In business law, there is a concept called the principal-agent relationship. In this relationship, the principal authorizes a person to be an agent, and the agent represents and acts on behalf of the principal. As a first-generation low-income student (FGLI), I believe that the aforementioned concept of business law clearly describes an important aspect of the nature of the relationship between FGLI students and their parents. For many FGLI students, we take on the role of agent for our parents at first, no matter how inexperienced, innocent, or hyper class conscious we are.
The aforementioned observation is just one of many factors that have contributed to declining college enrollment since the start of the pandemic, resulting in a staggering drop of one million students. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge setback for many people, and FGLI students have been particularly hard hit. Given all of the challenges FGLI students face – both new that have arisen and existing ones that have been exacerbated by the pandemic – it is no surprise that they have put their graduate studies on hold in order to help their families.
There are several cascading consequences of declining FGLI enrollment for society, especially for collegiate institutions that espouse egalitarianism. One fewer FGLI student means fewer prospects for upward mobility. One less FGLI student means a loss of new perspectives, beyond Canada Goose-adjacent ideas. One less FGLI student means one less family is on a steady path to accumulating generational wealth through college.
This decline in enrollment is of concern to many stakeholders — employers, high schools, tax-poor municipalities — and society at large. Higher education experts present this as a “short-term gain, long-term loss” conundrum for the students concerned. Many working-class families have to live in the here and now, and teens who are about to become adults can alleviate some of the current challenges by forgoing school for immediate work.
Regardless of when a FGLI student had to take on the role, serving as a permanent agent for their parents is not an easy role to fill. The weight of the multiple worlds we frequently traverse — working-class home, upper-class college — can be cumbersome to our minds. We are always aware of the gravity of our duty. These thoughts are incessant, ruminating in our heads during moments of doubt. Related by blood, our role as agents acting on behalf of our parents creates a parent-of-a-parent dynamic.
From parent-teacher conferences to trips to the bank, I often served as a neophyte translator for my parents, often pissed off whenever I struggled to bridge English and Spanish dialogue. It is difficult for working-class families to delegate to others than their children the translation of conversations and documents alongside other tasks – babysitting younger children, ad hoc grocery shopping, arranging transportation -. After grueling periods of hard work, my parents are drained of energy and have little to no mental bandwidth for extraneous matters, whether it be political activism or social media pontificating. Also, since my parents are not tech-savvy, getting information out of their organic reach is my responsibility.
Due to the additional responsibilities we get, FGLI students learn to be quite self-sufficient. Our self-sufficiency stems in part from the fact that we have fulfilled the agent role for many years. But this machete of self-sufficiency that allows us to cut through the dense foliage of social class calamities can cause self-inflicted wounds. There were times when I clung to my rugged individualism and stifled attempts to ask others for help. Optics is one of the reasons for not disclosing its difficulties. Much like how a client might question a financial advisor’s competence to fulfill their fiduciary duties, parents of FGLI students might begin to upset and nitpick their progeny agents. Given the limited knowledge and insight parents of FGLI students have in college, their concerns and well-meaning comments might not be better constructed to provide the emotional support, encouragement, and guidance needed for their budding pioneer. Since this is uncharted territory for the family, some parents have deep skepticism towards college, especially because of the exorbitant financial costs and cultural differences in social class. These remarks can be misinterpreted as harsh rebukes to an FGLI student’s precarious college experience and congeal feelings of doubt, discouragement, and bewilderment. Conversely, parents may simply have higher expectations of their FGLI children and may genuinely be harsh when expectations are not met, such as receiving less than expected financial aid amounts. As a result, FGLI students might become reluctant and avoid future instances to show their vulnerability to others.
FGLI students are at increased risk of burnout if they push back on their collective personal and family responsibilities and concerns. These burdens can negatively distort our outlook and subsequently distort our decision-making to guard against further suffering. For example, my own tribulations have made me feel disconnected from other students, especially those who identify as Latinx, even though a considerable portion of this group is also first-generation and working-class. I looked for spaces where Latinx salience was diminished in order to avoid anything – canciones de bachata y corridos, actividades de Dia De Los Muertos y otras festividades, conversaciones sobre la experiencia Latina — that could serve as triggers and reminders of the strenuous parent-a-parent dynamic that was unwittingly passed on to me during my upbringing. As a result, I lost the opportunity to be integrated and engaged with the Latinx community on campus.
The implications of a bootstrapper mentality left unchecked are profound. It is pernicious and if left unattended for an extended period of time can cause feelings of depression and anxiety. Its corrosive properties can dissolve tied straps, disintegrate battle-tested boots, and render our self-sufficiency machetes ineffective. Once the malevolent bootstrapper mentality seeps into our pores and seeps into the deep crevices of our mind, it can liquefy our vulnerable and malleable psyche into darkness. However, opening up to others can truncate our suffering, soothe our worries, and supplement our resilient courage.
FGLI students: We are imperfect mavericks, generalists, jacks-of-all-trades, modern Renaissance people, frequently exemplifying our granularity and casualness. We are the turnkey kids, the kids who ate free and discounted school meals, the pioneer explorers who spelunk our environments in search of opportunity. I will never accept or give up my role as an agent because my family has given me their unconditional love and support despite meager resources and adverse environments. I won’t give up because my parents and family are counting on me, and I know many others won’t either.
MiC columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be reached at [email protected]