Kate Shen/The Daily

In the fabled “Assassin’s Creed” video game franchise, various protagonists utilize a machine called the Animus to access the memories of their ancestors — assassins from past eras — in a sandbox-like simulation. The Animus proves to be of paramount importance in the plot, enabling users to acquire experience-based skills and knowledge of the past in a truncated time frame. However, prolonged exposure afflicts users with the Bleeding Effect disorder, a debilitating condition that induces the blurring of a user’s consciousness between modern-day reality and the historical repertoire of memories they “re-lived,” which includes hallucinations and psychosis in extreme instances.

Aside from the grim foreshadowings of the metaverse, the Animus’s capabilities encapsulates the intense transformation that first-generation low-income (FGLI) students undergo over the course of obtaining their baccalaureate degree. For FGLI students, a myriad of upper-class experiences — which usually takes an entirety of pre-adulthood timeframe and includes tutors, long-distance trips and abundance of supplies — are attempted to be truncated over the span of their undergraduate years. The college experience might not be as state-of-the-art as the Animus, but it serves as a potent device that catapults FGLI students eons ahead.

No amount of preparation can fully onboard FGLI students. At the onset of college, continuing-generation students are able to hit the ground running with seemingly relative ease, whereas FGLI students have to effectively become sponges that must absorb superfluous amounts of information. The collective set of mannerisms, knowledge and institutional-level awareness related to effectively navigating college — which FGLI students are not fully bequeathed with before stepping foot on campus — is aptly referred to as the Hidden Curriculum. The Hidden Curriculum encompasses content that serves as a guide for continuing-gens that they’re able to comfortably acquire from their robust networks. 

From a place of paucity, it can be overwhelming to be thrust into a plush-upper-class environment where a plethora of resources renders rationing and frugal consumption unnecessary. In the dining halls, dishes of full serving size portions are dumped onto the conveyor belts. Even students with meal plans frequently partake in Michigan’s takeout culture. It can be unsettling to spot hordes of students across campus with a Starbucks drink in hand — as though they were a video game avatar equipped with an infinite amount of Starbucks from their inventory — especially if one grew up on Folgers instant coffee every morning. This general bewilderment with abundance can foment survivor’s guilt in FGLI students, since we are in a lavish environment while our families are stretching every penny back home.

After some passage of time with trial and error, we adapt. Initiating conversations with professors and some peers becomes more fluid, pursuing extracurricular and career opportunities becomes less daunting and navigating the broader college experience becomes more manageable. But the influence of our scrappy upbringings never fully dissipates. As a result, FGLI students frequently express feeling perpetually trapped in a gray area. Too uppity to fit in back home, but too “unpolished” to fit in some college social circles. Dinner talk back home is rudimentary in comparison to discussions on campus, where topics like current events, politics, academia and contemporary culture might initially be esoteric and nebulous.

And so, we must code switch seamlessly as we frequently traverse across spaces between different social classes. The vast spectrum of variations — such as how people conduct themselves and the physical aesthetics of environments — can instill a sense of surrealness that feels as though we have access to endless portals to other dimensions. But much like afflicted Bleeding Effect Animus users, FGLI students will find it hard to compartmentalize and struggle with making sense of their many realities. Much like how the body’s immune system can identify an organ transplant as “foreign” and reject it, our mind attacks and attempts to purge that which does not make sense as we struggle to reconcile the differences between both worlds. 

Internal strife between our different selves begins to brew as our partitions crumble under stress. If one talks too much about seemingly highbrow topics and interests, people back home may think they’re a pompous snob! If one talks too much about professional excursions and pursuits, progressive-left peers may think they’re an evil capitalist! If one talks too much about their scrappy upbringing, snobby peers may think they’re poor! If one talks too much about social justice and activism, conservative-leaning family members may think they’re a socialist! If one talks too much about their unique trips and excursions, modest peers may think they’re a phony hobnobber! In conjunction with other challenges, this feeling of being stuck between multiple worlds is a downward spiral, fostering imposter syndrome and a gradual decline in mental health with cascading effects.

