The Invisible Struggle of First-Generation Latina College Students//Josefina Sierra, B.S.

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As a first-generation Latina college student, I did not know what to expect when I stepped foot on a college campus and began my journey towards a higher education. I, like many other first-year college students, was nervous about what the course load would be like in college, how big the classrooms were, and my performance in college-level courses. However, my greatest difficulties came from barriers I was not previously aware of deriving from aspects of my culture and identity as a first-generation Mexican American. Pressure to portray a good daughter image by driving long distances to return home most weekends interfered with my attempts to create a connection with my university and academic ambitions. I found this trend to be incredibly common among a variety of my peers who also identified as a first-generation Latina college student, and I realized there is a bigger phenomenon that occurs within Latin American families that create difficulties transitioning to the typical individualistic culture among American college campuses.

The experiences of Latinas in higher education are unique in that cultural values such as familismo and marianismo interfere with the individualistic culture commonly found in American colleges and universities. Familismo emphasizes family loyalty and co-dependence among family members as well as gender expectations, since Latina women are typically expected to prioritize family over their individual needs (Calzada, Tamis-LeMonda, & Yoshikawa, 2012; Espinoza 2010). Marianismo also contributes to the experiences of first-generation Latina college students through its emphasis on self-sacrifice, passivity, and idealizes women as having a sacred duty to family (Hussain, Leija, Lewis, & Sanchez, 2015; Leyva, 2011). A study by Espinoza (2010) studied the experiences of doctoral psychology Latina students and found that participants with a strong sense of familismo placed a high value on being a good daughter, therefore drawing upon their bicultural identity to navigate the cultural bind they were experiencing when having to decide between educational demands and family demands. While familismo and marianismo can create resilience in Latina college students by providing familial support and creating a sense of community, it can also harbor difficulties with the academic demands of a college education by expecting Latina women to continue prioritizing familial duties even after moving away to college.

It is important to be aware of these obstacles first-generation Latina women face in higher education in order to create structural and institutional change such as improving outreach efforts, bringing more awareness of the issue to faculty/staff within universities, and ensuring Latinas feel a sense of belonging to their academic homes (Espinoza, 2010). Additionally, it is crucial to be aware of intersecting identities that may exacerbate the difficulties of managing school-family demands such as sexual orientation, immigration status, and socioeconomic status (SES). Lastly, by making this issue more visible, current first-generation Latina college students and prospective first-generation Latina college students will feel more supported by their universities thus creating an inclusive campus environment for its students.

~ Written by Josefina Sierra, B.S.


Calzada, E. J., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., & Yoshikawa, H. (2012). Familismo in Mexican and Dominican families from low-income, urban communities. Journal of Family Issues, 34(12), 1696-1724. Doi: 10.1177/0192513X12460218. 

Espinoza, R. (2010). The good daughter dilemma: Latina managing family and school demands. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 9(4), 317-330. Doi: 10.1177/1538192710380919.

Hussain, K. M., Leija, S. G., Lewis, F., & Sanchez, B. (2015). Unveiling sexual identity in the face of marianismo. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 27, 72-92. Doi: 10.1080/08952833.2015.1030353.

Leyva, V. L. (2011). First-generation Latina graduate students: Balancing professional identity development with traditional family roles. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 127, 21-32. Doi: 10.1002/tl.

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