Monday, September 17, 2012

Fishin’ Outta Ditches- Chase Jones

My birth name is Charles Christopher Jones Jr., but my friends and family call me Chase. Raised in the sticks of Arkansas, I knew from the beginning I was going to make it out of there, I just didn’t know how. Before I go any further I want to toss in warning or two. My story is not for the faint of heart nor is it shared for sympathy. I want to be honest in what I reveal so that those who read this may be inspired and know that there are others who have faced life’s obstacles and overcame.

I did not do it alone. That is an important piece of the puzzle, I was lifted up on the words, praises, challenges, little pushes, and prayers of a community of people who saw in me the potential to make a difference. I lived with my grandparents most of my life. Other members of the family would float in and out but considering a majority of them had detrimental behavioral or substance addictions, it was hard to know who would be around the next week.  Now don’t get me wrong, my family was comprised of great souls that had befallen to the spirals of worldly recreation that often lead to the diminishment of potential and the loss of ability and access to institutions outside of their rural experiences. Over the years I saw many of them pass, from one ailment or another, drug overdoses, and even murder. In each of these instances I had two things, a choice and others standing behind me. The choice was simple, either be a victim of my circumstances or use it as motivation…and the obvious choice was motivation.  To succumb to the perils of self-proclaimed victimization is to give up hope, lose faith in self, and fold a hand you’ve yet to see all the cards for.

Those who stood behind me pointed at the cards life had dealt me and said, metaphorically speaking and literally in some cases; “Play this one here.” or “Discard these, they can’t help you.” Each statement made more powerful by the previous. I knew I would indeed make it.

Confidence in your own abilities is key as a first generation college student. Not many can tell you what will and will not work; you just have to believe you have what it takes and try your darndest to manifest that desire. The desire to be successful, to be an achiever, and to move beyond the accomplishments of your family and set a new standard for the next generation of (inserts your family name here).

When I lost my grandfather in 2003, I saw the first examples of love from abroad. My closest friends in the area stepped up to let me know I had family in them. When my grandmother passed in 2005, I found myself facing the possibility of being homeless, without money, and would likely have to drop out of high school (this was my senior year). Instead, members of my community stepped up and gave me a home, food,  jobs, and everything else I needed to graduate in the top 10% of my class, to be an honors graduate, and to receive a full ride scholarship to the University of Arkansas.

As I navigated my college years I immersed myself in social student affairs programing. I was a campus ambassador, a first year experience mentor, and orientation leader, and so much more. I thrived off the energy of others and to give back in some way was what I knew I was destined to do, for it had been modeled by others in my life for years. This is when I decided to become a student affairs professional.

So why am I professional, plain and simple, is to give back. To do for others what was done for me. I may not always work in student affairs, but I’ll always work with student affairs to illuminate new avenues for student success, the development of self, and to advocate for those whose voices are quaint amongst the crowd. As a professional, being first generation has been motivational, one of the many moving parts of my past that drive me to be so much more than anyone ever imagined. For those of you reading this as first generation students concerned with your ability to reach the summit of your circumstances know this; Life is a gift to each of us whose wrapping paper and bows are never the same, for the gift is inside. Peace and Smiles my friends, Peace and Smiles. 

“ Don’t aim too high.”- Stan Carpenter

Through a circuitous turn of events including some time in what was known in the late 50s as a “Childrens’ Home, I wound up the middle child of seven in a blended family.  Soon, there were eight children and we moved frequently to follow the work that my dad did as a bricklayer.  We usually had very little money and certainly none extra.  It is certainly the case that “things” were different then and we weren’t obviously worse off than many others, but looking back, I wonder how we got along without the use of doctors or dentists or barbers or any number of other niceties—our parents performed all those duties as needed perforce.  Still, we were poor enough that we knew we were poor and moved so often that adjustment was difficult.  In fourth grade, something wonderful happened—I learned that I could open a book and go anywhere I wanted, having every adventure imaginable.  I began to read everything I could get my hands on and almost instantly began to excel at school.

