Author encourages first-generation Haskell, KU students to ‘show up for yourself’

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Author Alejandra Campoverdi spoke Friday with first-generation Haskell and University of Kansas students about loneliness, emotional inheritances and vulnerability.

The KU Center for Educational Opportunity Programs and Haskell TRIO Student Success Services welcomed Campoverdi, author of “First Gen: A Memoir,” on National TRIO Day.

This year marks 60 years of TRIO, federal programs that assist students in overcoming the obstacles they face as the first in their families to attend and graduate from college. An estimated 6 million students have graduated from college with the support of TRIO programs nationwide, according to event organizers.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

Campoverdi holds a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She served under President Barack Obama as the first White House deputy director of Hispanic Media. She produced and appeared in the PBS documentary “Inheritance,” and she founded the Latinos & BRCA initiative to raise awareness of certain cancers. She currently serves on the boards of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and the California Community Foundation. 

Campoverdi considers the first-gen college experience to be a “first and only” experience. “It’s an emotional experience that any of us who have been the first to cross the threshold can identify with.”

“One of the biggest issues with being a first-and-only is, surprise surprise, loneliness and isolation,” she said. 

Campoverdi conducted a poll among first-generation college students before she published her book. The poll showed that 65% of first-gen students felt that the first-gen college experience had a negative impact on their mental and emotional health.

The biggest issue affecting first-gen college students was financial insecurity, followed closely by loneliness and isolation. “Number two is why I wrote this book,” she said.

“We’re talking about millions of students, and everyone in this room,” she said. “And if we’re all having similar emotional experiences, how come we all feel so isolated?”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

Campoverdi said she grew up in a chaotic family system.

“The more I was dealing with chaos in my home life and my personal life, the higher my grades got,” she said. “It was like I was being rewarded for using this perfectionism and high achieving as a coping mechanism.”

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Campoverdi told the students that it’s important to think about what is driving their decisions and accomplishments and that they may not find the balance they want, even though they continue to achieve.

“What kind of ancestor do I want to be? Do I want to break the cycle or be a perfectionist?” 

Beyond breaking intergenerational cycles of abuse, Campoverdi told the students about also breaking cycles that lead to no rest, to living in survival mode, to not having balance in life, and not being able to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Nubia Palacios is a KU McNair TRiO scholar. She immigrated to Milan, Missouri from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, when she was 14.

As a young scholar, Campoverdi was presented with the idea of imposter syndrome. She was told that she would “get overtaken with imposter syndrome” and warned that it was a confidence issue. Once she was in those new spaces, it occurred to her that she had natural feelings of not belonging. “We’re operating in systems, and no matter how confident we are,” the message that is reflected is “that we don’t belong,” she said. 

She gave the example of peers in a workplace excluding her. 

“Do you think I was overtaken by imposter syndrome? Is that what happened?” she asked. “Or am I perceptive enough to identify and recognize that there are systems that reflect back to us that we’re not a part of them?”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Troy Begay, Navajo, is a student at Haskell Indian Nations University.

She asked the students in the audience if they were attending school because someone told them to be first-gen students, or because attending school was something important to them. By a show of hands, the majority of the students indicated that they are in school because of their internal drive. 

“Own that,” she said. Just as attending school is self-driven, cycle-breaking is self-driven. 

“We’ve all heard about generational trauma, but I take it a step further than that,” she said of emotional inheritances. “There’s a lot of things we inherited. Not all of them are bad, some are beautiful, and I honor those inheritances.”

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“We all have ancestors whose steps lead into ours,” she said, and first-gen students are “born with a certain degree of inherent wisdom. Is that cumulative from your ancestors?”

A Genogram is included in the back of Campoverdi’s book so readers can chart the emotional dynamics that have been passed down and repeated through generations.

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, a student asked Campoverdi how they could be good stewards for the next generations of first-gen students and how they could leave their schools better for the students who come after them.

Campoverdi responded, “You guys are focused on everyone else … You have to put your air masks on first, or whatever they say on the plane.” 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Alejandra Campoverdi

She said she’s not there to teach them how to help the next generation but that she wants to help them learn to see themselves and their needs, “because that’s directly related to how much you’re going to be able to help the next generation.”

“What is it that you need right now? How can you show up for yourself?” she asked. 

She also said vulnerability has the power to form connections with one another. 

“You will inspire people by living your life,” she said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lori Hasselman, Shawnee and Delaware, is the director of Native American and Indigenous affairs at KU and a first-generation college graduate.
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Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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