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Navigating the “first-gen” label

Each year we invite IB alumni to share their experiences, interests and advice with our global community with the graduate voices series. We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) graduate from Universal American School (UAS) in Dubai​, Kymberley Chu to share her perspective as a first-generation university student.

April 14, 2018 Davis / CA / USA - Light traffic on I80 towards Sacramento

By Kymberley Chu

Wearing the “first-gen” label

“The intersectionality of my identities overlapping with the first-generation college student status created cultural ambiguities where ever I went.”

The label first-generation college student is not monolithic. Instead, it’s an umbrella of diverse cultural backgrounds and narratives. I am a third-culture kid—born in Malaysia, growing up in countries from New Zealand to the UAE and now attending the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) in the United States. At times this background felt like a vicious cycle of denial and uncertainty in terms of addressing my perceived, “unconventional” identity. “Where are you from?” “What is a first-generation student?” The intersectionality of my identities overlapping with the first-generation college student status created cultural ambiguities where ever I went.

My first-generation college student (first-gen) status stems from the fact that both of my parents could not attend traditional 4-year colleges due to financial constraints and domestic household issues in their home country of Malaysia. During my IB high school years in the UAE, I perceived a sense of shame, a seemly unspoken social stigma, about being first-gen. Several of my high school peers were not aware of what first-gen meant and the high school faculty failed to address the transition of first-gen students adequately enough.

I wish that there were more resources or social support networks in my high school because I felt insecure and vulnerable due to the fact very few people talked about the first-gen status.

I felt socially isolated from my peers who seemed to have, “insider knowledge,” about college because their parents had attended 4-year universities. My international high school mostly consisted of children who came from other professional backgrounds whose parents were doctors, engineers and business professionals. I felt invalidated and socially isolated because neither of my parents had 4-year degrees, even though they were still able to achieve professional success in the aviation industry and travel abroad. My father was able to achieve a full-ride scholarship to attend pilot school where he eventually earned an associate’s degree in flying. Graduating from the Diploma Programme, I earned a merit scholarship to attend UC Davis.

Overcoming the stigma

“I feel intrinsic motivation in dismantling my own internalized social stigma.”

The IB is ever evolving towards the contemporary academic needs that prepare students not only for college, but also aiding the growth of an intellectual mindset. For example, the IB diploma’s Theory of Knowledge (TOK) component emphasized open-mindedness in reflecting and approaching societal issues with an interdisciplinary approach. The TOK component emphasized how there were no “wrong” ways of knowing and how each sort of knowing (e.g. social sciences, natural sciences, emotions) provided insight on the same societal issues through different perspectives. Overall, the IB diploma’s requirement to do classes in each area such as the social sciences and the arts solidified my appreciation for the holistic, interdisciplinary learning towards the synthesis of various disciplines. This learning style addressed very complex societal issues I would later learn.

Both the DP curriculum and the notion of transculturalism I gained in living in multicultural social environments influenced me to improve skills such as cross-cultural competence, critical thinking and open-mindedness. This globalized mindset would later influence me to learn about societal issues such as the psychology of racism and cultural studies in college at UC Davis.

Currently at UC Davis, I am double majoring in Cognitive Science and International Relations. I am highly intrigued by how social and natural scientists approach global issues such as racism with a myriad of different solutions and perspectives. I embraced the intersectionality of my cultural identities through participating in the UC Davis Global Ambassador Program at the International Center where I’ll be a coordinator for cultural peer mentors who assist international students in transitioning to both American domestic life and UC Davis campus life while facilitating a cross-cultural bridge between American and international students. Furthermore, I volunteer in a psychological lab that conducts studies on social conformity and group attitudes while our lab meetings address social topics such as the flaws of collecting scientific data or diversity in science. Having faculty mentors in college strongly motivated me to not only engage in undergraduate research but to understand the intellectual and social perspectives on the learning process of obtaining a PhD.

With this background, I started to realize that I didn’t live in a world that addresses societal issues such as racism and technology in purely black and white perspectives. At UC Davis, I began to feel empowered and liberated by the fact that I’m the first in my family to go to college. I feel intrinsic motivation in dismantling my own internalized social stigma around being first-gen. The first-gen label was not rooted in one singular rigid meaning. Instead, I met other UC Davis first-gen peers who like me, came from middle class backgrounds, have hard working immigrant parents and grew up in different countries. We strive to make the best out of our college experiences while upholding our values of resilience, independence, critical thinking, carrying with us our hopes, dreams and aspirations wherever we go.

Kym Chu

Kymberley Chu is a current University of California, Davis second year student double majoring in Cognitive Science and International Relations. She is also a graduate of the Universal American School in Dubai’s IB program in 2017. Kymberley aspires to pursue academic research and PhD programs that examine social issues such as the psychology of racism. She enjoys reading, coding, weightlifting and making mind maps in her free time. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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