Navigating university as a first-generation student

Immigration is a common theme in my family’s history. In the early twentieth century, my great grandparents left Okinawa and Japan in pursuit of a better life. Their month-long voyageacross the Pacific Ocean led them to the shores of Callao, Peru, where they found the promise of opportunity.

February 22, 2024

By: Anika (third year, Life Sciences Co-op)

Faced with difficult decisions, many of them had to choose between upholding a family business and pursuing higher education, a choice that became a cherished value passed down through generations. Two generations later, in the early 2000s, my parents were also faced with a similar journey: to immigrate for all the same reasons my great grandparents did a century ago.  

My name is Anika Kina Kudaka, first-generation Peruvian, fourth-generation Nikkei (Japanese descendant) and third-year Life Sciences (Co-op) student at McMaster University. Growing up, I’ve always been aware of the responsibilities I bore as the eldest in my generation of the family. To not only graduate from a reputable university but also to expedite my path, and eventually help my Peruvian relatives also immigrate to Canada. My family, like many from the Asian diaspora, places immense value on higher education. With the context of my family’s history, it became evident why. Despite enduring persecution during the Second World War and navigating decades of economic instability, my Peruvian-born grandparents, armed with education, managed to forge generational wealth, affording their descendants a comfortable life. 

This struck a chord with me, fueling my determination to surpass their achievements and success — especially in a country like Canada, where there seems to be so much more opportunity. In navigating this, here are three lessons I’ve learned through the lens of a first-generation university student in Canada and a daughter to immigrant parents. 

Lesson one: Nurturing self-confidence 

In first year, I dreaded the idea of venturing outside of Hedden Hall alone. I was self-conscious, believing that showing up to social events alone, or anywhere on campus, might make me the odd one out. I heavily relied on the company of my first few friends on campus. On top of that, as the first in my family to study at a Canadian institution, I lacked many of the connections and academic role models that some of my peers had. Many of them were already equipped with established connections with older relatives or family friends who were alumni or already working within their chosen fields of study.  

However, the experience of moving off campus in my second year taught me to get comfortable with my own company. Although I had amazing housemates, I spent most of the summer living alone. With that, I learned to go all in when it came to attending social events solo, pretending to have the kind of confidence I aspired to have. Even if things didn’t go as planned, I saw the humour in it, knowing it could fuel a funny tale to tell another day. Admittedly, shifting my perspective to find positivity or productivity in these moments was a lot easier said than done. Yet, gradually my growing self-assurance made creating new friendships and networking professionally a much more natural process for me.    

Lesson two: Keeping the culture alive 

As I moved away from home for university, I wasn’t prepared for the effort required to keep the parts of my family’s culture in my everyday life. Speaking Spanish with my parents and extended family had been my norm, but the shift to an environment with fewer opportunities to speak the language resulted in a decline of my proficiency. After noticing this, in my second year, I put in the effort to bridge this gap. My musical tastes evolved to encompass the songs from my childhood and from my parents’ old CDs. I joined the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) as a means to preserve my Latinidad, allowing me to create amazing friendships and connections. In this space, I felt so seen as someone who identifies as Latina. It truly felt like a home away from home.  

This experience, of being away from home and from those who share the same culture as me, underscored the importance of intentional effort in upholding the essence of my heritage, reminding me that even among new experiences, this part of my cultural identity stays with me.  

Lesson three: Getting out of my comfort zone 

Growing up, I often observed my immigrant parents avoiding financial and career risks, likely to safeguard the foundation they had painstakingly built for our family. Reflecting on this, I realized that their cautious mindset had unconsciously influenced me. 

During my early years at McMaster, I found myself hesitating to venture beyond my comfort zone and embrace risks within my undergraduate journey. I often thought about how my academic and personal life might have unfolded differently had I chosen unconventional paths or pursued my less mainstream passions — ones that might not promise immediate financial success or security. 

Having recognized this ingrained mindset, I have consciously shifted towards being more open to taking educated risks. For instance, I’ve blended my interests in Communications and Science to focus on Science Communication within my degree. I believe this change in perspective has enabled me to live without regret, actively exploring various experiences to discern what resonates with me. These lessons, whether positive or negative, contribute to shaping my preferences and choices for the future. 

The journey continues 

My journey as a first-generation university student in Canada has been a remarkable ride, filled with lessons that extend beyond my personal growth. This journey is not solely about my individual experiences; it’s about building a robust foundation of connections, resilience, and shared knowledge. Through my experiences, I hope to contribute to a narrative of determination, cultural preservation and the courage to venture beyond comfort zones — a narrative that transcends time and resonates with others on their unique journeys.