First-generation international students face unique challenges; bring unique perspectives

November 20, 2022

The entire nation celebrated First Generation Day on Nov. 8, honoring students who pursue a college degree despite having fewer resources to draw on compared to students with the benefit of their parent’s experience with the education system and guidance in life. The holiday was first created by the Council for Opportunity in Education in 2017. K-12 schools and Colleges across the country celebrated the resourcefulness and ambition of first generation students, joined by various companies and nonprofits.

SIU’s own First Generation celebration spanned the whole week, including free snacks, meet-and-greets with first generation students and staff from the First Saluki Center and presentations providing first generation students with advice and encouragement as they break new ground for their families. The First Saluki Center is an SIU organization dedicated to connecting first generation students with resources providing everything from academic support and financial literacy to emotional support.

Support for first generation students is an especially important issue given that many are racial minorities from lower income backgrounds who didn’t receive equal opportunities compared to other students, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute (PNPI). First generation students, and many other variations of disadvantaged students, seldom get the media attention they deserve because it can be difficult to discuss the true magnitude of the difference that socioeconomic class and race can make in our own system without becoming embroiled in racial tensions, and the political polarization that has swept the nation in recent years.

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Fortunately, American students aren’t the only students on campus. SIU is a bastion for a vibrant international community. Looking through their eyes, the meaning of education, which many from western countries take for granted, is unspeakably profound.

For many first generation Indian students, with education comes the only hope of ever escaping India’s dictatorial caste system.

“I don’t have a last name,” said Ashish, an Indian graduate student working on his second masters degree in Communications. “Usually in India, from the caste I come from, we don’t have last names or surnames. We use the first letter of our father’s name as an initial. So my full name in India is Ashish Kumar T. […] Our community is not encouraged to have them: we don’t have a surname. It denotes our caste, it denotes discrimination, it denotes lots of things. We come from a very marginalized society in India.”

When he came to the United States, he lost his first name as well, when a mistake was made on his visa, labeling his first name unknown, leaving him with only his middle name, Ashish, and his determination to make a difference with it.

“I don’t see caste, I don’t see race, I don’t see gender. For me, everyone is a human being, as a humanitarian born, as an egalitarian society. I see that [society] must be born into life for the survival of this mankind,” Ashish said.

Ashish is a human rights activist back in India, and has been since he was ten. He has continued his activism during his time at SIU, creating several notable short films highlighting issues of discrimination, education, caste, and extremist violence in India, including his film “Caste and Counterview” which won a local film prize and was promptly banned.

“We raise a lot of issues in India, irrespective of whichever government it comes from, our thing is to raise questions,” Ashish said. “The fundamentalists are growing very much. To use the word fundamental and the word fascist in the U.S. is so hard, like, people get scared when I use these words, it’s so tricky. People tell me, well my well-wishers, don’t use the word too much here, they will define you. But I’m talking about the facts and I have facts with me. If I don’t do that, then what is my identity over here?”

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Ashish believes the current regime of India to be worthy of this description, deriding the current Prime Minister as a fascist fundamentalist. He believes the current government is frighteningly fundamentalist, in part due to his decade of experience working with the indigenous groups in central India. During that time, indigenous people have been forcefully relocated and evacuated from tribal villages for the sake of environmentally destructive open pit mining operations, especially those controlled by the two richest Indians in the entire country of 1.4 billion people, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani.

Ashish’s own education has assisted him greatly in organizing protests and getting access to mentors and perspectives that he wouldn’t have if he had remained stuck in the default position of members of his caste in India. Historically, Indians were culturally divided into castes with predetermined worthiness based on the Hindu concept of karma. This resulted in members of higher castes getting preferred treatment in most aspects of life, including education and employment.

Castes were generally adhered to by the British colonizers of India at first, and even encouraged by policies rewarding higher caste members with positions in the government. Later in the country’s history, castes would lose official recognition and India would install systems of affirmative action designed to reduce inequality between castes. Ashish’s caste is part of a group known as the Scheduled Castes (SC), which are constitutionally recognized to be among the most vulnerable groups in India, with the exception of Scheduled Tribes (ST).

Ashish’s own caste was called “untouched” and treated as dirty by higher castes. His people were historically chased from state to state, and were not permitted to attend school past a basic level of education. His father and his grandfather before him were unable to achieve higher education for that reason, and worked as a factory worker and a truck driver respectively, all their lives. Having 12 siblings meant that Ashish’s father never had the money to attend school, passing the burden of poverty down to Ashish’s generation of the family.

Because he was a casual student that flunked his subjects often, Ashish’s parents assumed that his generation of the family would continue the trend.

“Then I realized that, no, this is not my life. Education is the most important tool,” Ashish said. “I started reading a book called Alienation of Caste, which was a heavier book than I realized, by an author who is also a first generation student and I changed my mind. He tells us three important concepts, ‘educate, agitate, organize’.”

After reading the book, Ashish felt he had been given the power to better the situation of his own community.

“You have the rights to fight, but if you don’t know anything, how will you fight,” Ashish said. “How will you raise questions?”