These initial fissures of cultural dissonance can expand into chasms that begin to wreak havoc on the foundation of one’s outlook of the world. A healthy dose of skepticism morphs into cynicism, pessimism and eventually nihilism. Exuberance turns to indifference, passionate demeanor turns into a deadpan attitude. As one’s mental health deteriorates, we desperately try to salvage and preserve it through brute force to the extent that we can still adequately pump out rough problem sets and mediocre essays. Coming from a household with a meager or absent financial portfolio, it can feel as though our most valuable asset is what is between the ears. We’ve been through the worst of the worst, we tell ourselves, to get here. Surely we can rely solely on our self-sufficiency like in times past. We have to: there is no safety net.

One often hears terms like imposter syndrome and survivor’s guilt thrown around in lofty, boilerplate discussions about mental health, but what do these actually entail? Seldom do you hear them enumerated in vivid detail. 

Here’s my attempt: at times, I feel like an aberration, a mutant with a hodgepodge of experiences and perspectives that when put together — at personal first glance — don’t seem to be cohesive in any meaningful way. It can be difficult to convey these struggles. I’m not sure sometimes if I’ve adequately captured some of them in my previous articles

There are times when a visceral sense of despair envelops me. Depression accentuates everything in sight with shades of melancholy and etches of sorrow, thereby obfuscating my view of reality no matter how pristine the lenses of my glasses are. I uncontrollably shed tears with no end in sight, desperately hoping to expunge the incessant feelings of inferiority. 

There are times when I feel despondent, unworthy and incapable of absorbing and reciprocating any forms of affection directed my way. While I am seen by others as a prodigious, burgeoning sapling, a severe drought evaporates my creeks of energy, tributaries of passion and pools of motivation — leaving behind a parched mental biosphere. The aridity inhibits and squanders the growth of new memories and connections.

There are times where I feel like a fading rose, plucked away from a lush garden. The petals have shriveled, the leaves have fallen off the stem and vibrant colors and water have since been siphoned off, but the prickly thorns remain. These thorns of obfuscation and self-sabotage materialize in the form of ghosting and shunning those who offer help, shoving away potential deep relationships and giving up on attempts to explain my circumstances to others. Simply put, it feels as though it’s not worth sharing anything.

There are times when my inner voice berates me with unreasonable amounts of scathing self-critiques. I drench myself in layers of viscous self-contempt sludge that promptly hardens, serving as a bulwark that deflects incoming forms of support. I loathe myself for not being able to maintain the self-sufficient generalist, rugged individualist and industrious bootstrapper qualities that American society universally applauds.

There are times where anxiety incapacitates my mind. Much like how Google Chrome is notorious for using a large portion of a computer’s RAM, extraneous thoughts generated by anxiety can occupy considerable chunks of my mental bandwidth. I am hyperware of the disparities across the spaces I am a part of. My mind feels like it is in overdrive, frequently overthinking. Rumination causes thoughts to incessantly bounce inside my head as though they were pinballs. 

There are times when I just become numb to these excruciating thought loops. I trudge forward in a trance-like, autopilot state — wounded, exhausted and malnourished. Hopelessness creeps in along with perturbations of withering away alone in an esoteric, posh environment — barren of anything that resembles my scrappy upbringing. 

What does this misery unfolding look like? Surreptitiously sobbing in irregular bursts, out of sight in a corner at the library, during the wee hours of the morning. Overcome with emotion, my primary method to retain information are attempts to inefficiently pummel content from assigned readings into my head. Feeling like a prole when I am too ashamed to share much about my background, family and story. Self-editing and self-censoring my words to the point that I become numb and silent in social gatherings. I stare at the wall while lying in bed for hours, overwhelmed by intense rumination and feeling as though there are endless unsolvable quandaries.

