Guest opinion by Caecilia Gotama
A stark irony to the year 2020 was the degree to which we recognized how out-of-focus many of our society’s systems had become and the importance of mobilizing to make things better.
As director of the nonprofit 501(c)3 organization BRDG – bridge to connect, I lead an organization whose leadership, volunteers, and mission are keenly focused on providing support for first-generation (FG) students in areas where the challenges of cultural mismatch can be addressed.
In year three, our organizational empirical knowledge has led to key insights to help direct the success of FG students.
Insight #1: Within cultural minorities, success can be psychologically threatening to one and all.
Only recently, I learned that the drive for “our children to be better than the parents” is not a universal goal and that getting out of a disadvantaged situation demands more hard work; it requires a fortitude of spirit to navigate conflicts between the pull of family and cultural connection and a life open to fulfilling dreams.
Creating opportunities for the targeted first generation alone is inadequate; opportunities need to engage support systems of family and other networks so that the breaking of norms is positively embraced or, at a minimum, accepted. And it’s incumbent upon those who have succeeded to share their story with those wishing to follow.
Insight #2: Gaps in knowledge and know-how become potholes on the road to success.
By definition, first-generation students lack parents, aunts and/or uncles who can guide them in making the best choices while in college. Generally, these students choose practical options to accommodate their family situation and often to the detriment of developing their career.
Melissa, one of our successful students, is a first-generation Computer Engineering student who joined Bridge to Connect (BRDG) in her junior year. Now a graduate of our program, Melissa is a System Analyst at a Fortune 500 company with an above-average salary and an achievable earnings potential beyond what she could dream in her youth.
Insight #3: Diversity and inclusion will shape America to be its best.
After an internship experience at an architectural firm, Melissa wrote: “In the world of technology, the synergy created by staff with a variety of past life experiences generates unique, advanced and potentially untried or unfamiliar designs and concepts for analysis.”
And I believe the results will do far more than restore and preserve the greatness of the American economic engine; first-generation leaders in science and technology can lead the way to a future of greater innovation and impact while growing the equity we desire to celebrate and share as a community.
Caecilia Gotama was born in Java, Indonesia, and is the founder and chief executive of Bridge to Connect (BRDG). She is a licensed Mechanical Engineer and Fellow of American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and is retired from owning and operating a successful engineering company.