“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.” - quote from Barbie (film), 2023
This summer, like many, I went to see the new Barbie movie in theaters, and unexpectedly I found some of my story reflected in the movie. When I heard the above quote in theaters, I began to cry. Why? I thought of my mom and my grandmothers.
I am a first-generation Latina college graduate, the first in my family to earn her bachelor's degree, and one of the few women to earn a college degree. My mother, cunning and witty by all accounts, only finished elementary school, and before her, my grandmothers and great-grandmothers did not attend school. Growing up, I learned education was a privilege. I always perceived it that way because I would hear stories about how my mom had to beg my grandfather to attend school. He believed that as a girl it was unnecessary and too costly for my grandparents to matriculate her. I would hear how my cousins, who are women, did not continue their education for reasons of transportation, safety, and money–barriers that still today stop students from attending high school and college. One reason my parents chose to immigrate was for their children to have access to a quality education, something they missed out on.
I reflect often on how the barriers my mother faced are no longer the same barriers I have dealt with. As I started thinking of college in high school, it became apparent how much cultural knowledge I lacked surrounding postsecondary options. To be honest, the first time I even heard the name of a college I was in my sophomore year of high school–all I had known before was that I wanted to attend college. Then came the acts of researching, applying, and preparing myself for college applications, and it all fell on me. My parents weren’t familiar with the application process, so it became my responsibility to do every step, including making my parents FSA IDs and doing financial aid forms on my own. It was challenging and isolating.
The day I graduated from App State, I was in near tears the entirety of the ceremony because I had achieved something that generations ago was never a possibility. I remember making eye contact with my mom after the graduation ceremony; we were both very emotional. The Barbie quote comes to mind when reflecting on that memory. She stood back and did her best providing me with opportunities she never had. I knew then my mother saw her hard work fulfilled.
The college-going process is heavy for a first-generation student to carry; the statistics are against you, your support system can be small, and dealing with inaccessible systems can be a frustrating and exhausting experience. I felt all this from the moment I began applying to college until the day I graduated with my bachelor's degree. Honestly, even now as I’ve started my professional career and I’m considering graduate school, I still feel that weight: the pressure to achieve and succeed for those who couldn’t, those who stood back to let their daughters grow in unimaginable ways. As an adviser, this experience is something I carry with me as a resource because many of my students will be first-generation college students. I hope my story can be a light for them as they start their future.
So, when I reflect on that moment in the movie theater, all I can do is become sentimental and think of the women who hold me up. The women who worked and worked so that future generations could prosper. Espero que esten orgullosas de mi.
Written by Lorena Calvillo, adviser at Ashe County High School and Ashe Early College High School