We live in an era where the role of immigrants and the value they bring to our American society and economy is in question. While this might be a new phenomenon to some, to many first-generation Americans like myself, the burden that we have to work harder than anyone else to prove we belong is something we’ve always experienced.
The first time it really struck me was in seventh grade. I was called to the principal’s office, not something an honors student like myself was used to. On his desk I saw a paper I wrote for language arts. Written across it in big red letters was the word: “PLAGIARISM?”.
During what felt like an interrogation, I was asked had I paid someone to write it for me? Where on the internet did I find it? It wasn’t explicitly stated but the implication was clear: no kid with my name, skin color or family background could have written something this good without help.
This event could have broken my will. It’s easy, and understandable, to see yourself as others do: unworthy of respect. However, this event did just the opposite. It fortified my determination to prove others wrong. The journey has not always been the easiest, or filled with much sleep, but here’s what I’ve done to prove I belong.
Say “Yes” to everything
Ok, maybe not everything. But realize that it takes will, not skill, to do a little more.
For me, this habit started in elementary school. I would always ask for additional homework or more challenging problems to complete. This caught the attention of my teachers – because what kid wants to do more homework – and led to me attending a rigorous charter school and prestigious high school. If I hadn’t asked to do more, I don’t know if I would have had the same opportunities.
In my professional life, saying “Yes” means always looking for the next event, workshop or educational opportunity. Even if an event is a bust, and you don’t learn all you had hoped for, make at least one connection.
This is especially important for anyone who doesn’t have an established professional network. Many immigrants, myself included, are the first in their families to enter the “white collar” world. We don’t have our parents’ collegiate or professional acquaintances to rely on for internships or entry level positions. We have to get our faces and names out there and prove how great we are to the rest of the world.
Structure the chaos
Saying “Yes” to everything creates scheduling nightmares. You need structure in order to accomplish your goals and deliver on obligations and promises to others.
Everything I do goes on a calendar. Work meetings, networking events, naps, runs, free time. Everything. This may seem obsessive, but it’s the best way I’ve found to prioritize what’s important. In college, this meant scheduling around classes and my education, followed by work, multiple extracurriculars and then my own social life. If anything more important arose, I knew what to drop from my schedule to fit it in.
The values of my priorities aren’t universal. You have your own set of objectives and goals. Set up your time accordingly. Just maybe schedule a little more sleep than I do.
Talk to people
I grew up in a large, outgoing family. Kids were encouraged to talk to adults and the adults were gracious to pass down their collected wisdom. As a result, I’ve never been afraid of talking to others, either my peers or superiors.
Everyone knows something that you don’t. The only way to learn it is to ask. I wouldn’t be a software engineer if I hadn’t talked to a computer science major in college. That conversation changed the direction of my life.
As a software engineer, I’m always picking the brains of senior developers. Being still early in my career, I want to accelerate my learning curve. These people have been there, seen it, done it. There’s a wellspring of knowledge that I can access, if I just talk to them.
Talking to people is not just for your own growth. It’s to help others grow, too. In college I was a resident assistant and ambassador for my university’s program that helped first-year, first-generation students transition into college life. These are opportunities to give back to others and share with them what you know. It’s a way to build networks and communities, and to make their journey easier than it was for you. Ultimately, that’s the goal; to fight your way to the top and leave a ladder behind for others to use.
Hard work has no boundaries
My father is the hardest worker I know. While I didn’t get his abilities at manual labor – seriously, keep me away from house projects – I inherited his work ethic and applied it to what others consider more “intellectual” pursuits.
But this distinction between manual and mental labor misses the point. A person’s ability and potential isn’t predetermined by what they look like or where they come from. Ability and potential are determined by who a person is and how they choose to act. It may take some people more time to understand this. But until everyone gets it, you can control how you pursue your goals and prove to the world that you belong.
Marc Garcia is a software developer at Catalyte