Doctor, Lawyer, or Activist? Working Through the Pressure to Succeed as an Immigrant
Erin Panichkul, a Thai-American woman with brown hair and dangly earrings.
Erin Panichkul

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By Erin Panichkul, If/When/How Student Organizing Coordinator

It might sound cheesy, but I went to law school because my mom and I idolized Detective Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU. Watching the show as a teenager, I became obsessed with the idea of justice for victims of oppression and violence.

As it turns out, I had no idea what to expect from law school. But I knew what I expected of myself as a first-generation American.

My family sacrificed so much to come to the United States from Thailand and to raise my sister and me in a culture unfamiliar to them. I feel it’s my honor – but also my duty – to build a life where I can give back and take care of my parents as they get older. Becoming a lawyer was a big part of that. It had status. I pursued my legal degree equally for myself and for my family, because they depend on me to climb the ladder of success, to gain financial stability through higher education, and to achieve the “American dream.”

Earlier this year, I attended the Civil Liberties and Public Policy (CLPP) conference at Hampshire College, an experience I knew I’d learn from. But when I found myself in a room with other immigrants and children of immigrants talking about what draws us to reproductive justice, I knew I’d found my people.

The conversation that emerged from this student-led identity workshop — “Doctor, Lawyer, or Activist? Navigating Cultural/Familial Expectations as First Generation” — led by Nicole Villacres-Reyes and Sonia Mohammadzadah, will stay with me forever. It was a closed, safe space for those of us who self-identify as children of immigrants, immigrants, or first-generation students of color.

A genderly and racially diverse group of two dozen young people pose, smiling, at the CLPP conference.
Meeting fellow immigrants and children of immigrants at the “Doctor, Lawyer or Activist?” workshop at the 2018 Civil Liberties and Public Policy conference changed the way Erin thought about her identity, her family, and the expectations she had for herself. [Image courtesy Erin Panichkul]
Never have I had such a relatable discussion about life as a first-generation American navigating the world of social justice and higher education. Even though we came from diverse cultural, economic and geographic backgrounds, there was one thing we all carried in common: the heavy cultural expectations of being born in the United States. Sitting with these ambitious young folks of color, I heard them talk about struggling to balance their passion for careers in social justice and their parents’ desire to see them in a financially stable and respectable profession.

None of us want to disappoint our families. As first-generation college students or recent grads, everyone talked about this internal struggle to support our families while giving back and following our dreams. Meeting our expectations and those of our parents feels so hard. How do we explain activism in our language? How does that translate to a career? Is this what our parents came here for? And that constant question: Why aren’t we becoming doctors or lawyers?

The reality is that our families depend on us. It’s difficult to build generational wealth from the ground up, and we tackled the question of how we can give back if we’re constantly struggling. The truth is, our parents’ dreams for us are often not the dreams we have for ourselves, and that’s an ongoing conversation between any parents and their children, but it’s a particularly sensitive and complex conversation for children of immigrant parents.

“There are certain expectations for children of immigrants or first-generation students of color: that when a family has made sacrifices, the child must do ‘better’ or climb the economic ladder of success.” – Nicole Villacres-Reyes and Sonia Mohammadzadah, CLPP workshop leaders

It’s true. Although my Thai parents lovingly supported me down many nontraditional paths, as an undergraduate I struggled to explain my Women’s Studies major on a practical, professional level. I always talked about my passion and my interests, but had trouble articulating what actual career it would lead to, or how I would make a living.

These anxieties and fears show up in different ways among different immigrant families, and while my own mom and dad are hardly the stereotypical strict Asian parents, I still internalized the broader cultural expectations of a first-generation kid. Nobody wants their parents to work harder than they need to, or not get paid for the real value of their work. I often felt an extra layer of guilt when I prioritized myself over them. To this day, I am still my biggest critic, because I will never feel like I’ve done enough to express my gratitude for the life I get to lead.

But I committed to keep a dialogue going throughout undergrad and then in law school at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have a concrete plan before I enrolled, only general, idealistic goals of making a difference. But then I found If/When/How.

I felt at home with our small but fierce student group. At If/When/How, I co-hosted events like RJ 101 and Sex-Ed Trivia with an incredible board, then I started to volunteer with local organizations that I connected with via If/When/How. I volunteered at Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the San Diego Clean Slate Clinic during law school. Becoming an activist gave me the sense of purpose and direction that I was seeking. It opened doors wide open for me. If/When/How offered me my first legal internship, where I learned that reproductive justice is a truly inclusive movement that’s about way more than just reproductive health. I didn’t have to choose between reproductive justice and criminal justice, or immigration reform, or LBGTQ rights. This experience led me to internships at the United Nations, ACLU National, and Physicians for Reproductive Health.

Now, I’m launching my career as as an activist lawyer in the reproductive justice movement as the Student Organizing Coordinator at If/When/How, which has given me the opportunity to make my world-changing dreams a family-palatable reality.

It hasn’t always been comfortable, and I’ve disagreed with my family on a lot of things. But I’ve tried to find a balance between their goals and mine, and we got here together. I have my parents’ support because I earned their trust, and I am forever grateful for it.

I’ll never feel anywhere near close to achieving the level of accomplishment, status, or wealth I think my parents deserve. I even sometimes wonder if I’ve accomplished enough to gain the respect of the Thai community. But I’m working through those complicated, internalized feelings. My career now grants me the privilege to do what I love and work remotely so I’m able to go home often, plop down on the couch and catch Law and Order with my mom. This is my Thai-American dream.

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