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Do You Struggle As a First Gen Student?


First-generation Americans get the best of both worlds, say these women.

Dark hair and eyes. Living at home instead of in a dorm. Speaking a foreign language. Changing into shorts on the school bus.

And grape leaves instead of PB&J.

Those are just some of the issues first-generation Americans say they navigate with one foot in the culture of their parents, and the other in the youth culture of America.

Living dual cultures does not come easily, say four first-generation college students VOA StudentU interviewed last week. While they identify with being young and American, they say they are happy their parents encouraged them to carry on their native cultures, too.

Layla Najjar, 21, a Lebanese-American.
Layla Najjar, 21, a Lebanese-American.

“My mom insisted that I bring authentic Lebanese food to lunch everyday,” Layla Najjar, 21, recalls vividly. “She insisted that I speak to her in Arabic.She just really insisted that I embrace this part of my identity, and initially as a young child, I really wanted nothing more than just to fit in” in America.

Each one grappled with balancing their past with their present. Now adults, they say the silver-lining of those challenges was being not just American, but international Americans.

First-generation Americans are born to foreign parents in the United States or born abroad and immigrated as young children.

Najjar, an international politics senior at Georgetown University, was born to Lebanese parents in Great Falls, Virginia. Fluent in English and Arabic, she calls herself a “unique hybrid” and identifies as American and Lebanese. But as a child, she felt conflicted about that identity.

She didn’t feel different at her small private elementary school in Rockville, Maryland, only because she wasn’t blond and blue-eyed like most of the other kids, she said. It was things like the lunch she brought from home. An elementary teacher once frowned at Najjar as she pulled out grape leaves for a meal, instead of sandwiches, she said.

Around high school, Najjar realized the blessing of being dual-cultured.

“My family, and specially my mother, has never shied away from our heritage, or our identity,” Najjar says.

Najjar danced traditional Lebanese folk dance as she grew up. Friends and family often get together around a table to eat mulukhiyah, an Afro-Middle East dish of coriander, garlic, chicken and rice.

“I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not one, and I’m not the other,” she says. “And I’m not neither.I’m both.”

Sarah Tayel, 19, is an Egyptian-American.
Sarah Tayel, 19, is an Egyptian-American.

Sarah Tayel,19, a junior at the University of Maryland says she is proud of her Egyptian background, and “flaunts” being Muslim and Arab. During ice-breaking sessions in elementary school, Tayel always spoke plainly about her roots, “I’m Egyptian.I speak Arabic.I’m Muslim.”

Tayel was born in New York. Tayel’s parents emigrated from Alexandria, Egypt, and her family also includes two younger sisters and a brother.

Tayel is fluent in Arabic, and credits her mother for that. When she visits Egypt with her family, locals think she was born and raised there, Tayel says.

“I’m just as caught up as any other native Egyptian on, like, the music, the entertainment, the movies ...and I can say the same for my siblings, as well.They are pretty up to date on everything.”

But there were moments of cultural frustration, she says.

Tayel wasn’t allowed to attend the parties or prom that most other American students enjoyed. She said she never had a dying desire to attend these events, and used the time to focus on her studies.

“I've seen friends spend their high school years partying, drinking, and engaging in harmful activities that hindered them, and prevented them from getting into college,” Tayel says, “let alone good colleges.”

But going out of state for college was never an option, Tayel's parents require her to live at home, not in the dorms.

“That’s an instance of, like, frustration,” Tayel says.“Even till now, it's still frustrating to me.I appreciate it, I love being home ... but it can be frustrating sometimes.”

Minah Malik, 21, is a Pakistani-American.
Minah Malik, 21, is a Pakistani-American.

Minah Malik, 21, also has felt the strain of some cultural baggage.

Malik grew up amid her parents, younger sister, maternal aunt and four cousins, who were all Pakistani in West Windsor Township, New Jersey. She was always connected to Pakistani culture, Malik said.

“I was 100 percent that girl that was on the school bus, like, taking off her leggings and changing into short-shorts because her mom didn't want her to wear certain clothes,” Malik says.“That’s what everybody wore, so that’s what I wanted to wear.”

Upon finding them when Malik was in 7th grade, she says, her mother cut up her only two pairs of short-shorts.

Relationships or an interest in the opposite sex is not a topic comfortably discussed with parents, Malik explains.The marriage ceiling is 25 for Pakistani women, and now that she is 21, she grapples with their suggestions about marriage prospects.

“Once I finally asserted myself, and I was like, ‘No, you brought me up in the United States.If you wanted me to be this Pakistani child ... then you should have brought me up there ... Once they accepted it, it was easier for them to move on from it, but it took them a while to get there.”

Malik co-presides the Pakistani Student Association at George Washington University, where she is an aspiring pre-law student. She says she joined the PSA as Pakistani culture is “integral” to her.

Aylin Uyar, 21, an electrical engineering senior also at George Washington University, has embraced both her Turkish and American cultures.

Aylin Uyar, 21, is Turkish-American.
Aylin Uyar, 21, is Turkish-American.

Born to Turkish parents in Sea Bright, New Jersey, Uyar says her family only speaks Turkish at home. When she was five she translated notes between her parents and her teachers.

“Within my family we are only allowed to speak Turkish,” says Uyar. “Like, if you told me to speak English with my parents, I would not be able to.”

Uyar watched Turkish soap operas with her mother to improve her Turkish. Meanwhile, when they went out, they would ask Uyar to translate English. It was annoying at times, Uyar says. But, looking back, she says she feels blessed to be bilingual and have a multicultural background.It brings dimension to one’s personality, she says.

“I’m really, really grateful to my parents who put in all that effort.” Uyar says. “They could have just raised me as an American, but they wanted to keep that culture, they wanted to keep that part of our family active, they didn’t want to just end it there.”

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