If you went up to my parents right now and asked them, “What does your daughter do?”, my dad would say in his thick Thai accent, “Mmm, I don’t know” and end with a chuckle of embarrassment. My mother would reply with a hint of flush in her face, “Human Resource…” because she has no idea what the difference is between Human Resources and Human Services (what my actual Bachelor’s degree is in).
After four years of undergrad, two years of graduate school, hundreds of hours of unpaid internships, volunteer hours, and student leadership positions…my parents might never be proud of me. It sounds sad, doesn’t it? But how do you show appreciation and pride for your daughter when you don’t understand what she does?
Now, I don’t say this with frustration or animosity towards my parents at all. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea that they aren’t happy for me and my accomplishments. They are incredibly supportive people who have provided me with everything they ever could. But I also acknowledge that my studies, my current work, and my life goals are not oriented towards something they understand.
I often find myself sharing this experience with the college students I work with. Not so they begin to question if their parents are proud of them, but so students can begin to define success on their own terms. Being a first-generation student usually comes with the weight of expectations from your family while also creating a life that is meaningful to you.
As immigrant parents, my parents hold a certain vision for what it means to be “successful” in this country. They have an idea, as many other Asian immigrant parents have for their children, to attend school and get a financially stable job so that you can support your future family. So when you have a daughter that repeatedly tells you, “I want to help people and I want to work for a non-profit,” that’s not exactly a job title parents can wrap their head around.
My parents didn’t understand what it meant to study counseling, crisis intervention, multicultural identities, or mental health. By the time they had somewhat of an idea, my concerned mother said to me, “Oh, human services. I don’t think you make a lot of money in that?” And she was absolutely right; you can throw “financially stable” out the window.
This is not the path my parents set out for me. An activist-advocate-college-advisor. A person who dedicates their life advocating for justice, helping marginalized communities, and supporting equitable education. This is not the person they knowingly raised their daughter to become. So, every time I end my brief phone calls with them I wonder, “If you knew what I really did today at work, would you be proud of me?”
Even if I never receive clarity around that question, I like to believe that my parents are like the families who drop off their students at our advisories and attend our monthly parent meetings. They will always find ways to support my dreams and goals. Because that’s what parents do. Through generational gaps and language barriers, parents like ours do anything they can to help us live a life we’re all proud of.