What It Means to Be First Generation

Sandra Neil Wallace voting voted in the Primary elections SEPT 2018I became a US citizen on December 16, 2016 at 9:01 a.m. You never forget that moment—it’s etched in your brain and in your soul forever. You remember what you wore (red wool dress, my grandmother’s shawl), how you felt (floating like a balloon, shaky knees, quivering lips), and who you were with. For me, it was a celebration of sisterhood. As Lady Liberty shone on the screen at the front of the state courtroom, I stood shoulder to shoulder with women from Colombia, China, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We soon cried and laughed together hugging and congratulating one another as “my fellow Americans,” as soul sisters, as first generation trailblazers.

Three weeks before, I’d had a much different experience. I sat in a waiting room surrounded by grey walls with my husband holding my hand, whispering, “You’re going to be great,” while I mentally went over the 100 answers to the 100 questions I might be asked by the USCIS officer. I was about to take my US citizenship test, and on the wall in front of me hung framed pictures of movie stars—all of them men and all of them white–who had become naturalized citizens.

But I didn’t stand with white male movie stars when I became a US citizen—I stood beside people who are true reflections of new Americans elevating this country right now. And I thought, “Why aren’t the people in this courtroom reflected in the books kids read?” The next day, Rich Wallace and I began writing FIRST GENERATION: 36 Trailblazing Immigrants and Refugees Who Make America Great.

First Generation can mean two things:

  1. The first member of a family to immigrate to a new country.
  2. Children who are born in that new country to immigrant parents.

Those are the dictionary meanings. But what does it mean in real life? For me, it means everything. I’m the first generation in my family to be born in Canada, and the first to have English as my birth language. I’m also the first to go to university and immigrate to the United States.

DjYNS4HX0AA7LXwThe moniker can be both an honor and a burden: there’s the pressure of expecting to graduate with the highest marks, to earn a top salary that will secure financial freedom for several generations of family members. As we wrote about the first generation trailblazers in our book, it became obvious that these experiences are shared across all cultures, ethnicities, races, genders and classes.

What all of us know, too, is why we are first generation: because of the courage, the grit, and the sacrifices our families made for us. But in so many ways—in the most life-affirming ways–what first gens and immigrants and refugees want is what everyone wants: to belong and be loved, to have a purpose in life, and to be with and to support family.


Growing up, Mazie Hirono–the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate–convinced her school to let her work in the cafeteria during lunches and stuffed her earnings into a piggy bank so that her single mom could use it to buy groceries. As a kid, entrepreneur Maria Contreras-Sweet recycled bottles, babysat, and made bows in a flower shop to elevate her family. In college I worked two jobs—one at a radio station, the other at a TV station—to pay for my tuition.

My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother came to Canada after World War II as concentration camp survivors from Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. They had become stateless, stripped of their citizenship and their voices. That’s why I was one of the first people in line at the polls for the recent primaries. It was the first time I had a full voice in this country, that I could experience full citizenship and my part in the franchise. The man who opened the door saw my wide grin and asked why I was so enthusiastic just to vote. “First generation,” I proudly told him. And with that he handed me a voting sticker and shook my hand.

Sandra Neil Wallace close-up 2018Sandra Neil Wallace writes biographies for young readers that focus on people who break barriers and change the world, including FIRST GENERATION: 36 Trailblazing Immigrants and Refugees Who Make America Great. An immigrant and daughter of a concentration camp survivor, Sandra broke a gender barrier in sports as the first woman to host an NHL broadcast on national TV. Her titles have been selected as ALA Notable books and awarded Booklist’s Editors’ Choice, Kirkus Best Children’s Books of the Year, and the ILA Social Justice Literature Award. She is a founding-year member of the Keene (NH) Immigrant and Refugee Partnership and an advisor to the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College. Visit Sandra at www.sandraneilwallace.com

2 thoughts on “What It Means to Be First Generation

  1. Thank you for writing this beautiful, amazing book! I can’t wait to share it with my students, many of whom are first generations. I’m so delighted to see these stories that truly reflect our country being written and shared with the next generation.


    1. Thank-you, Shari. I can’t wait for you to share FIRST GENERATION with your students! They deserve to know about these first-gen heroes and the true stories about the contributions immigrants and refugees make to America.


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