Oxygen Mask

Facing College: First Generation Students’ Stories from Central Michigan (Mt. Pleasant, MI)

(JOSH, 20)

I grew up in Detroit, a little bit outside of Redford. I have three siblings: an older brother, an older sister, and a twin sister. I come from a really strong Christian family and a household where my parents were together. Growing up, we believed that school gets you a job and a job gets you what you need to provide.

My middle and high school years were tumultuous. In eighth grade, my mother had a mental breakdown around the same time my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Both of my older siblings were in college and my twin sister was having a breakdown of her own. She couldn’t handle everything, so she ended up going to North Carolina to live with an aunt. When she left, I became an only child.

My parents separated when I was in the ninth grade, the same year my grandfather put my grandmother in hospice care. I became my mom’s caretaker. I had to take on a job at a restaurant to provide. Through all this, I maintained my involvement in extracurricular activities. I was still a part of the track team, debate team, and DECA. My dad wasn’t around so I was kind of my own man. Back then, I thought I had to take care of everybody. My mindset was that I needed to take care of my mom and I needed to take care of my siblings. I started talking to my dad again in eleventh grade. He started helping out and taking care of things. I was able to work less, but still felt like it was my role to provide. I shifted my focus to finishing high school and graduated with a 3.68 GPA. I was trying to prove to myself that I could do everything.

I came to Central Michigan University because my brother attended school here. He helped me get through the financial aid process and ease my transition from high school to college. During this time, my brother told me about Pathways. I was involved with Pathways my freshman year. The next summer, I was walking around campus one day and ended up in the Pathways office. Mr. Davis, the Pathways Academic Advisor, said he needed help. I volunteered with him to recruit new Pathways scholars during orientation. Through this experience, I was offered a job in the Pathways office.

While working in the office, I became acquainted with Mrs. J., the GEAR UP Coordinator. I started telling her about my issues at home. She told me that sometimes you have to help yourself before you try to help others. She advised me that I’ll have time to take care of bills and send money home once I have a career, a student job on campus wouldn’t allow me to do that. I didn’t listen. My mentality was the same as in high school. I was working in the Pathways office to take care of my mom and I needed to take care of my siblings.

That year, my dad asked me to help my mom by sending money back to her. I said “Yeah. I can send a couple of dollars back.” Our bank accounts were attached and suddenly a couple of dollars turned into a lot. This became the norm.

Around this time, I was planning a study abroad trip to England with Pathways. I received a stipend to pay for my expenses. I used a portion of the stipend to help my older brother transition to Baltimore and then a little more to help my mom pay bills. Tuition was due again, but I was struggling to find the money to pay it and return to CMU. I was offered a position as a Resident Assistant (RA), I couldn’t secure it because you can’t be an RA with an overdue account balance. My last resort was to ask my granddad for money.

My granddad came through and I came back to CMU to an RA position. However, all wasn’t well. I felt like my life was in shambles. I was supposed to be helping my residents, but I was in need of help. One day in November, as I sat in my dark residence hall room, I heard a knock then twist of the door handle. One of my female residents walked in frantically, passed me, sat down, and started crying. I turned to her and asked her what was going on. My conversation with her mirrored the one I had with Mrs. J. I told the young lady that she couldn’t worry about her family. I felt like a hypocrite and the worst kind of person. I was sitting, telling this resident that she shouldn’t do these things while I was sitting in the dark staring at a wall thinking about my own home. I told her that she wasn’t going to be successful at CMU if she was worrying about home. And then I told myself the same thing. That was when I took my previous conversation with Mrs. J. to heart, “You can’t do for others until you do for yourself.”

I’m a Sociology major with a concentration in Criminal Justice and a Psychology minor. I’m a Resident Assistant, a part of three Registered Student Organizations, and I work full time, all while maintaining a social life. I’ve always been an overachiever and I still am. I want to be a Supreme Court Justice and revolutionize the criminal justice system. My mentors in high school and college always told me that it’s okay to ask for help and put yourself first. It took me a while to learn that lesson and being an RA helped. By giving others advice, I was unintentionally giving advice to myself. It’s like what they say on airplanes, you have to put your oxygen mask on yourself before helping others.

This story originally appeared in Facing College: First-Generation Stories, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

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