Ana Barros is a rising junior at Harvard. She is majoring in Sociology and is particularly interested in issues revolving around class, race, and urban poverty. Part of the reason why she decided to pursue Sociology was to try to make sense of her personal experiences growing up in a low-income community and as a first-generation college student.
Could you give us a brief overview of what you do currently with the first generation student union and how you got there?
I am currently the Vice President of the first elected board of the Harvard First Generation Student Union (FGSU). The FGSU is committed to creating a strong and supportive first generation network at Harvard that can advocate for issues facing first generation students while working to create meaningful institutional change that will help ease the college experience for first generation students.
What is your biggest accomplishment so far?
I consider my biggest accomplishment so far to be getting involved in the first generation student union. I feel very honored to be able to serve and represent the first generation community at Harvard. It took a lot of courage for me to run for this position and get elected. It has meant a lot to me to be able to proudly reclaim this aspect of my identity, and to be able to directly involve myself in something that means a lot to me.
How did you deal with the challenging transition to a new environment?
The challenges I faced my freshman year are familiar to many first generation students. Coming from a poor neighborhood and a low-income immigrant family, I found myself suddenly thrust into a culture of privilege that I could not understand or relate to. I was wracked with guilt for leaving my family behind and found myself struggling to balance family obligations with schoolwork, a job, and a social life. I found myself unable to fully engage in the college experience. I felt alone, like I didn’t belong here, like an imposter, and an admissions mistake.
I was just so scared to speak up in class. My freshman year I didn’t talk at all in class even when I had the answer. I wouldn’t raise my hand; I was just so scared and doubted myself so much even though the truth was that I was just as capable as anyone else.
For one of my classes we had an assignment where we had to write a class autobiography. That was the first time that I wrote very candidly about my personal experiences as a low-income student at an elite university. When my teaching fellow returned my paper she had scribbled a comment at the end that said, “Ana, your voice deserves to be heard.” It was a small comment but it had a very big impact on me and it helped shaped my perspective coming into sophomore year. It kind of encapsulates the first generation experience, what we are trying to do at Harvard, trying to create pride around this identity. We have to remind ourselves that we are intelligent, that we are capable, that we deserve to be here, and that we deserve to be heard.
How has being a part of the first generation community affected your individual success? Have there ever been times when you struggled and felt that others had an advantage? How did you deal with it?
My experience with the first generation community at Harvard has definitely made me become more involved on campus; it has made me actually feel more of a part of Harvard, like I belong here. It has also helped give me confidence and empowered me to see myself as a leader. Being a part of such a strong and supportive community has been a very validating and encouraging experience and one that that has made me feel more a part of the Harvard community as a whole.
Do you believe in specific moments or points in time when your purpose just clicks? If so, what has been one of your ‘aha’ moments? How did you seize that moment?
When I first arrived at Harvard as a freshman, there was a lot of silence around the first generation experience. Last spring semester, the FGSU launched a visibility campaign for the admitted students weekend. We got free t-shirts to give to the admitted students and we made pins, all in hopes of fostering pride around this identity, which we have found to be extremely important. When the admitted students would come up to our table during the Student Activities Fair and say “I’m first generation!” they were so excited. It was completely different from when I came to Harvard when there was so much silence and very little support. It was such a different environment that the incoming freshmen will be coming in to, one that’s supportive and one in which the first generation identity is not seen as a stigma but rather as a badge of honor.
Tell us about an embarrassing moment and how you handled it?
When I came to Harvard I would have all these great things to say in class but I wouldn’t say them because I didn’t know how to pronounce certain words. I would notice in class I pronounced a word incorrectly and it was very embarrassing for me. Even when I was in conversation with a friend I would pronounce a word incorrectly and I would try to laugh it off. It was only recently that I realized that this shouldn’t be a source of shame for me. I
I didn’t have all the resources that other students did. I was reading these words but there was no one that I was talking to and using these words and no one was saying them to me so I would never actually hear them pronounced out loud. I feel like going on it’s something that I should not be ashamed about. If anything it’s something that I could educate people on so If I’m confronted it could be a learning moment for the other person as well instead of just being embarrassing.
If you could share just one piece of advice to all young girls what would it be?
Remind yourself that you are capable. It’s nice to have validation from other people but it’s important that you are able to recognize your own accomplishments and acknowledge the challenges you’ve gone through and the triumphs that you have achieved. This ties into fighting the urge to please everybody. I think it’s important for young girls to cultivate a strong sense of self-respect. I feel like as women we are socialized to put the needs of everyone else before our own. This is unhealthy, and will not lead to a successful and fulfilling life.