First Gen Icon: Junot Díaz, A First-Generation College Student

Junot Diaz

Contributed By: Alejandra Flores

Going to college can be a difficult journey, but first-generation college students have an even harder road ahead of them. They do not have the luxury of their parents or relatives to guide them and give them advice along the way. These challenges that come with being the first person in a family to attend and graduate college is something that only those who have faced this situation can understand. The parents of these young people give their all to make sure that their children have more opportunities than they did. They sometimes sacrifice themselves through poor working conditions, mistreatment from employers, and long working hours, just so their children can have the chance to be who they want to be and have the ability to achieve their dreams. These are the true motivations that inspire first time college students to thrive academically and to venture into territory that no one in their family has had the luxury to explore.

A way for these first-generation college students to express gratitude to their parents who perhaps never got a chance for better opportunities is to acknowledge that they understand that their parents want them to achieve more out of life and have the desire to help and give back to their parents that have sacrificed so much for them. Yet, sometimes these students struggle for help when they need it. Where can they turn for academic advice, about which classes to take, which major to pursue, when no one in their immediate family has travelled down this road before? Understanding their circumstances can be difficult, and while those students attest that they may have better living conditions than their parents, they can also be suffering from academic struggles. One person who knows of the struggles of being a first-generation college student, is Junot Díaz.

Junot Díaz is a Dominican American author, most known for his award-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Although Díaz has had a life of accomplishments and various award recognitions throughout his career, his life was not always picture perfect. He was born in the Dominican Republic, in the city of Santo Domingo, on December 31st, 1968. When Díaz was a young child, his father left Santo Domingo for better work opportunities in the United States. The family separation, an act that many immigrant families and first-generation college students have experienced in their lifetime, is an event that can greatly impact the life of a person. However, Díaz and his family were able to reunite with his father when he was six years old. They arrived to a poor community in New Jersey, that as Díaz described was “separated from all the other communities by a six lane highway and the dump” (Wroe). After he attended school in New Jersey, Díaz became an avid reader, and although he had awful grades throughout his high school years, reading is what kept him afloat. He became mostly interested in works of fiction and fantasy. His father was a former military man, and enjoyed taking his kids to the firing range. This was something that did not interest or excite Díaz, and he would sneak out to the Sayreville Library, where he was surrounded by the quiet tranquility of books. There he would read everything he could get his hands on. He showed an early interest in writing his own literature by creating a novel inspired by the work of Stephen King, which he now refers to as “garbage” (“Biography of Junot Diaz”). However, this would just be the start of his writing career.

One day, his father suddenly left and never returned. Díaz said about the matter that “it was terrible because you have this real masculine role model that you look up to and then ‘Adios.’ …In our neighborhood, a lot of the kids in our neighborhood didn’t have either parents care about them.” (Mason) The moment after his father left, his mother became the main provider and the one who “kept the family together.” (Mason). She worked tirelessly in cleaning jobs and thanks to her hard work, Díaz was able to attend college. However, his success did not start immediately after he started higher education. He worked in a steel mill and other various blue collar jobs before he became the iconic writer he is today. These jobs gave Díaz the opportunity to be exposed to new cultures and people, but also to learn more about left-wing politics revolving around race and gender (Wroe). These ideas are what modeled his current views and ideals, and are present and shown in his published work.

With the help of his mother and his love for literature, Junot Díaz went on to enroll at Rutgers University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Literature in 1992 (“Biography of Junot Diaz”). After graduating from Rutgers, Díaz pursued a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Cornell University. During his undergraduate years at Rutgers, Díaz was inspired to write Drown, a book of short stories where he describes the struggle of moving from his home in the Dominican Republic, to a poor neighborhood in New Jersey. He expresses inequality, racial disadvantages as well as colorism in the afro-latino community (Martin). After his debut novel of short stories was published in 1995, it took Díaz eleven years to finish his second novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This novel became renowned and was described by the New York Times as “a young melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism” (Scott). This work granted Díaz various awards, including the MacArthur Genius Fellowship in 2012, PEN/Malamud Award in 2002, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a Fellowship from John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award in 1999, and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation Award of Literature in 2016. The Brief Life of Oscar Wao won in 2008 a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Besides being a famed and talented writer, Díaz is also a professor of creative writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his ideologies and personality do not go unnoticed. He continues to work with the youth by having college talks at universities around the country, where he discusses his work, as well as the difficulties that students, specifically first-generation college students, might encounter during their beginning years at a higher level institution. Díaz expressed that “wants marginalized students to understand the ‘cage’ they live in, not only in higher education but in society at large” (DeMarse). He has spoken of the privilege and luxury that a college education can offer, especially for students from an immigrant background.

Junot Díaz is a true inspiration for first-generation college students.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao By Junot Diaz

Many have faced obstacles growing up and going to college, but Junot Díaz is a great example of how dedication, discipline, and hard work pays off. His path from humble beginnings as an immigrant to an award-winning author can inspire first-generation college students to succeed for generations to come.

Biography of Junot Diaz.” GradeSaver, www.gradesaver.com/author/junot-diaz.

DeMarse, Samantha. “Junot Diaz Urges Students to Embrace Identity, Challenge Limitations: Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author Gives LatinX Month Keynote.” The Lafayette, 6 Oct. 2017, www.lafayettestudentnews.com/blog/2017/10/06/pulitzer-prize-winning-author-junot-diaz-discusses-identity.

Martin, Michel. “Author Explains Tales Of New Vision, New Life.” NPR, NPR, 10 June 2009, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105193110. Accessed 7 Apr. 2018.

Mason, Anthony. “The Wondrous Life of Junot Diaz.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 8 June 2008, www.cbsnews.com/news/the-wondrous-life-of-junot-diaz. Accessed 7 Apr. 2018.

Scott, A. O. “Dreaming in Spanglish.” Review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The New York Times, 30 Sept. 2007, p. 79, www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/books/review/Scott-t.html.

Wroe, Nicholas. “Junot Díaz: A Life In Books.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 31 Aug. 2012, www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/31/life-in-books-junot-diaz. Accessed 7 Apr. 2018.