Sitting in the Mandeville building canteen, Sita Baldew (55) and her daughter Rashmi Baldew (21) have a view of the campus. They came here together from their home in Rotterdam-Zuid. Sita hasn’t been to the university very often. The last time was during Rashmi’s bachelor’s degree ceremony. Rashmi is now pursuing a master’s degree in Media and Creative Studies. Sita herself did not pursue higher education, which makes Rashmi a first-generation student.
They have never discussed the fact that Rashmi is a first-generation student. “We didn’t really talk about that at home”, Rashmi tells her mother. “Did you think about it?”
“I did”, Sita replies. “I was nervous when you went to university because it was entirely new to you. But also because I didn’t know much about it myself.” Sita completed a vocational teacher training programme in her home country of Suriname and worked in childcare in the Netherlands. “I wondered: how does this all work? Will everything be okay? I was even more nervous than you were.”
A great deal of pride – and a little apprehension. That’s what it’s like to be a parent of a first-generation student
Going to higher education is not just a new experience for students who are the first in…
“More nervous than I was? And I was already so nervous!”, Rashmi says in surprise. She recalls her first time attending the Eurekaweek. “I didn’t know anyone and saw people who were very different from those in my own multicultural environment. I was afraid to get out of the car. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared”, she says. “But I never realised that you were even more nervous than I was.” Sita responds: “Right, because that would have made it even worse for you.”
Thanks to the university’s open days, which she attended with her daughter, Sita calmed down a bit. “I appreciated being told what the programmes entail and what students have to do. It helped me get to know the university better.”
Exploration and decisions
However, Rashmi had to navigate the university without her mother’s help. Just before starting university, she joined the Giving Back Students Community, an association that supports first-generation students in their careers. She has been a committee member for the association for a few years now. In the beginning of her student life, she also received some help from her twin brother, who also attends university, with enrolment and handling matters with DUO (the Dutch Education Executive Agency).
“I had asked him to take care of those things for you”, Sita says. “I don’t believe it’s right for parents to constantly help their children. Even in primary school, for example, I hardly ever helped you with homework.” Rashmi agrees: “That’s true. I’ve never realised that until now.”
“I left everything related to the university up to you”, Sita continues. “That also removed a burden from me, because I couldn’t help you much anyway. I’m not going to just tell you to pursue any specific programme, for example, when I myself don’t really know what it entails.”
“In secondary school, I was so very uncertain about what I wanted to study, that I once thought: ‘Can’t you just tell me which way I should go? Why don’t you put pressure on me? Tell me what to study!’”, says Rashmi. “But I’m glad you didn’t do that. I’m glad I made my own choice, because it made me study the subject I enjoy the most.”
It wasn’t until partway through her first year of the International Bachelor Communication and Media that Rashmi truly realised that she is a first-generation student. “In the beginning, I had to ask other students a lot of questions, such as how to arrange for books.”
She also noticed a completely different culture, despite feeling at home in the multicultural environment of an international study programme. “Some international students come from more affluent backgrounds, which sometimes led them to do things I had never considered”, she says. “For instance, I have always been interested in design and photography, but I didn’t know what to do with it because no one in my family pursued those fields. At the university, students had the most expensive cameras and software programs that I didn’t even know existed. Additionally, thanks to their parents’ high positions, they often already had work placements at companies. They were three steps ahead of me.”
“It’s disheartening to hear that”, Sita says. “I didn’t have that knowledge either, so I couldn’t help you.” Rashmi responds: “I didn’t mind. The internet and the Giving Back Students Community have helped me tremendously in understanding the steps I need to take to succeed in my career. Plus, you helped me when studying became overwhelming. When that happened, I used to come to you and we’d create a study plan together.”
Sita also always motivates her daughter to work hard, and that includes setting ‘strict boundaries’. “I had heard that everything is allowed at university, that students try out all kinds of things”, she says. “I always said: ‘Stay strong, focus on your studies and don’t just follow the pack’. You don’t have to do things you don’t want to do just to fit in. I also like knowing where you are and who you are with. That may annoy you at times, but there you go”, Sita chuckles.
Rashmi shrugs. “I actually appreciate having that discipline”, she says. “And I’m sure it will help me later in life. Rules are rules. It’s the same way at my friends’ homes, so it’s normal for me. Besides, it’s never unreasonable and I can still have plenty of fun.”