Much like in the United States, there are many barriers between lower class students and their degrees. Unwilling to attend government schools due to the dismal quality of education there, Ashish and many other Indian students the Daily Egyptian talked to were forced to rely on their families for their school fees. His own sister gave up her education to send Ashish to school after his father told them he only had money to send one of them.

“Getting first generation opportunities is not easy, because you don’t know what you want to do. You don’t know who to ask. You don’t know what to do, where to go, and for me it was so tough, because I didn’t want to do engineering or finance, I wanted to be in the art world, and I couldn’t explain this to my parents,” Ashish said. “For them, art is different. Art is painting, art is song. But they wouldn’t understand film as a space because they think, ‘you’ll be excommunicated, you’ll be kicked out of the industry. Why are you risking your life and doing these things?’”

Thanks to his education, Ashish is able to do extensive community work in India. He and his friends started an organization called the Ambedkar Student Association. The group visits natives in the southern part of India, and encourages them to apply for higher education, teaching them how to be competitive in exams and college applications, regardless of their caste.

For many students from the more impoverished areas of India, education is more than an issue of their own betterment, or even the long term improvement of their community. They are their families’ ticket out of prospectless poverty and hard labor for life.

“Family is the first priority in India. We are so associated and close,  we talk two times a day with our family, after coming here, even,” said Mandeep Redhu, the Indian president of the International Students Council at SIU, “Everyday. I am kind of unlucky because I’m not with them always. I was just a kid doing my tenth grade when I left home.”

There are few things more respected in Indian society than children who respect their parents, and pay them back for their upbringing.

“When I was in my high school my father was dependent on his friends, on my uncle’s to take advice regarding me,” said Digvijay Verma, an Indian masters student who’s father paid for his private highschool education. “But now my relatives asked me because I’m educated now. They ask me about their children. What background should they be? What course should they take? In which university they should go? Because they know that I faced this problem, but now they are not facing the problem because I am their family member.”

This is not to say that Indian students aren’t here on their own merit. Many have paved their way through higher education on merit alone after their parents got them started in school.

“With great difficulty, I came here,” Ashish said. “With great difficulty financially, emotionally…because when I get my scholarship – my graduate assistantship – I have to send this money to my parents because they are totally dependent on me, we don’t have anything. I get 700 dollars in my hand every month, and I send 400 dollars back home.”

Ashish and others like him are unable to work in the US under student visas, so sending home what little money they are given is not an easy sacrifice to make. Though education has become more commonplace in India throughout recent decades, even the previous generation of middle-caste Indians received lackluster educations.

“There are hardly any people who were educated at that time, there was very little education. You know, at that time, sixth grade is when they used to learn their ABCs. Sixth grade and they just know their ABCs,” Redhu said.

Redhu comes from a rural area of Northern India, from the state Haryana. People in this area are descended from warrior Sikhs that defended India from western invasion for centuries. The burden of the defense of the entire subcontinent fell on their shoulders, due to the natural choke point formed by the Himalayan mountains and the Arabian Sea. Thanks to this legacy as well as extensive modern military activity in Haryana, Redhu’s caste isn’t considered to be so lowly as the SC or ST castes.

Whereas other governments have the ability to support farmers by insuring them against yield fluctuation, natural disasters, and market conditions beyond their control and subsidizing many of their expenses, India has not been as successful in this area. According to Redhu and India’s government websites, 70% of  farmers own 2.5 acres or less according to India’s latest Agricultural Census.

“And still people are traditionally associated with their occupation, they just know farming. Without education, they are not aware about other resources, they don’t know what they can do,” Redhu said. “They’re not skilled in other occupations. So they are dependent on farming. And nowadays because the size of the land is decreasing, they are not benefiting from farming.”

As the modern age catches up with India, many jobs are being created in tech and service sectors, but uneducated farmers are unable to adapt.

“If you ask anyone, any kid in India, what do you want to become they’ll say, ‘easy, I want to become a doctor, I want to become a lawyer, I want to become this’, nobody says, ‘I want to become a farmer’, because it’s not a good business, a survival business,” Redhu said.

He would know. Redhu worked the fields of his family’s five acre plot his entire life up until school took him away from the struggles of his family. For small land owners, the large agricultural machines that make farming easier in developed countries are unaffordable. Nearly all of the work that is done on the farm is done by hand in the heat, leaving little time or energy for anything else. Redhu’s mother is illiterate, and his father quit school at the 9th grade to fill in for Redhu’s grandfather, who was too old to work the family farm.

Redhu’s most life changing moment was when he lost a finger to a foraging machine designed to cut up crops for farm animals to eat, making him ineligible for military service, a popular method of escaping a farmers life in Haryana. His only option was to pursue an education in sciences, which eventually led him to pursue his PHd in Agricultural Science.

Exams to enter college are incredibly competitive in India, with many students paying small fortunes for private schooling and tutoring in order to have a chance of gaining entrance into a good school.

Redhu was supported by his parents throughout his education. His whole community knew the value of education, if only they were able to achieve it.

“They always supported us. They work hard themselves so that we can study, so that we can grow,” Redhu said. “Like a person who wants to be a champion in olympics, he wants to win a gold medal and he missed it. Then they say, ‘ok, my kid will make it.’ So they put everything towards it.”

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