes him a while to get home. My mom would call ahead to tell me if she’s already cooked. If not, she’ll tell me to start making the rice and I’m kind of clumsy, so she doesn’t ask me to make big dishes. So if not, she’ll ask me to make simple stuff, like I’m not sure how to describe it, it’s called Milanesa. It’s like the Italian Milanesa, but this is the South American version. It’s kind of like chicken parm but with different seasoning in the breadcrumbs. It’s really good. It takes me thirty minutes at the most [to cook].”


Does being a first-gen student affect any part of your social life?

“Yes. When I asked to go out with friends, I just joke with my parents, they’re like you have to ask me two, three days in advance if you want to go anywhere. When my mom or my dad is like, ‘Ohhh you’re so quiet, why are you not doing anything.’ And when I want to go do something, they’re like, ‘Oh my god you socialize too much.’ They’re a little less strict now than they were in middle school. Back then they were like, ‘You can’t go anywhere.’ ‘Oh my god, why are American kids so wild.’ [And on the subject of sleepovers,] my parents are like ‘you have a bed right here, why do you want to go sleep in someone else’s house.’ One of my friends wants to go somewhere and I’m like… I can’t go. And they’re like why don’t you just ask your parents? And when I tell my parents, they’re like no. And my friend’s will be like just go anyways. I want to live, I don’t want to die so early in life because oh my god sometimes I find my parents scary. You know, you get it?


So have you been a part of any affinity groups at school and what are your impressions of them?

“Juntos, the Hispanic affinity group. It’s Spanish for together. I don’t know what the first generation affinity group is called. I don’t think there’s a name yet. I haven’t heard of any meetings since the first one, so I’m not really sure if they’re continuing, but I liked it. It was actually an affinity group where it wasn’t strictly based on a physical characteristic, like race. It’s actually based off by experience, which I find really interesting.”