And I continued to, through junior high and two more moves, until we arrived in a small college town 60 miles from Fort Worth called Stephenville.  As it turned out, we settled there for high school and after scoring extremely high on the various 10th grade preliminary college aptitude tests, I found myself fielding offers to apply to MIT, Michigan State, Rice, the University of Texas, and many other places.  I didn’t know anyone who was a college graduate, except teachers, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do that.  In any case, I didn’t understand the materials I had received.  For example, at Michigan State, one could only work 21 hours per week and, at the minimum wage, I knew the math didn’t add up to pay out of state tuition.  I was so naïve that I had no clue that scholarships could be had and that the out of state part could be waived so I crossed them off the list.  But I was intrigued by MIT and Rice, so I went in and asked our college counselor, Coach (actually the title should have been Failed Coach) K……. what was up with these 6 page applications—what were they looking for on the sheet that was titled “autobiography” for example?  I knew what the word meant, I knew lots of words, but what did they want me to say?  He looked at me, with the context of very high scores and grades, my address on the “wrong side of the tracks,” my family’s nonexistent means and standing in the community and he said, not unkindly, but chillingly, “Stanley, don’t aim too high.”

Stung and stunned, but with no recourse, since I manifestly couldn’t complete the applications without adult help and I figured he must know something I didn’t, I reeled in my aspirations and began to target the local small, regional state school, Tarleton State College (now university).  In retrospect, I may have received good advice, since I had an incredible experience at Tarleton and I have never regretted attending there.  But I will always wonder what might have happened with more support, about which more later.

So, I started college, on my own financially and most other ways, still very naïve.  On my first day in my new dining hall job, I asked my fellow student worker, if it could really be true that we could have as much milk as we wanted, every day, if there was dessert at every meal and seconds whenever you wanted.  I could not believe my good fortune!  Somewhat coincidentally, I was a late bloomer, so I grew two more inches in height and gained 50 pounds, finally growing up.  Unwittingly and without real guidance, I managed to have a good residence hall experience, becoming an RA and later the undergraduate hall director.  I was very active in a service fraternity, with which I have stayed in volunteer leadership nearly ever since.  There were intramurals and student government and work study jobs—lots of ways to stay active and engaged in campus life.  I loved it all and I knew my life path had changed.  I wouldn’t characterize what we had at Tarleton as professional student affairs as we know it now, but there was a sense of caring and of helping students through.  For example, we student workers were able to pay throughout the semester on an informal installment plan.  Each month, I would meet with the business officer and we would decide how much pay I could keep and how much went to the college.  I sounds quaint now, but it was essential to my ability to continue in school.

I didn’t know what to do when it came time to graduate, but I knew that I wanted to be involved with a college.  After a very brief dalliance with economics graduate school and a “real” job, I found myself in a counseling based student personnel program.  When I asked what the words meant, they said helping college students succeed and I realized I had found my calling—I wanted to help students like I had been who didn’t know who or how to ask for the help that they might not even know they needed.  I got my master’s degree and went on to the University of Georgia for my doctorate.  I finish my educational history here to make one final point.  As a first generation student, innocent of any clear clue about what I was accomplishing, upon graduation with my baccalaureate degree, I had already overreached any knowledgeable dream I may have had.  I was on the mountaintop and had no idea where the next mountain even was, let alone if I should go and try to climb it.  The same was true again as I finished my master’s except that I finally had some faculty members helping a little to define what should happen next.