Apart from my seemingly fractured essence, everything can feel perpetually disjointed as I fall further into the galactic abyss, void of any glimmers of hope. 

The greatest fear — the suffering and sacrifices I made were for naught.

Hopes, a repository of memories, a cumulative set of skills and experiences, the suffering — was it all in vain? What does the distant future hold for FGLI students like myself?

Will I morph into a curmudgeon who adopts a Monroe-Doctrine-esque framework that only entrusts exalted elites with the powers of intervention and authority? Will I transform into a virtue-signaling Nimby who actively boxes out outsiders, who are not reflective of themselves, from their community and purview? Will I indulge and engage in credentialism, schadenfreude and other beliefs rooted in classism, the very same ideals that made me feel inferior and that I detested in my youth? Will I assume various gatekeeper roles, consciously or subconsciously? 

The latter will inevitably occur when I have children who will likely pursue college and inevitably be pitted against other competitive candidates, including future FGLI students. “We may be the first, but we won’t be the last” forebodingly resonates with me. Among the many famous first-generation college graduates, Bill Clinton is perhaps the most prominent. At which point did people designate him as an elite and part of the establishment? As an insider and no longer an outsider? Even for non-politicians, this observation provides some insight for the unique trajectories and positions we will assume, and how others’ perceptions of us will evolve over our lifetimes.

Over the past few years, I have sporadically struggled in having a sense of ownership over my thoughts. Is this really me? It feels as though that with every WSJ article I read, every academic discussion I’ve been in and every professional interaction I’ve partaken in, my working class provenance diminishes and becomes less apparent, both internally and externally. Sometimes I gaslight myself and brush off these individual granular differences as nothing to fret over, but these details in aggregate make social class dissonances too conspicuous to ignore. 

Will I forsake myself and my past?

The answer is an absolute no. As noted earlier, the influence of a FGLI student’s upbringing — from biological incipiency to adulthood — cannot be eradicated since our lived experience is meaningful. In recognition of this, I’m trying to be easier on myself.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach toward mental health maintenance. Perfunctory aphorisms alone are far from sufficient. Improving mental health is an ongoing effort where the liminality between happiness and depression isn’t always apparent. 

Given that taking care of one’s mental health is an ongoing endeavor, an activity I have incorporated into my toolkit, aside from writing, is listening to Rezz and fknsyd, both of whom are EDM producers. Rezz is known for her idiosyncratic discography that is often described as hypnotic and ominous with a mildly sinister vibe, and fknsyd’s ethereal vocals poignantly convey somberness in her music. Their unorthodox, distinct sounds taught me to embrace and appreciate the beauty of darkness. For me, this holistic recognition of darkness helped convert moments of desolation into stepping stones towards moments of greatness and jubilance.  

On this note, FGLI students like myself must each make an assessment on the state of our individual mental health. I have found this task to be cumbersome whenever I am in a rut, but I’ve realized it takes courage to summon the strength to acknowledge poor mental health and subsequently take action — such as seeking professional help, confiding in others, and utilizing other resources — in order to ameliorate ourselves. It is especially important to acknowledge the difficulties that fellow FGLI students encounter — such as the financial costs, societal stigma and lack of support system —  and the mental health tribulations they have greater difficulty in addressing.   

Much like how the protagonists in “Assassin’s Creed” perform leaps of faith, I encourage other FGLI students to cross an additional boundary and to share their FGLI status and slivers of their story toward others they’re comfortable with. In the instances where I have done so, waves of positive reinforcement from others have been euphoric and formative in nature. They have rekindled the warmth and vitality inside me that I thought I lost long ago.

Upward mobility is an outlier outcome, not the norm. We have embarked on a perilous journey, always cognizant of the gravitas associated with upward mobility. As we inevitably assimilate to a social class that is higher than the one we were born into, it is of paramount importance to be kind to yourself and take pride in how far you have come.

MiC Columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be contacted at gsacrame@umich.edu.