Being the first to go: Part I

Opinion by Amanda Rizkalla
March 1, 2017, 1:47 a.m.

Editor’s note: This column is the first half of a two part series on the experience of low-income students at Stanford. The second half will appear in this coming Monday’s newspaper.

Imagine you and a friend are both learning how to drive. Your friend decides to drive you around the neighborhood in their dad’s car; within a few minutes, you can tell that they more or less know what they are doing. And it makes sense. Although they haven’t driven alone before, they took lessons from a private driving instructor, participated in a paid driver’s ed class and have parents who occasionally point out driving tips while out on the road. When your friend is done, they park around the corner. It’s your turn.

You settle into the front seat. In front of you lies the gas pedal, the brakes and the steering wheel. Simple enough. You put on your seatbelt and start the car.

Your parents do not know how to drive — they ride the bus. You would be the first person in your family to learn. Hands on the wheel, you know you have not taken driver’s ed or had an instructor of any sort; you could not afford it. But you did what was within your means — you read the booklet from the DMV cover to cover.

Compared to your friend, there are more bumps on the road for you to navigate — more cars honking at you, more sudden stops, more obstacles along the way. Driving just isn’t as easy for you.

Afterwards, your friend tells you how admirable it is that you are trying to drive without proper instruction, but that does not change the fact that you do not know how to drive. You realize that although you both intend to travel down the same road, there is no guarantee that the two of you will end up in the same place. Let’s face it — although you did the best with what you were given, they are better prepared.  

When you talk to your parents about it at home, they empathize the best that they can. But no matter how much they try, they can’t fully relate — and how could they? They have never driven before. “You can do it,” they say. “And if it turns out that you can’t, you can still ride the bus with us.”


Students who are the first person in their families to go to college often have similar experiences throughout their undergraduate careers. We have to get over learning curves that are much steeper than those of our peers. Maybe we aren’t as financially literate. Or maybe it’s a few weeks into freshman year until we realize what “office hours” are.

We hear people call us resilient. Powerful. Strong. But when we are failing intro-level classes because our high schools did not prepare us adequately, we do not feel resilient. When we have to ask financial aid for funds to cover the cost of food over spring break, we do not feel powerful. When we have to make up excuse after excuse to conceal why we can’t go out to eat with friends, we do not feel strong.

Oftentimes, we have trouble talking about our experiences here with our families back home. In some cases, it’s because we feel guilty that we left them behind to come here, and other times we feel that no matter how hard they try, they do not understand what we are going through.

It is especially isolating when the sense of privilege and entitlement pervades our dorms, as it often does. For example, it bothers us when our peers leave used napkins in the dining hall for the janitors to pick up because “it’s their job.” Some of our parents are janitors and housekeepers back home, working to make ends meet. Treat them with respect.

More so, we feel it in the classroom. When we do not know how to talk to professors, properly study for chemistry exams or secure a research position for the summer, we cannot call our parents and ask them how they went about it in college. We have to figure it out on our own. And because we are used to doing things by ourselves, it’s hard for us to ask for help. But here we are doing it anyways, because something needs to change.


Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’

Amanda Rizkalla is a sophomore from East Los Angeles studying English and Chemistry. In addition to writing for the Daily, she is involved with the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program and is a Diversity Outreach Associate in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She loves to cook, bake, read, write and bike around campus.

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