I think the best thing we can do for our first generation students is to give them permission and information to dream big and with some specificity.  They really don’t know what they don’t know, including what a proper aspiration should be.  After all, the sky’s the limit with an education!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jason C. Wiegand- On the Verge, Always

I am a first generation college student and graduate.  I was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, and primarily raised in the pier and lighthouse towns of Sturgeon Bay and Algoma, Wisconsin.  My aim in writing this is to be honest, so I will admit that I am surprised to have graduated high-school, let alone college.  I was never the type of student you would call an overachiever.  I was more focused on extracurricular activities, socializing, and on exploring my environment than on academics.  I often failed to focus on what mattered most.  I admittedly lacked the balance necessary to excel, but graduated.  I’m genuinely proud of that.  

I am also the proud son of parents who march to the beat of their own drum. While I chose to attend college out of high-school, my father chose to enlist in the Navy.  At 18, my mother was serving tables and already focused on the task of raising me.  By comparison, the path I chose involved the least amount of stress, and the most amount of freedom.

I am presently a thirty-something year old graduate student, and a father to three young children.  When my parents were my age, they were tending to my younger brother, who was suffering the challenges of surviving non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that stole years from his childhood.  With the perspective I have now, I can’t imagine how emotionally and financially devastating this must have been for them.   In between watching their child suffer, they struggled to balance work, marriage, and the needs of their other two children, who also needed attention.  My brother survived.  My parents’ marriage did not.  

By my junior year in high school, I was a student “on the verge.”  I spent more time lifting weights, dating, and building pyramids out of beer cans than I did studying.  I didn’t pay any mind to attending college until it was suggested by my high school counselor.  During either detention or in-school suspension (I can’t recall which), my HS principal openly scoffed at the idea that I might be admitted to college.  His doubt, combined with the support of an outstanding teacher and coach, was all of the motivation that I needed.  I chose to attend the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.

While I don’t feel qualified to speak on behalf of all first-generation students, I am comfortable speaking to my own experience.  I didn’t find that attending classes or moving into “the dorms” was at all intimidating, but envied other students for having the things I did not.  This ultimately boiled down to money and experience.  I was intimidated by students who had traveled extensively, for example.  I sneered at students from wealthy backgrounds, who had an air of security and satisfaction.  If I heard a peer talking about traveling to Italy or Spain, I wanted to throw up.  How could they afford it?  My family, whether before or after my parents divorced, could never afford a vacation like that.

I gravitated toward peers who took risks and shared my outlook on life.  On beautiful days, it often took all the will power in the world to convince one another to attend class as opposed to floating on tubes atop of the Chippewa River.  It seemed to me that at any moment I might drop out and drift about the West coast, and before I knew it I was living out of my car in Seattle, WA, and loving every minute of it.  So what brought me back?  

I understood that I wouldn’t have graduated high-school without the wisdom imparted by my teachers, and the better example set by my teammates and coaches.  I was thankful to have attended college.  There were moments when I didn’t think it was at all possible.  I realized that I didn’t want to disappoint those who believed in me.  I needed to succeed on their behalf.  I also didn’t want to prove those who doubted my abilities correct.  

I would not have succeeded upon returning if it weren’t for the support and understanding of a few extraordinary faculty and staff.  In particular, it was an advisor from our multicultural student affairs office, who also instructed courses in Latin American history, who was the first to encourage me to consider graduate school.  He was also the first individual I can recall who truly seemed to connect my family’s low socioeconomic status (which was more gently referred to as a blue-collar and working class background) with being a struggling college student.  While I doubted my chances at being admitted to graduate school, due to my mediocre GPA, he coached me to the point of presenting my research at academic conferences and accentuated my strengths and advantages: my intellectual potential, my nontraditional upbringing, the support of my tribe (the Kiowa), my ability to overcome life challenges, and my enduring commitment to volunteerism.  He inspired me to take my scholarship, and myself, more seriously.  By his logic, the university was as fortunate to count me as a student as I was to be a part of it.  We were partners in education.  He also taught me not to withdraw from the disturbing aspects of my past, but to wear them with pride.   

