Written By: Alyssa DeLouise (Guest Writer)
I knew my entire life I wanted to go to college.
I was a girl who excelled in math and science, and most classes I was in were majority male; I was used to feeling alone. Being one of few girls who loved tech was not something I was happy about but dealt with. Really, I grew accustomed to feeling isolated so early on that it became normal.
As a first gen college student, though, I had to face a whole new normal. It felt like the world was against me. When the end of my junior year of high school came around, my school’s hallways buzzed with conversations about college visits and applications. I felt confused and had no clue where to start on the journey to college. I am an only child. I do not have an older sibling to look up to for advice like my friends did.
My mother and I discussed how badly I wanted to go to college and how I would need scholarships to get there. I worked tirelessly to educate myself about colleges. Outside of prior commitments, I spent countless hours every week for months to learn about programs and scholarships available. I was lucky to have the support of mentors and teachers and friends around me, but I never felt like they really understood. After all, applying to colleges was foreign to me, not those around me.
This was the first time I felt like an imposter. I wrote the essays, met the deadlines, and filled out the boxes. Yet I couldn’t help but question myself constantly. I wondered if I was cut out for college and engineering. Yes, I had a high school education. And yes, I was at the top of my class. But, on the other hand, I did not feel confident throughout my application process. About halfway through my applications, I considered no longer applying to my reach schools and just hoping my safeties were safe enough.
Thankfully, my story does not end there. I reflected on why I even wanted to go to college in the first place. I recognized my thirst for knowledge and my desire to innovate, so I continued to apply to colleges. Now, I find myself attending Purdue University, a world renowned university in West Lafayette, Indiana—a STEM school where men are an overwhelming majority.
Admittedly, I feel uncomfortable constantly, both with my position as part of the female minority and with the hard material that is taught in the classroom. I often question if I am good enough to be at Purdue, as it is an academically rigorous and prestigious school. Even in college, there are instances when I feel like an imposter in my own field. But I have learned to embrace this feeling. It pushes me to prove to myself that I belong, and it motivates progress more than anything else. I recognize that I worked incredibly hard to get here and to break down the mental barriers that would have stopped me from pursuing a college education in the first place.
I never thought that being a first gen student would make me different. Although there are so many organizations that support first gen students and have made me feel welcomed, I never felt that I completely understood the traditions of college, generational advantages, or how it feels to have family who understood the process. To this day, I am still figuring out how to navigate which classes to take, which dorms are the best, and how to communicate with professors. I see my friends who have had siblings, parents, and grandparents go to college breeze through getting settled on campus, and at times, I still feel that I have not figured it all out.
I want to share what I have learned from my time of uncertainty and doubt.
If you are a first gen, embrace it. Be proud that you have overcome the tremendous hurdles placed in your way of greatness. I found groups on campus and through online networks that constantly support me and share opportunities with me. You need to be proactive in building relationships. Go to networking events advertised on campus, reach out to alumni, and go to professors’ office hours. Strong relationships with professionals are your key to information and referrals, and you never know what door it may open up. And at the end of the day, you just have to want it bad enough. Scouring the internet for scholarships, internships, and other opportunities is stressful and draining at times, but the rewards will prove themselves.
And first generation or not, this imposter syndrome is rampant among many female engineers. Why do we not apply to jobs when we don’t meet every single criterion? It is puzzling to think a man will, but a woman will not. As a society, it is our job to question the norm and push for greater change.
If you are a woman in STEM, you have to be your biggest advocate. I am still the only woman, or one of the only women, in the room most of the time. When I get internship offers, opportunities, and scholarships, I often hear phrases like "it's because she's a girl in STEM." It may be, or it may not be. Job diversity may be celebrated now more than ever, but there is no denying the sheer grit it takes to be the first, or the only, girl.
My biggest piece of advice is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Being a minority in any field will never feel normal. The way you persevere and rise above this circumstance will demonstrate your capabilities. Make your place known and do not be ashamed of your identity. Talk about your experiences. Make it known how you feel and relate to others. Empathy is your companion.
Above all, never stop learning. When you take control of your own development, you gain a growth mindset. Yes, there will be obstacles. But they are not permanent, and they will make you stronger. Difficulty is your opportunity to learn. You can’t simply dream of success, you must work for it.
I have worked tirelessly to beat a mindset that was toxic and thrived on self-doubt, and here I am. I throw like a girl and run like a girl. Most importantly, I work hard like a girl because I belong here, and so do you—no one can say otherwise.