Black and Samoan First-Generation Stanford Alumna, Teyonna Jarman | “Stay Rooted in Culture”
Teyonna Jarman talks about her multicultural identity and her experience as a first-generation college student. Now a Stanford alumna with a B.S. in Product Design, she plans on pursuing opportunities at the intersection of tech, entertainment and education. She hopes to see more students embracing and feeling empowered by their multicultural identities.
What was it like growing up in a multicultural household?
My mom (from American Samoa) and dad (from North Carolina) joined the military after high school and met while on duty. I was born in Germany on an army base and came to continental U.S. when I was 9. Looking back, my entire life was spread out overseas and across the U.S. before going to college.
Both cultures were celebrated in my household, and I had a strong sense of cultural identity throughout my childhood. As I entered my teenage years, I became more self-aware and conscious of my mixed-race identity. At times, I felt removed or different, because I never had the opportunity to learn Samoan and looked different from my cousins with my afro. When comparing myself to my older sister who was raised by my grandmother in Samoa, I felt like a ‘fake Samoan’ while she seemed to embody a true indigenous Samoan identity.
I now recognize and acknowledge that my interactions with Samoan culture were always experienced through an American lens. Figuring out my place in the culture was a struggle as I grew up, but when I turned 16, I got my taulima, my tribal arm band tattoo. It’s a big part of my identity, and it helps me feel connected to my island family. Ever since then, it has empowered me to embrace my Samoan identity and feel a sense of agency and authority to claim my identity.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t feel the need to define my identity in terms of my Samoan side in college. At Stanford, I really needed to explore and feel the same firmness with my black identity, so I actually spent more time with the black community. There were even fewer Pacific Islanders on campus than black students, and I felt too ‘important’ in that space. Being one in 10 people setting the tone and representing a culture was a lot scarier than being one in like, 300. I shied away from what I felt was an enormous responsibility. I started college right around the time that the Black Lives Matter movement started making waves and I felt more urgency to wrestle with my black identity and understand who I am as a black woman.
Tell us about your high school experience and extracurricular involvement.
I went to a small high school in SoCal with mostly other military children. Moving from country to country allowed me to meet people from various backgrounds.
I really thrived in the school environment. In terms of extracurricular activities and student groups, I did everything — which is more of a critique than a brag. Actually, I did way too much. I was class president all throughout high school and middle school; I started a club that helped new students get oriented with school life; I participated in drama; I captained the volleyball team; and I was a student rep on our school district’s advisory board.
As a first-generation college student, how was your transition to college?
I think that all first-generation students face the same sorts of financial, family and social pressures. As the first person in my family attending college, I knew that going to Stanford was a symbol of opportunity and excitement for my family as well as a moment of pressure and anxiety for myself. In my college essay, I remember reflecting on my Samoan upbringing, how important family was to me, and how going to Stanford would be a way for me to nurture my future family and community.
Once I got to college, I struggled to stand on my own two feet and feel confident in my actions. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a disadvantage coming from my first-generation background, but I definitely couldn’t hit the ground running. With that said, I eventually found a new level of confidence by senior year and found my stride.
Choosing a major can be difficult, especially in a liberal arts college. How did you choose your degree?
I had no idea what I wanted to study and was winging it for a year and a half. I loved writing, reading and math, so I explored classes in the English and Math department. After some self-reflection, I pinpointed my interest in storytelling and creating products, and eventually settled on Mechanical Engineering with a focus in Product Design.
You are now a Stanford alumna working in the Bay Area. What are your goals moving forward?
I would like to go back to school and pursue an M.A. in Communication and/or Media Studies to find work at the intersection of tech, education and media. I’m at the perfect point in my career to be open to any and all opportunities. I’m soaking in as much as I can.
What advice do you have for first-generation multicultural students preparing for college?
It’s okay to take a break. Students —especially POC first-gen students — don’t do this enough. Up until high school, I was on top of all my activities and school work. In college, the work was harder to manage, so I was thrown off balance. For so long, I was scrambling to stay afloat but finally realized that I didn’t need to be going at 100% all the time. Be kind to yourself, and allow yourself to take the occasional break and chill out. The balance between busting your butt and celebrating yourself is important for you to master, and it takes practice!
Stay rooted in culture. Any professional space that you occupy will benefit from your unique experiences. You are an extremely valuable asset to any industry, just for being you.