Being a first-generation college student will not predict your failure or success, but it will lend gravity to your purpose.  You might not acknowledge it until you are on the verge of being dismissed, or when you are at last handling your diploma, but there will arrive a moment when you reflect on the fact that you are the first of your family to tackle higher education.  There is also the increased likelihood that you may be alienated by family and friends who accuse you of being a know-it-all college kid who thinks you are better than they are, when really your thought process is that you are tired of studying, being poor, and can’t wait to graduate and finally earn a living doing something you enjoy.

While I didn’t recognize my own calling in the field until years removed from my undergraduate experience, I have always appreciated the role student affairs professionals have played in my personal and professional development.  Whether applying to be a graduate student, a server at a restaurant, or an academic advisor, I will always count them among my finest references.  Truthfully, they have amounted to far more than that.  My finest mentors have not only motivated me academically, but have also influenced my desire to parent mindfully.  They are life coaches.  

Thank you for establishing this forum.  It’s a therapeutic space.  

Danielle Morgan

I once sat in a presentation about First Generation college students, where two prototypes were presented: the over achieving first generation student, and the under achieving first generation student.  There was no in between in this presentation a few years back – either you over worked yourself to act like you weren’t a first generation student and knew exactly what you were doing, or your struggled unsure of where to go and which offices to visit and how to maneuver college.  I did not really agree with the presenter at the time, but he did make me think about this: as a first generation college student, where did I fit in?

I grew up in California to a single mother the oldest of three, and the third oldest among of fifteen cousins.  My siblings and I went to parochial elementary and high school, where I struggled academically but always worked really hard and put in a lot of effort.  Though no one in my family had been anywhere near a college campus, except to maybe root for a Midwest football team, college was never not an option.  

I guess it is interesting, being that first person to go look at schools, to try to understand what FAFSA stands for, going on tours and not really comprehending the words or the reasons behind them, creating applications and paragraphs and having no one really recognize what it is that you are compiling.  For me, I wanted to go far away to school, of course there was a dream for an Ivy League brick building that never really came true, but when I did finally move 3000 miles from home, everything changed.  I was completely lost and confused, constantly wondering if I made the right choice.

I knew from Day One of our week long orientation that I was first generation. How had students known to apply for these scholarships I never found on the website? What was this language they were speaking about courses with their families?  Where did they get this confidence it seemed like they had about not going to classes, being involved, challenging the status quo?  

I eventually learned those things, and changed as a student, a friend, a person through my time at college.  Maybe it was because I was 3000 miles from home in a new place for less than a month when 9/11 shocked us all. Maybe it was because I allowed myself to really think about who I was and challenge what I believed.  Maybe it was because while I gave up trying to explain why all this work I put into leadership positions and on campus employment and ”outside stuff” to my family, I knew in my heart it was still how I made meaning of my college experience.

I know, however, for a fact that it was because of the work I did inside and outside of the classroom – the experiences and conversations, the highs and lows, difficulties and growth moments that led me to who I am.  How could I not want to helps other students participate in that type of experience, watch that change unfold everyday as a student starts to believe in their true potential, begins to question their place and role in society, decides to make positive differences in their world?  How could I not want to be the person that encourages and challenges and supports when sometimes students can’t get that from people who don’t see everything that college has to offer?  How could I not want to give back to a profession that has given me such growth, meaning, mentors, friendships, and a career?  

The student experience is one that is so precious, so life changing, so pivotal to the people we become.  Every day, I get to be a part of that in someone else’s life.  That’s impactful.  That’s special.  Maybe it makes me an overachiever – wanting to support students the way I was supported, desiring to help make their collegiate journey more powerful – to me, it just makes every day a little more worth it. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

