As a first-generation student, Luk-Mattew Phanbandith has always felt the pressure of doing great things for the sake of his parents. He even graduated high school early because his parents liked the idea of him achieving something uncommon.
Now at 21, Phanbandith is graduating from Long Beach State with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and will be the first in his entire family, including extended relatives, to do so. Only this time, Phanbandith is graduating for himself before he lets his achievement belong to anyone else.
The road to graduation has not been easy for Phanbandith. Like many first-generation students, he entered college having no clue what he was doing.
Phanbandith didn’t tour any of the schools he was accepted to but decided to attend Long Beach State because of the cost and distance from his hometown Fresno. He entered as a biology major because he wanted to be a forensic scientist, but struggled heavily in chemistry class.
On top of that, he was taking 18 units because he thought that was normal.
“I didn’t expect that much workload because no one had told me that there would have been that much workload,” Phanbandith said. “It was so unexpected from what I thought because I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve taken eight classes in high school. That’s fine.’ But it was so much more than that.”
After struggling through his first semester, Phanbandith changed his major from biology to psychology to pursue a career in forensics psychology behavior analysis. Phanbandith had to work hard to catch up to the four-year graduation expectation.
When the coronavirus halted in-person classes, Phanbandith took 16 to 17 units to get back on track with a four-year graduation plan. He had to teach himself how college scheduling works, what works best for him, and most importantly, how to cope with the stress college brings.
“Coping with stress has never been something that comes easy to me in terms of just divulging that kind of thing to my family,” Phanbandith said. “Like, I’m like a golden child to my family, but I’m so rusty on the inside, you know?”
Phanbandith practices self-reflection to cope with stress. He became a peer mentor with Project Resilience, an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) mental health awareness group, to practice coping with others.
During meetings, they discuss their shared experiences, like the stress they experience from their families. A common struggle AAPI students face is asking for help since they fear people will think they can’t handle college.
The meetings have been valuable to him and others as they can see they aren’t alone in their experiences while fostering a community with other Asian American students.
“I think with a lot of at least first-gen and AAPI, Asian American Pacific Islander, they have that idea that they have to do this for their families name. So that way, our parents can talk about us at dinner parties.”
When Phanbandith was younger, he still imagined that graduating from college would be something he achieved for his parents. But since coming to Long Beach State, he has been able to build his own identity and learn to see his achievements as his own.
“I just wish someone was able to help me realize that you’re here for yourself first before your family,” Phanbandith said. “You can still maintain a strong relationship and bond with your family while at the same time understanding your own individual desires and acknowledging the achievements that you did for yourself.”
After he graduates, Phanbandith wants to take a break for a year to gain work experience and go to culinary school, a big dream of his.
Although Phanbandith had done research with professors, worked as a residential assistant and worked as a peer mentor with CAPS, he wanted real-world experiences outside of the student realm.
His post-graduation plans may not be what most people consider the normal path of high school, college then grad school, but it’s the path that Phanbandith wants for himself. Part of his growth is setting goals that he wants to achieve for himself only.
“I wish I could have taken my time and kind of felt my way through things before having to rush into it completely and have it detrimentally affect me because I wanted to impress my parents,” Phanbandith said. “I can go at whatever pace I want because if I go any quicker, I won’t be able to handle it, and that’s okay because if I can’t handle it, it creates more mess in the end.”