This is for mom and dad: Examining parental pressure in higher education

By Betti Halsell, Feb. 20, 2024

Most of us are in college because our parents told us this was the finite pathway to success. We are obliged to this idea because there is a desire to make them proud.  

It leaves room to question why any of us truly go to college. Is it for personal development? Is it for career elevation, or is it simply because our parents want us to?   

Coming to the end of my journey at Cal Poly Pomona, I grappled with a lot of different reasons why achieving this goal has taken my full attention; the main reason is my parents. When I enrolled and began this journey, the emblem of making my parents proud was imprinted on my heart.  

My parents didn’t apply much weight to excelling in school or pursuing higher education. The pressure came through observation and calculating the future.   

My dad has been a pool technician for over 20 years, and I watched my mom — as a single parent — go through many different jobs, holding longevity as a privately sanctioned bus driver. They are reaching an age of retirement with no financial nest to settle into.   

They never applied the weight of me needing to step up and take care of them, but I carry it on my back, nestled between my books and MacBook while I head to class on a mission. I will be the first in my immediate family to earn a college degree.   

Many students share a similar pressure in the decision-making process of going to college, with the notion of making their parents proud, or in some cases not having a choice. As students of the next generation look for their purpose and social contribution, they dedicate four years or more of their life to the emotional pull of their guardians.   

As a Black girl developing into a Black woman, there is a certain overarching understanding that I’m expected to achieve a level of academic success, to raise my self-identity and social acceptance.   

Facing an intersectionality of being Black and a woman, this systematically puts me at a disadvantage in a world seen through a white male perspective of power. Very early in my development, I was taught I had to be twice as good to compete for the same position as my peers.   

In the article, “My Parents Did Not Play about School,” experts in human behavior explored the process of planning for college among Black women and their parents. Looking at high-achieving Black women, the study measured the act of internalizing the expectations, pressures to succeed and gaps in parental knowledge.   

The study confirmed the essential role of parents in their child’s academic achievement. Parental encouragement plays a significant role in the attainment of higher education for Black girls. Their involvement directly links to the hopes and dreams of their children who are searching for a new level of success through education.   

The article considered that 42% of the participants received “explicit messages” from their parents about higher education, and 40% of them described a heightened sense of pressure from their parents to achieve academic success.  

In my case, my parents have been my silent motivation. They have yet to externally share their expectations, but I decided I want to be able to provide for them and show them their gifts live through me.   

Communication student Bia Machain examined her parents’ perspective on academic achievement.   

“I felt like my parents had somewhat of a mixed viewpoint; they often pushed my decisions in different directions I was not in favor of,” Machain said.  “I had a fashion school in New York I got into, but the support from them just was not there. They also pushed me to apply for UCs, despite the fact I was adamant about going to a CSU — like CPP — where I could begin my major right away. They of course were supportive in the end and are still supportive now, but I still wonder how different things could’ve been.”   

My initial thought for earning my bachelor’s in multimedia journalism was to serve as a reflection of my parents’ hard work and perseverance. They’re the main reason why I entered this campus on a clear mission, but I ended up taking in a deeper message: I needed to see a version of my parents succeeding academically in myself.  

Feature image courtesy of Betti Halsell

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