A culture of mentorship will help progress of first-generation students

It is the season of college applications and, as a senior, I find myself reflecting on what I wish I knew when I was a prospective incoming freshman. At the University of Miami, nothing highlights the contrasts (or similarities) between students more than when you mention your high school.

If you tell me that you went to a private school, like Ransom Everglades or Belen Jesuit, for high school, that tells me that you had a good upbringing and that there likely exists a sea of difference between us. If you tell me you went to Miami Senior High, my alma mater, or Booker T. Washington for high school, I understand that we are probably in the same situation.

We are probably both first-generation students who have to figure things out without guidance from our parents or childhood friends. We are the trailblazers of our communities and we are the few who have managed to reach a high level of education with the opportunity to effect change. Whether we accept the obligation or not, we have a duty to give back and help the high schoolers who face the same situation that we once did.

I try to visit my high school two to three times a year to tell the students what college is like. By that, I mean what college is really like for low-income students of color and not the tidy version that advisers give to college-aspiring teenagers. This truth is meant to prepare them for the culture shock they will experience when they make it to a “nice” university, even though no amount of advice can truly do that. What I tell them is simple: You will feel like you don’t belong, not because anyone will tell you that but because there will be a sort of survivor’s guilt.

You will feel like admissions must have made a mistake accepting you and that you actually belong at the community college with the rest of your friends, like your friend who did not get accepted is far smarter and worthier than you and they should be here and not you. But that feeling will eventually pass – hopefully within a year or two.

The advice we give them, as first-generation students at the University of Miami, plays an immense role in their thinking. Because we’re not their teachers. We’re kids only a few years older, people who came from the same place. We know their situation, and for them to see us succeeding gives them hope.

But advice only goes so far. We must help them after they enter college to understand how college life is and how to deal with administrators and professors. If we let them experience the same turmoil we did, we are holding their progress back.

If we help those who come after us, they’ll help those who come after them. It doesn’t need to be a complicated process. Just be the person you wish you had a chance to know while you were figuring things out.

Kevin Bustamante is a senior majoring in political science and creative writing.