Most people would find it surprising that I used to be super quiet. Knowing the extrovert I am, it seems almost impossible. But in fact, my dad always reminds me about the times he came by my preschool to see me playing in a small corner of the sandbox, alone.
I was initially born in Boise, Idaho, but I didn’t spend the earliest years of my life there. Because my parents’ sole source of income is the small Chinese restaurant they started, they had to sacrifice spending time with me, to get the business up and running. So from about two weeks after I was born until I was just about to turn three years old, I lived with my grandparents, uncle, and aunt, in Guangzhou, China.
The voices of my early childhood are a mix of jokes and loving gestures from my extended family in Cantonese, and the occasional “Jenny” from my preschool teachers who couldn’t pronounce my name correctly. The jumble of two languages didn’t compartmentalize exactly the way they were supposed to. This is why I was enrolled in an ESL program as soon as I entered Kindergarten. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, I was just had to stay in sometimes during recess and read words or pages to a teacher.
The reading tests continued well into my first and second grades of elementary school. But, my status did a complete 180. I was now reading advanced literature for my grade. I was put into a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program during the second grade. I was offered admission to a GATE specific middle school, to which I rejected, because I wanted to live a “normal life”. My mom didn’t let that happen again in high school, and I entered a raffle for a magnet charter school, Renaissance. Before I knew it, two years flew by and I was registering, preparing, and eventually taking SATs and ACTs. I remembered seeing the signs for Kumon SAT prep classes, and the shock from looking up online to find out they ranged from $1,000-$2,000. But, this was only the beginning of my many shocking realizations about the real cost of what it takes it go to college, which begins before even applying. I found out that I had to take the SAT subject tests for a majority of the schools I was applying to, to even be considered for admission. So, on my own, behind my computer screen, I researched which ones would be best for me, found when they would be taking place, and registered for them. I was shocked when, in the following year as I was filling out applications, that my dream school, Stanford, had a $90 application fee alone. I was reading tax documents line by line, box by box, to fill out the FAFSA. My mom couldn’t help me, because if anything, I knew more information than she did. I had no idea what a CSS profile was, but it seemed like most of the schools I was applying to needed it. I faced confusion, frustration, and despair for each of the 12 schools I applied to. I felt even more scared, confused, and angry when I received acceptances, and had to digest through packets of financial aid offers. I remembered thinking to myself--WHY IS COLLEGE SO GOD DAMN EXPENSIVE. I couldn’t grasp the concept of how universities expected my parents to shell away tens of thousands of dollars for me to get a degree. I thought all of these emotions were normal for just anyone that was applying to college. In the following year, I found out just how wrong I was. My experience was unique, because I was a first-generation college student.
I joined a freshman integration class, FY101, my first year at Boston University. I remember seeing the class advertised on a flyer at my freshman orientation. “Section for first-gen students only.” I thought to myself--that’s me! I thought it would be fun to connect with other first gen students and expand my social horizons. The following year, I ended up as a peer mentor for this exact same FY101 section as a sophomore. From deep conversations, relating our moments of frustration as we filled out college applications, to sharing stories about future career goals and dreams, I was so glad I had joined the class to engage and connect with other first-gen students. Through this class, I found my pride and identity as a first generation college student. I saw the immense power this gave me during my time in college, and beyond. I saw my status as a first-gen as an opportunity, not a disadvantage.
At the end of my sophomore year, my TA for my finance class came in talking about College AppAssist, a non-profit organization that she was the president of. The purpose of the organization is to connect with underprivileged high school students in the Greater Boston area through student mentors at BU. Most, if not all, of these students are first-gen college students. Some students are high-achieving, and some struggle to even come into school every day. Each students’ experience is unique, and cookie-cutter mentorship would not reign success. Even though my cup for the following school year was already runneth over, I knew that there was no possible way for me to say no to this opportunity. I knew that from my previous experience as a first-gen, and my passion for helping people, or just one person, reach their goals in life, this was a calling for me.
Now on giving back. You don’t have to give, or support the same organizations that your best friend, mom, or role model supports. Giving back is about passion. It’s about having those personal stories, the people who impacted you and changed your life, and being able to pay it forward.
You can find out more information about College AppAssit on their website here- http://www.collegeappassist.org/.
If you have any further questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly through my website here- https://genevelau2017.wixsite.com/website.