First Generation Story- Eric Felix

When I discovered “Project 1st Gen in Student Affairs,” I knew I had to share my experience. In hindsight, I never realized what it meant to be a first-generation college student. I failed to realize that as a low-income, first-generation American, first in the family to go to college I would face a variety of challenges that many other students wouldn’t have to. I just thought everyone was having a hard time navigate the system and get accustomed to a new environment. I didn’t appreciate my experience as a first-gen student until I reflected on it as a graduate student at San Diego State University in their Student Affairs program.
Two anecdotes about my experience and how they impacted my decision to work in higher education.
  1. Growing up I always thought I was going to USC, not because I was a Trojan fan or loved the cardinal and gold colors, but because I thought it was the University for Southern California. As a kid, I grew up thinking I would go to USC because it was the school where all the students from southern California would go. It wasn’t until 10th grade in high school I realized there were hundreds of schools in California to attend.
  2. After all was said and done, I chose to attend Cal State Fullerton, the local CSU for my area. I remember driving to the school for orientation with my family. As we left our home in Anaheim which was 15 minutes away from the school. Half way into the commute my dad pulled into a parking lot and said, “were should we park?”…I asked, “why are you parking here, this is Fullerton College?” Being the first to go to college was also a strong reminder that my family was unaware of the higher education system in the United States. My family assumed that Fullerton College (a community college) and Cal State Fullerton (a CSU campus) were the same.
There are many stories like this that make wonder how I ever made it through HS and into college. My answer: Upward Bound Math & Science. That is the reason why I felt prepared to go to college. Between the academic enrichment and Summer Bridge, I was already a Titan! As an undergraduate I hated meeting with my SSS counselor, having to go to community dinners, and needing to turn in progress reports in the middle of the semester.  But now thank Upward Bound and SSS every day for the opportunities I was afforded.
I entered my graduate program in 2008, with a determination to learn everything about outreach, access, and equity to better serve low-income, first-generation students like myself. I interned in EOP (Educational Opportunities Program), I had a graduate assistantship with an institutional college preparation program. All of my work in graduate school was dedicated to paying it forward. To help others in the community, as I had been helped.
Because of these experiences and more, I am a firm believer that higher education is one of the greatest transformative institutions we have in our Society. I am a first-generation college graduate and it took a community of supporters to achieve it! As an Admissions Counselor, I dedicate my work to helping first-generation students explore opportunities in higher education, and be empowered to attend college and thrive!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jim Banning

Some thoughts on my first generation experience.
I entered college in 1956, the first from both sides of the family to go to college.  There was no concept “First Generation.”   I imagine that many of my cohorts were also first generation, but it was not an experience that I recall discussing.   Looking back from the perspective of being engaged in student affairs work for nearly fifty years, several thought come to mind.  One, the experience of “not being in the know” was true for me as it is still true for students of today.  I recall reading information from the college as my parents were driving me to campus.  I looked over to my Dad who was driving and said:  “It says here that the average course work per semester is about 15 hours – that is a very long day to be sitting in school!”  My dad replied: “You have put up hay that many hours in a day – can’t see where sitting in a classroom would be any harder.”  I replied: “Guess you are right” – and continued the trip thinking I would be in class for 15 hours a day.   Today I would call the experience an “ecological transition” without the necessary information to reduce the stress of “not knowing.”
My second thought is that the “First Generation” experience is not a single ecological transition.  I was the first to be a second year student, first to be a third year student, the first to graduate, the first to go to graduate school, etc.  In each of this transitions, you enter with a bit more “not knowing” than counterparts who come from a sending environment where most of these transitions have been experienced.
                My last thought is that I believe from my experience (not from my research) that the “First Generation” experience is also connected to the experience known as the “imposter phenomena” (Chance, 1985).  The imposter phenomena -  folks who have attained achievements, but not for sure they are deserving and perhaps even  see themselves as frauds.   Being “not in the know” at every step may cause one to doubt previous learning.  To end on a positive note, I think that being in the “not in the know” group as a first generation traveler – helps to dampen the “I know it all” that is so prevalent in academia.   
Jim Banning,  
Professor, Colorado State University

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Corey Peacock

My parents come from vastly different family backgrounds.  My mother is the twelfth of thirteen siblings, and jokes that she could spit in any direction and have it land on some member of her extended family (which is quite a feat, given we live in Wyoming, where there are so few people to begin with).  My father, conversely, spent half of his childhood in foster care, and the other half with an adoptive family that lives in Georgia.  Their influence in his (and my) life has always been a distant second to the ubiquitous presence of my mother’s side of the family.

