It’s impossible not to think of “Three Miles” while reading Jennine Capo Crucet’s debut novel, “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” which tackles with precision, depth, and nuance the private struggles first-generation college students face. The works can — and should — be consumed in conversation with each other. Where the podcast offers an affecting glimpse at real-life first-generation-college-student obstacles, the novel has the time and space to give those obstacles deeper resonance.
Its protagonist, Lizet Ramirez, secretly applies to three out-of-state, top-tier colleges on a lark. She’s suffocating in her small Miami neighborhood, where Cuban-American teenage girls are generally expected have children and marry — often in that order — right of high school. But she doesn’t want her family — or her longtime boyfriend, Omar, who is fully prepared to follow the post-high-school-graduation proposal script — to know that she’s dissatisfied with the prospects awaiting her if she stays at home. When she’s accepted to Rawlings College, a fictional elite private institution in upstate New York, she’s reluctant to tell her parents, whose relationship is strained, and her older sister, who relies on Lizet for help with her infant son.
Like many first-generation college students, Lizet’s challenges begin as soon as she opens her acceptance letter. She has to navigate the gauntlet of financial aid and admissions paperwork alone. Her family can barely afford her airfare and cannot accompany her to help with her dormitory move-in. Her parents decide to divorce in the summer before she leaves. It’s a personal misfortune with repercussions that will reverberate through the entire narrative, but it also helps Lizet score a bigger financial aid package, an irony for which she’s almost ashamed to be grateful. Academically and socially, she struggles to bridge the college preparedness gap. Lizet, the only student in the history of her high school to be accepted to Rawlings College, finds herself facing a plagiarism charge during her first semester, having never learned how to properly cite sources in college essays.
Lizet tries to hide her campus struggles from her peers — even and, at times, especially from fellow first-generation students like herself — and from her family, who wouldn’t understand why it’s so difficult for her to adapt. She soon finds herself having an identity crisis, out of place at school and back home when she visits. She longs for validation from her family, but she’s greeted with jealousy, mockery, accusation, and open derision far more often than she’s given any sign that her relatives are supportive, proud, or impressed. Her sister constantly accuses her of talking and reasoning “like a white girl,” while her roommate and classmates emphasize that she’s Cuban, frequently asking her to opine on Latino experiences. Worst of all, Lizet, like both Gonzales and Hardy in “Three Miles,” deals with impostor syndrome throughout her academic career and beyond. Her doubts about whether she’s deserving of the education she’s receiving and the opportunities it affords her, are insidious, even after she conquers her steep learning curve.
It’s difficult to adequately capture the tension of first-generation college life in popular culture. The stress, the psychological and emotional conflict, and the strain placed on familial relationships and friendships are too often secreted away, in order to advance an inspiring narrative of achievement against all odds. Crucet is masterful at complicating that narrative of uplift, managing to make her fictional protagonist’s struggles as haunting and compelling as the students profiled on “This American Life.” “Make Your Home Among Strangers” is a deserving addition to a small, but necessary body of work committed to honest representations of academic striving among those who have been under-prepared and under-supported.