Possibilities in the Seemingly Impossible: A First Generation Perspective
By Cindy Mei
Bright lights and the sweet smell of food filled the Shanghainese restaurant. Maggie Luo, ‘21, had been studying abroad in China for nearly five months, since the middle of June. It was the first week of October, which meant China was in full swing with National Day celebrations. Maggie’s parents sat beside her, in awe at their daughter’s language skills, as she ordered their dinner in perfect Mandarin.
Maggie was actually studying abroad in Nanjing, China for her junior year fall quarter. She took an hour-long bullet train to Shanghai to meet her parents, who flew in from Chicago to visit for the week.
Maggie is a first generation college student from Chicago. She has studied abroad thrice with Northwestern, all in China. As noted by her economics and Chinese majors, Maggie’s interests lie in the rising industries of China’s entrepreneurs. Although she didn’t travel far to attend Northwestern, she’s traveled so far (literally) in her abroad experience and (figuratively) in her language and cultural understanding of China.
“Just being the first person in my family to be able to go to a different country to learn is just something that has never crossed our minds. It really opens a lot of new doors for other opportunities. There's nothing that you really can't achieve if you get the right help. And if you talk to the right people about it, it definitely is possible.”
During the whole week of Maggie’s parents' visit, she guided them through multiple tours of different Chinese cities in the area, including Nanjing, Wuxi and Wuzhen. This was the first time her parents had been to those cities, despite being from China themselves. She felt like a local as she ordered food in Mandarin, paid with WeChat instead of cash and explained local quirks to her parents.
Her first time abroad, Maggie studied in a direct enrollment program offered by Northwestern called Beijing: Political and Economic Development.
I've never really been outside of the country by myself so I wanted that experience just to see what I can achieve just on my own.” After those eight weeks in Beijing, Maggie knew she wanted to go back.
Her parents were wary of sending her off to China the first time around. They were concerned for her safety, but came around to the idea when they saw how the experience built Maggie’s independence. The second and third time Maggie applied to go abroad, which would mean spending a whole six months in China, she didn’t even have to consult her parents.
As for Maggie herself, studying abroad was always on her mind the minute she entered Northwestern. But as someone whose parents didn’t even have experience with the college application process, she had to figure out her own way to get to China.
Even so, finances still lingered on Maggie’s mind every time she studied abroad. “I didn’t know how I would be paying for the expenses and tuition and all of that,” Maggie said. “It’s a huge sum of money to go abroad.” While in Nanjing, Maggie had to discipline herself and set a daily budget of 70 yuan (approximately 10 USD). Apart from her daily bubble tea, she didn’t intend to spend any more money than necessary.
It’s important to recognize our first generation students who go abroad. In a school where money and education go hand-in-hand, we often forget about those who did not grow up with the same privileges. “I think people who aren't first gen, they’ve had a lot more opportunities in the past, like high school or even middle school to travel,” Maggie said. Experiences abroad are never equal. Some, like Maggie, might have never spent more than a month away from their parents. Others, who’ve attended summer camps or been on family vacations abroad, might feel differently.
November 8 was First Generation College Celebration Day. Here is to all the students, faculty and staff at Northwestern who are or were first generation kids. Earning a college degree is hard, but earning it as the first in your family is an achievement unlike any other.