Pulling my seat up to the table: First-generation student reflects on study abroad experience

Denise Emerson

My belief that I had to compete against others’ privilege ended once the University admitted me. All students would be on the same playing field, and my quest for a career would be stable and fruitful.

My first experiences as a UT student burned those notions to ashes. Who could blame me, a first-generation college student? My mother, a Mexican immigrant without a high school diploma, could never help me understand what to expect, and later on it was increasingly difficult to help her understand my struggles as a college student. Now that I am halfway done with my degrees and studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea, I find myself reflecting on how I got here.

My freshman year I lived with my family in Buda, a town south of Austin with a one-hour commute to class. I began working part time at least 24 hours weekly and have been working ever since. It wasn’t much of a problem until I noticed the negative effects of my circumstances. 

I first noticed I wasn’t making many friends. The other freshmen who stayed in the dorms seemed to experience a different community than I did — an impervious community I could not infiltrate. Campus culture was foreign to me, and by the time I caught up, everybody had found their place and created a content equilibrium, leaving me behind.

Although I joined more organizations, moved into the city and made the dean’s list every semester, I felt like a ghost at UT. On paper, I resembled an involved, headstrong student, but in reality everything I worked toward brought me anxiety and no sense of joy. As I browsed UT’s exchange programs and fantasized about something I had already labeled as impossible for me, I began to ask myself why I ruled out these opportunities in the first place. I was able to remain debt-free because of my housing decisions and savings. I decided that studying abroad, an effort to solidify myself as someone deserving of these opportunities, would be worth taking out loans. 

What was exciting for me wasn’t only the experience of a new culture or the rigorous courses I am taking at Korea University, but also simply the chance to start again. This is a new school where most students are equally helpless in navigating a new country. 

Everybody was on the same page as me — open to finding friends to share the experience with. When I found my place and made friends, I felt relief from my own belief that I was incapable of making friends and feeling confident among my peers. My desperation to try to feel comfortable in my college environment became so apparent to me. Without this experience, I wouldn’t have been placed in a position to face that doubt.

Seoul is utterly life-altering and breathtaking, and I will bring back many lessons from South Korea. Studying abroad in general provides new perspectives and cultural enrichment, but besides these obvious benefits, I have also discovered aspects about myself that required me being thrown across the globe with a clean slate for me to realize. Studying abroad is not always pretty. You will be met with many cultural and language challenges, but the most surprising challenges will be the ones you face inwardly.