Latino Americans Blog

The Rainbow Fish

August 20, 2013 11:48 AM by Amber Seira

In elementary school I loved reading The Rainbow Fish, a picture book about a fish with many shiny scales who learns the joy in giving to others after he eventually overcomes vainness and shares his rainbow scales with his other fish friends. Fast-forward almost two decades and little did I know that this simple children’s tale epitomized my Latina university experience as a First Generation College graduate.

My experience in earning my family’s first bachelor degree is not too uncommon for Latinos across the country. 22 percent of enrolled college students have at least one immigrant parent and 40 percent of Latino youth enrolled in postsecondary education is a first generation college student. I happen to fit both of these statistics.

At the age of 17, I made the decision to leave everything and venture out east to attend The Ohio State University. The implication of that decision never fully crossed my mind; otherwise I would have scared myself to dream smaller. Had I known about the painful homesickness and severe culture shock I would experience it would seem easy to talk myself out of it. Furthermore, I did not realize the difficulty to start school without any type of support network. I had no family or friends in the entire campus, let alone the state.

Lastly I faced the common issue as many other first generation Latinos encounter, the lack of representation in higher education. In the face of privilege and ignorant cultural misunderstanding it was tough to face racism where I felt severely outnumbered. My experience was from the scale of, “Oh you’re Mexican? I grew out a mustache and wore a sombrero on Cinco de Mayo,” comments to, “Your presentation was interesting on Ohio immigration but what are your suggestions for Illegals and their anchor babies?” While overwhelming at first I steadily chipped away at all these issues. I soon found out that once the barrier to independence was broken nothing seemed unrealistic or impossible for me.

An obvious aspect in first generation college students is that they are on their own in solving college and the college application process. Personally I had to find information by myself, spending lots of confusing hours in my high school’s computer lab. My younger sister also plays a unique role in my college experience. At first I would get frustrated when she asked me for college application advice. I wanted my sister to endure the same as I but eventually my bitterness eased. I soon began to value my bicultural experience and realized that it was something I needed to share with her.

In my latter years in college I was driven like the Rainbow Fish to share parts of me to everyone, telling my story and changing the situation for my sister, peers, and the community at large in Latino higher education access and attainment results. After finding the appropriate venues, this ultimately shaped my campus involvement and career path. I help found the Latino Student Association at Ohio State, nominated to a task force for campus climate reassessment, and volunteered for high school mentorship opportunities. Once motivated there was a reason to grasp every day and embrace it with my Latinidad. In my senior year I translated this passion into a career opportunity and interned in Washington, DC at the U.S. Department of Education in the Hispanic-Serving Institution Division. I learned greatly about the situation nationwide for Latino success in higher education. It wasn’t until my graduation weekend where I was given my hardest test.

Of the numerous pre-commencement ceremonies I attended, none were more important to me than the Latino Graduation Ceremony. It was here that I would receive my stole to proudly wear at commencement, a public symbol honoring my Mexican-American background. To me it wasn’t an identity marker, it was a statement confirming that all I had accomplished to receive my degree was possible with my heritage, not a handicap.

The greatest satisfaction of accomplishment ever experienced happened that Friday evening when I finally felt the stole placed on my shoulders, a feeling greatly anticipated for four years. This emotion would only be topped on the following Sunday, the first time when I opened my diploma case and read my name inscribed on my degree certificate.

A million photos were taken after Friday’s ceremony. One particular photo I distinctly remember was when my sister turned to me and asked if she could take a photo with her wearing my stole. A familiar, ugly feeling squirmed its way back up. My first thoughts were, No! You can’t wear this! You have no idea what I had to go through. I thought back to all the late nights cramming for tests, the long distance calls home on Thanksgiving, the constant remarks made about my ethnicity that severely challenged my patience.

Pausing, I realized that no, she may not know exactly what I had to go through to get this. In fact, my sister may already have a glimpse of the difficulties in postsecondary education but she damn well will know what it feels like to have our heritage celebrated alongside an elite accomplishment.

Swiftly to disguise my hesitation, I removed the purple textile from my shoulders and set it onto her waiting ones. In that instant I experienced my true Rainbow Fish moment, sharing the physical representation of success and heritage pride with somebody even more precious than that triumph.

What good is it to reach the top of a mountain if you don’t have anyone to share that experience? It’s not enough to be the only one succeeding, as Latinos we have to navigate our bicultural upbringing and establish a place and personal understanding in education. Those of us who are driven to bring their Latinidad into their career are advocating for the entire Latino community. It is always important to maintain strong community ties and inspire at least one individual to be more than they ever thought they could possibly become.

Amber is a First Generation College graduate driven to increase higher education access and attainment rates for Hispanic and low income populations. As an undergraduate she held fellowships at The Columbus Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, DC. The Californian native is a member of Ohio State's SPHINX Senior Honorary and is one out of twenty designated 2013 Outstanding Seniors, a recognition awarded to less than one percent of the graduating class. Amber is an Ohio State alum and current MPA candidate at Indiana University.

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