Among her many siblings, my mother was one of only a few to complete high school—most stopped after the 8th grade.  Almost all of my mother’s siblings chose to pursue the typical occupation of our family—ranching.  Whether tending to small parcels of land themselves or (more likely) working for established ranches in the Wyoming area, education has definitely not been a family value or priority.

My mother, already a minority with her high school diploma, further went against the family trend when she decided that the country, ranching lifestyle was not for her.  She instead moved with my father to the “big city” of Sheridan, a small town of 16,000 and the only significant population center for hours.  When she graduated high school, she was actually offered a full-ride scholarship to attend the University of Wyoming, which she declined without much thought.  College attendance was such a foreign concept to my family that even my mother, the anomaly of the family, didn’t think it was the place for her.  As I would find when I would eventually express a desire to attend college, my family viewed higher education as an elitist institution for rich people—just not something for good country folks who wanted to make an honest living with their hands.

Growing up in the “big city,” my education stressed the importance of college attendance far more than the country schools most of my family attended.  I remember in early middle school learning about this mythical thing you went to after high school to better your life—it was called … college.  I came home and adamantly told my parents that I wanted to go to this thing called college.  They were, I imagine, a little surprised, a little proud, and a lot nervous about how they would pay for this ambition of mine.  They immediately expressed their support and told me that if I wanted to go to college, I would have to work hard in school to earn a scholarship—the only way we would be able to afford the cost of attendance.

I took my parents’ words to heart, and worked very hard in school—always with the word “scholarship” close in mind.  As the years went on, my college attendance became a nonnegotiable mandate—the only question was where to go?  I must confess that at the time I began my final year of high school, I was rather sheltered.  I had scarcely been outside of the state of Wyoming (a state itself boasting but one university), did not follow collegiate sports, and did not know anyone who had attended a college other than the University of Wyoming.  I had no idea how many institutions were in the US, what rankings actually meant, or more importantly, how I was supposed to find schools to apply to.  I also did not know what resources were available to guide me through this process. 

So, I spent hours and hours on the College Board website, looking at profiles for various institutions.  But what was I looking for?  Some of these colleges had more students than all the people in my hometown!  Some were in states I had never even considered visiting.  As I went through this obsessive research process, I was stricken by two conflicting emotions—the excitement of possibility, and the utter dread and intangibility of the unknown.  As I looked at various institutions, I would try and picture myself as a student there—walking among the grassy lawns in the view books.  The image was so distant, so strange that it couldn’t be real.  It was as if I was imagining myself living in the 1800s or in Ancient Greece—I had a theoretical understanding of the environment, but no tools to conceptualize what it would actually be like. 

As admission deadlines began to draw closer, the enormity of the decision and the reality of the requirements became clearer to me.  Applications required money.  Schools had tuition bills of unfathomable magnitude, and little guarantee of sufficient scholarship funds.  What was once an exciting dream was quickly becoming a frightening reality.  I consulted my parents about my upcoming decisions, and they suggested that I simply go to the University of Wyoming (UW)—it would be nearly free, close to home, and didn’t require an application fee.  I saw their point, but was caught up in what college was to me at the time—a symbol of possibility and economic opportunity.  The fact that my gateway to a better life would be restricted by my current economic means was not something I was ready to accept.

