First-Gen Graduate Student: Delio Vasquez, History of Consciousness

I was born and raised poor in the Bronx, the first son of Dominican immigrants. My mother, raised in a rural community, was not allowed to study past 8th grade because of her gender. We are a Spanglish-speaking family and I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in the most ethnically diverse community in the country.

What motivated me to go to college:  It is a part of Caribbean culture to value education and sapience on their own terms, but we were also taught that education could be a path to financial stability. As a teen, I was somewhat motivated towards college, but mostly I just treated it as automatic, and I proceeded through scholarship programs without questioning what the end goal was.

What the biggest challenge I encountered was as a first-generation student and how I overcame it:  When I realized that participating in a capitalist society necessarily means benefiting from the suffering and unfreedom of others, I fell into existential self-doubt and political frustration at the seeming inescapability of our condition. Why get a degree, just to get a job, just to add to it all? An advisor pointed out to me that my experience of depression was not unique to me, but was instead structural and common to first-generation college students, males of color, and others like me. Despite the actions and efforts of many well-intentioned people, the modern university functions in large part to build and reinforce class hierarchy, while assimilating subsections of the general population into positions of management. That I would experience the university as harmful should therefore not take me by surprise; this political awareness then helped me to move through the institution more strategically. 

How my background has helped me:  Connecting to my family members in the Dominican Republic and understanding the limits imposed on them by borders and poverty helped me to appreciate and make more tactical use of the position of power that I was already in. That said, motivation fueled by guilt will often prove inadequate, when not altogether psychologically harmful; neither should we romanticize the resilience, self-sacrifice, and work ethic of our families in ways that encourage that those of us who have fallen by the wayside be forgotten. I have grown and gained the most when I have aimed towards a positive goal grounded in striving for freedom from suffering for all.

What I would tell my first-year self:  Get over your fear of talking to professors and advisors. It is part of their job to sit there and listen to students.

The best thing about my college experience was:  Making friends with quality people.

How being a first-generation student influences me (and/or my work) now:  Growing up poor makes it quite clear that people are often forced to make hard decisions and do ugly things for good reasons. My work as a political theorist focuses on how and why people break the law as they seek resources and struggle to sustain themselves and their communities. From welfare fraud and illegal immigration to the bank robbing revolutionaries of the 1970s, people’s tendencies to do what they need to do—whether they consider the actions “political” or not—make sense on their own terms, while also simultaneously revealing the inhumaneness of modern property law. As a scholar, I work to lend some legitimacy to these everyday practices.