What it's like being a first-generation Ivy League student and beyond
Attending an Ivy League College is a life-long dream for many international students - but it comes with its own challenges. Source: Shutterstock

For many international students, securing a place at an Ivy League college is a lifelong dream.

All those hours spent studying, all those evenings reading about university life, all those paychecks invested by parents into tutoring.

Something no amount of prospectus reading or interview practicing can prepare you for though is the feeling of being the first person from your community to have a taste of the high-life.

Prestigious universities often summon romantic images of black-tie dinners, old libraries and an air of sophistication everywhere on campus. Coming from remote villages and gritty cities, there is a risk this way of life can feel like a betrayal of your identity.

Suddenly you find yourself discussing corporate strategy in your business seminars, relaxing over imported cheese and wine after long days in the library and looking at six-figure salaried graduate prospects. All of this is a far cry from your life back home.

When your parents and community were so proud of you beginning your academic journey, it is natural to feel a sense of loss as you enter the world of high-fliers.

To the hedge-fund kids and the boarding-school-educated that you are learning alongside, this elitist lifestyle is what they were born into. But when you grew up in a rural community who only saw this lifestyle in The Wolf of Wall Street, it can be tricky to know how to act.

“There is this burden of not only thinking about yourself, what you want to accomplish, but thinking about your race, your community, your ethnic group,” Nuha Saho, a graduate from Harvard University whose father makes a living from selling beaded jewelry from Gambia, told Business Insider.

It can be complicated to navigate this internal conflict. You’re likely to find your identity evolves from who you used to be, but what if it doesn’t entirely morph into the elite mindsets of the more privileged students?

“There is a huge amount of pressure to show that educational investment produced the types of outcomes your family and community expected it would,” Nicole Stephens, a professor at Northwestern University who is researching the economic, social and cultural barriers low-income first-generation university students’ experience in the workplace, told Business Insider.

But maintaining community ideals can be harder than it seems once you’ve entered the world of future business leaders, money makers and society shakers.

Enrique, a recent Harvard graduate who asked not to use his real name, explained: “You don’t have to choose banking. You have to actively not choose it.”

He had “no intentions” of becoming a banker, but “before you can think of anything else, you are being told, ‘Hey, you can make more money than you have ever seen in your entire life.’ “

Enrique, aged only 22-years-old, is now taking home six figures from his 60-hour-week Wall Street job. Compared to the manual labour he saw adults around him toiling at, banking “is not difficult work.”

He now enjoys a comfortable life but says “I am seeing myself changing already,” he says. “I am talking about [things such as] ‘this decision in the incentive structure’ instead of ‘the right thing to do.’ “

“You hope not to get trapped down the rabbit hole,” says Enrique, but “you will get comfortable with that lifestyle. You will send your kids to private school. You won’t be able to quit.”

Graduating with some of the best minds is an amazing feeling – but that doesn’t mean if you have to give up your identity. Source: Shutterstock

Joining the high-life of the corporate ladder doesn’t have to mean rejecting your culture to make it to the top, asserts Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard who studies race, class, and culture at elite institutions.

“It’s really important that we don’t perpetuate this myth that if you are poor or black or Latino that you must go through racial erasure or socioeconomic erasure, that you must be cleansed by white wealth to make it in America,” he told Business Insider.

Many Ivy League students go on to work in the nonprofit sector or work corporate jobs with the aim of sending money home to their communities. They also use the knowledge they were fortunate enough to be privy to, to better their local communities.

Attending a prestigious university or any university at all and having access to higher education will shape you as a person, and not just any person, it helps turn you into an educated, thoughtful and responsible individual, and a contributing member of society. After all, what better tool is there to empower a person than education?

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