In the end, I convinced my parents to support me in applying to one non-UW school.  I was accepted, but the reality of its price tag forced it quickly off the table.  So, I decided to go to UW—the safe bet, the place of familiarity.  At the time, I wasn’t very happy about this decision.  College had been to me for many years a romanticized entity, existing in a mythical place where the restrictions of the “real world” didn’t apply.  The discovery that higher education very much exists in the normal realm was a bit of a disappointment.  So, I began my time at UW thinking I was disappointed with the university, but my disappointment really was with “the system.” 

It didn’t take much time in my first year at UW for the feeling of disappointment to vanish.  I had more important things to worry about—like transitioning to this strange new place.  While my perceptions of the impact and overall purpose of college had been grandiose and highly abstract, my ideas about day-to-day life were very simple—I thought college was simply a place where you took difficult classes.  Obviously, it quickly turned out to be much more than that, and I began to feel overwhelmed by all the transitions that were taking place.  It was a rocky first semester—I went in feeling prepared, but ended in December feeling confused and a bit whiplashed.  The time had gone by so fast, and I still didn’t feel like I had found my place.

At the beginning of my second semester, I decided to increase my involvement in the Residence Halls Association, which I had gone to sporadically during my first semester.  I found an immediate home and support network in hall government, and eventually became an executive board member.  Also during this semester, I finally had success finding a peer group, and began to feel much more at home.  My involvement in the residence halls increased my awareness of campus resources, and I began to see the university, once overwhelming and anonymous, grow smaller, more supportive, and much more manageable.  In the fall of my sophomore year, I helped with residence hall move-in, and saw the new crop of incoming students.  I reflected on the past year, and was astonished at the level of personal growth I had achieved.  I attributed most of it to my involvement, and was not shy about sharing such with new students as I helped recruit new members to hall government.

At the end of my sophomore year, I had positioned myself as a prominent leader on campus.  I decided it was time for something new, and I left the Residence Halls Association to become a Resident Assistant—a position I did not know existed less than two years prior.  More than anything I had ever done, or anything I’ve done since, I loved it.  I loved helping first-year students with the same issues I encountered during my first year.  I felt so fulfilled in my work that I had no issue going wildly above and beyond the minimum expectations of UW RAs. 

Interestingly, this time of happiness and fulfillment in my co-curricular life coincided with a time of uncertainty and disillusion in my academic life.  Lacking the appropriate knowledge of when was the best time to declare a major, I declared accounting during my first semester, wanting to have some certainty about my future and graduation plan.  It was a premature decision.  Well into my junior year, I found that while I enjoyed my classes more or less, accounting and business as a whole was not the career field for me.  This was a scary revelation!  I was too far into my curriculum to change majors and still graduate in four years (the point at which scholarship money would run out).  I felt stuck.  Frustrated, I remember sharing my concerns with my RA supervisor during a one-on-one meeting.  She asked me, “Well, what would you like to do, if your major wasn’t an issue?”  The answer to that question was easy—I would like to work with students, like an RA does.  “But being an RA isn’t a profession,” I sighed.  She laughed and responded, “I work with students as a profession.”  She then told me about the profession of student affairs, the existence of which I surprisingly had never before considered.  It was a wonderful discovery—the professional manifestation of everything that was giving me fulfillment at the time.  I began to interview professionals in different areas of student affairs, and quickly decided that it was for me.  I applied for graduate schools and have never looked back.

Today, when I’m working with students, I always try to keep the memory of my freshman self close to mind.  I try to remember the overwhelmed kid trying to navigate a totally unfamiliar world, while still reconciling the differences between what he thought college was and what it ended up being.  What I find to be striking about my story is that, by most conventional definitions, I came to college very prepared.  I also am blessed to have extremely supportive parents.  But, being first-generation meant that I had no idea what I was going into, and neither did my parents.  I now know never to take that for granted when working with students.  Even better, I now know that college is  and can be that golden ticket, that beacon of possibility—as long as we support and encourage our students along the way.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sara Harrison- Blind Faith and [Unnecessary] Guilt

I am a first generation college student, and I am currently pursuing my Masters in Education in Higher Education Administration at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.  My roots are in rural Northwest Indiana where I was raised in a blue collar family.

