First-Gen Alumni: Amy Pei Ling Hong (Merrill '99)

photo of amy hong lau smiling with two happy children

My two older brothers and I were born and raised in San Francisco to parents who immigrated from Hong Kong.  My parents are high school graduates who learned of the American grading system when we entered public school. 

My parents knew they were limited in how much they could help us in our studies, so they were more concerned with us passing with “C”s than excelling with “A”s.  Instead, they stressed hard work and best personal efforts, over the more commonly measured success of comparison to others, be it with regards to grades or anything else. 

What motivated me to go to college:  While I vaguely remember an uncle graduating college when I was very young, the idea of higher education remained foreign to me until I saw my older brother go to UC Santa Cruz, moving first into Crown College before transferring to Oakes the following year and graduating from there a few years after.  My most vivid memory from my brother’s time in college is his moving into Crown’s Maxwell House, and seeing his name on his dorm door on a construction paper cut-out of a coffee cup. That moment solidified for me what college was --- moving away from home, and fully immersing yourself in school as you really started traveling the path of what you wanted to be when you grew up.  For the first time, chasing a dream career wasn’t a theoretical ice breaker game of filling in the blank, “When I grow up, I want to be…”. No, for the first time, I was watching the pursuit of a dream career happen. There was a tangible path and I wanted it for myself.

What the biggest challenge I encountered was as a first-generation student and how I overcame it:  I rarely visited my brother in his time at UC Santa Cruz, and he spoke more to my eldest brother than to his bratty younger sister.  So I had no idea what to expect from college, no benchmark of what was normal with regards to school, classes, dorms, food, people, or anything else.  I lumped any doubts I had with knowing that there’s always an awkwardness in acclimating to a new environment. Still, my awkwardness seemed very pronounced in my first year at UCSC, 1995-96, when I was getting used to the lower ethnic diversity of a small town in comparison to the San Francisco Bay Area.  Although playfully said, my floor mates dubbed me “City Girl”, and often asked, “Are you API [happy] today?” in referencing the Asian Pacific Islander acronym. Always inclusive and nurturing, I knew my floor mates meant only fun. But it made me wonder what strangers were thinking of me if my friends were already teasing me.  How much was I sticking out, and how much more would I be sticking out once people noticed I didn’t know how to navigate through office hours, sections, or being a single face in a sea of hundreds in a Classroom Unit 2 lecture?

I’m not sure how much of that awkwardness is attributed to being a City Mouse versus Country Mouse, a first-generation college goer versus the latest in a long line of the same.  I think ultimately college is a culture shock for everyone as you take your own experiences and mix them with others. That said, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure knowing I was the first female in my family to go away to school, even with Mom and Dad’s mantra of “just work hard and try your best” ringing in my ears.  The biggest challenge as a first-generation student, then, is KNOWING you’re a first-generation student and wanting to do right by that opportunity. And one of the reasons I wanted to participate in #FirstGen is because I never really overcame that. Being a first-generation student is a weight when you are going through school, and a medal when you graduate, knowing the whole time that you’re doing something your parents never did.  It’s a journey that changes you, and I can only hope that the #FirstGen campaign will help current students find a solace I missed.

How my background has helped me:  My dad worked two and a half jobs when he first immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong.  As a new immigrant, my mom learned how to be a mother, cooked for an entourage of extended family, and took night classes to improve her English, before going to work herself.  I learned firsthand that hard work can pay off, and that refraining from playing the martyr during the journey leaves more time to focus on the goal. Having the chance to talk now about my first-generation experience, then, is refreshing, cathartic, and something that I didn’t know that I needed until I started to write this.

What I would tell my first-year self:  I would tell my first-year self that a 10-minute call to mom can do wonders for the soul.  Even for first-generation students, while your parents may not understand the circumstances first hand, they will understand the emotions so long as you start with, “Everything is just fine.  I just need to vent.”

The best thing about my college experience was:  The best thing about my college experience was changing from majoring in Biology to double majoring in Psychology and Sociology two years in.  It is horrible to feel like you’ve wasted half your undergraduate college career, but freeing to accept what you do not enjoy, and to learn what you do.  The best thing about my college experience, then, was learning to listen to my heart and discovering that its often not too far from what my gut is telling me.

How being a first-generation student influences me (and/or my work) now:  I am asked often by work superiors why I’ve chosen to be an office manager and executive assistant when my two degrees suggest that I could be challenging myself more.  Beyond questioning folks on how easy they think herding cats in a start-up actually is, it is a reminder to me of my mom comforting me over the phone as I cried about failing organic chemistry and wanting to change majors two years into the game.  Mom said, “I don’t care what you study. I just wanted you to go to college so that you could learn how to really think and analyze things for yourself.” Having been a first-generation student allows me the daily reminder that college was not about a degree, but rather an opportunity to open my mind to deeper thought; an opportunity to choose what to do and what not to do to earn my living;  an opportunity to HAVE opportunities.