Maria Ulayyet: Doing your best among the “Leaders and the Best”

Thursday, April 18, 2019 - 6:38pm

Success has not only been ingrained in me because I am a competitive and driven person, but it is also my duty because I am the daughter of an immigrant. Going away to a top university and being the first in my family to do so, was a pretty big deal at the time. From the old days where I skipped nap time to do extra math problems to having over 30 of my family members show up to my high school graduation, I knew there were high expectations for me. My parents made great sacrifices not only to be in this country, but also for me to be able to receive the best education I possibly can.

The culture shock I faced as a first-generation minority woman within my first semester of college was also met with the shock that I was no longer on top, and that everyone around me also came from places where they were the best of the best. I spent a lot of time coping with this and trying to accept it. Much of my freshman year was spent in my dorm room crying or sleeping because I couldn’t come to terms with the idea that I might not be meeting these expectations of breaking barriers.

Every time I didn’t do as well as I wanted to in school, or any time I wasn’t the “best,” I thought of my dad, who lived out his American Dream and wanted to continue the progression of said dream through me. I thought of my mother, who could not have the same opportunity of going to college like me and who I knew wanted to live vicariously through me. Through my college career, I wanted to achieve the impossible. Coming onto this campus my freshman year, I knew I needed to take advantage of every resource and opportunity that I could find on this campus.

It is possible to be the best to be the best versions of ourselves possible. It is time to break the generational curse surrounding mental health and stop the cycles of self-hatred and guilt of putting happiness first.

I felt like I had no room for mistakes, no time for falling behind. I felt like this was my one opportunity and I couldn’t do anything to possibly mess it up. I beat myself over every little thing that went wrong. I blamed myself for not trying hard enough. I told myself I wasn’t good enough. I convinced myself that I was a failure. Most importantly, I drove myself crazy over all the pressure.

The best and nothing less is what immigrant parents expect for their children. The pressure to be the “best,” however, is not always easy to cope with. While setting high expectations is important in achieving success, it isn’t always possible to meet such expectations. Compared to our peers, students with immigrant parents face a perpetual state of guilt. Despite our hard work and dedication, we sometimes feel we are not enough and that we should feel guilty for not being good enough.

When this guilt manifests into more than just feeling bad after getting a bad grade and reaches the point of affecting our mental health, students with immigrant parents feel even more like failures and even more confused. To many of us, we feel too privileged to be able to go to our parents about these kinds of mental health problems. In their eyes, there is never anything to be unhappy about. If we have so much — from food to money to clothes — then to many immigrant parents, there is simply no reason to be sad. It’s easy to enter a cycle of normalization of poor mental health within these communities. In an essay written by first-generation American Betsy Aimee, she emphasizes that the reality is that, “immigrants learn to live with sadness.” This suppression of anxiety often manifests in us, to the point where we too, also feel like we have to live in a normalized sadness.

Just as I came to the University of Michigan under pressure, countless other children of immigrants come to college not only with the stress of being a new, confusing place, but also with the pressure of being the best in this foreign environment. Added onto that pressure is the disadvantages that many of us face being first-generation college students and/or people of color. It is so easy for us to fall into this trap of “imposter syndrome the idea that we are imposters on this campus because we do not belong here and that we are not supposed to belong here. Research has shown that first-generation and underrepresented minority students face obstacles that hinder their academic and professional success. I constantly felt and continue to feel like I’m faking it and that it’ll only be a matter of time before others realize it. We don’t have the generational privileges of many of our peers. We don’t have the same access to opportunities as many of our peers. We simply face the reality of others not wanting to see us winning.

If there’s one thing I know, it is that I want to make my immigrant parents proud. No amount of “thank yous” could ever possibly express my gratitude for them. They’ve instilled the best work ethic in me and much more just to give me the best life possible. Despite the pressure, I hope to proudly continue their legacy and their American Dream.

Maria Ulayyet can be reached mulayyet@umich.edu.