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Esther J. Cepeda: Struggles of the first to go to college

Jennine Capo Crucet’s debut novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers” explores the challenges of first generation college students.
Jennine Capo Crucet’s debut novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers” explores the challenges of first generation college students.

There are some ugly truths about being the first in your family to attend college: Those you leave behind aren’t always happy for you, they sometimes think you’re a traitor for leaving home, and, when you return on breaks, they might accuse you of acting like you’re better than everyone else.

Jennine Capo Crucet explores these issues and more in her devastating debut novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers.”

It’s not often I persist through a book that’s so frustrating and painful. It’s a testament to Crucet’s ability to make the reader root for her heroine that I was glad I’d seen it through to the end – although I came away shell-shocked from the protagonists’ tumultuous journey.

The story is about the travails of Lizet, the youngest daughter of Cuban immigrants who attends a badly under-resourced high school in Hialeah, Fla., but secretly applies to an elite private college in New York state and gets in.

As if that weren’t stressful enough, her parents take the occasion to finally separate after a long, stormy marriage, and there is the additional stress of Lizet’s older sister intentionally getting pregnant in order to (unsuccessfully) get her boyfriend to marry her.

Lizet leaves the small apartment where her mom, sister and newborn nephew are living and heads off to school, without their blessing, on a patchwork of grants, scholarships, loans and a work-study job.

She’s only a few weeks into her first semester at the fictional Rawlings College when she finds herself in over her head. Though her math and science courses had been easy in high school, her current ones aren’t going well and, worse, she’s been accused of plagiarism in her writing seminar.

It’s at this point – Lizet is beginning to crack under the pressure and realize that, though she didn’t expect it, she’s wading out of her depth – that Crucet digs into the thorny issue of forging an adult identity even as you are being torn in two by the worlds you’re straddling.

At school Lizet has grown weary of having to answer the persistent question, “Where are you from?” with “Florida.” And then made to answer “But where are you from from?” with the explanation that her parents are Cuban. But she’s also hurt and ashamed when, at home over Christmas, her sister mercilessly accuses her of looking, acting and talking “white.”

I picked up this book thinking it would be predominantly about the on-campus obstacles first-generation college students face in navigating their new environment – the failure to anticipate how rigorous classes will be, the challenges of funding such a huge investment and the unfair burden of being a campus’s designated diversity quotient.

Anyone who will soon be shepherding a first-generation college student through this experience can gain insight into the countless unanticipated social and academic roadblocks that low-income college freshmen face: But this book hits at a deeper concern. It’s really about finding the courage to excel despite – not because of – your family’s hopes for you.

To be 100 percent clear: Not all, or even a majority, of low-income families with no college experience react to their child’s opportunity at a highly selective university by labeling the accomplishment a betrayal and grudgingly accepting their absence. Most families, I’d like to think, are positive if, ultimately, mostly helpless and perplexed by the process.

And not all minority students arrive on college campuses and feel marginalized, exoticized or left out of a school’s majority white community – I certainly didn’t, though I, too, was a “first.” And even Lizet had a Latina peer who seemed to be well-adjusted and positive about her new life.

Esther J. Cepeda is a Washington Writers Group columnist. Contacts: estherjcepeda@washpost.com, Twitter, @estherjcepeda.