There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to go to college.  When I was merely six-years-old, I decided that I was going to grow up and go to Valparaiso University (Valpo), a small, private, Lutheran university in a nearby city.  Why I never had a doubt and why I decided on Valpo with such conviction at such a young age, I’ve never really been sure of.  Perhaps it was because I started reading at an early age and fell in love with literature.  We’d drive past Valpo’s campus fairly regularly when we’d go to town for groceries.  I was always in awe of the magnificent Chapel of the Resurrection and the air of higher education.  I think part of me always knew that Valpo was where I belonged. 

But, my parents never went to college.  And, I wasn’t Lutheran.  Regardless, I was in love.  Completely and blindly in love.  As I grew up, I did everything I could to be more involved and to better prep myself for college.  My parents never stopped supporting my endeavors.  When they would express concern for the number of activities I was involved in or how late I had to stay at school sometimes for a variety of meetings or theatre rehearsals, I would gently remind them that these were the things that would help get me into Valpo and that these were the things that would help get me scholarships so I could afford to go to Valpo.  Sometimes they’d roll their eyes at me, but they still laughed and continued to support my over-achieving lifestyle.

Even though I never once entertained the thought of not going to college—and frequently laughed in people’s faces if they suggested such—I was still aware enough that my family would not be able to afford to send me to college, let alone to a prestigious, private institution.  I knew that if I wanted to go to college, paying for it was going to be my responsibility.  So I worked hard and never gave up faith that my collegiate was going to happen how it was supposed to happen.

The fact that paying for college was going to be my responsibility became even more evident when I was in about the 8th grade.  My dad had worked in construction for over thirty years.  He drove to Chicago every day (about an hour and a half drive one-way) to work for a job that he loved.  He didn’t always love the commute or the city, but he loved the work that he did.  Suddenly, Dad got hurt at work, and the doctors forced him to retire.  It was devastating for him and for our family, too, but I didn’t really understand what all of that meant other than the fact that Dad couldn’t go to work anymore.  It meant so much more than that.  Dad’s work was his passion (besides his family).  It was also what kept a roof over our heads and food on the table.  Sure, there was still some money coming in from the Union and when his social security finally kicked in, but things were stretched pretty thin. 

This is where my mom comes in.  Before I came along, Mom was a waitress with her mom and sisters.  Then I showed up, and Mom became a fulltime stay-at-home-mom for me and my little brother (who was born two years later).  When Dad retired, Mom started her own business—a nursery, with flowers, produce, et cetera—to have another source of income for the family.  We started working for the nursery immediately: helping around the greenhouses and in the fields and going to farmer’s markets to sell our products and produce.  This was our lives from that moment on, in Small Town, USA.  I still never doubted that I was going to go to college, but as I grew older, I began to feel guiltier about leaving the family business. 

I applied to four universities (to be safe and because I’m excessive) my senior year and got into all of them.  I was awarded a fair amount of scholarships to each one, but good ol’ Valpo proved to be the best choice on a variety of levels.  The following fall, I packed up, and my family helped me make the big move to Valpo—a whole eight miles away from home.  I roomed with one of my best friends from high school, against the advice of many people around us.  That didn’t stop us from getting involved in our own things.  I was on House Council while she pursued mock trial.  We lived across the hall from our RA (who would become another of my best friends), and we both became RAs for the rest of our time at Valpo.  

Much like many of the individuals in Student Affairs, this is where I started to find my belonging.  The community that I was a part of was like its own small town, especially as I became more and more involved and developed connections with more people.  I fell in love with the idea of working with college students for the rest of my life.  There were so many different stories to hear and so many different lives to be a part of.  When I decided that I wanted to pursue a degree in Student Affairs and Higher Education, I received an abundance amount support and guidance from everyone I worked with—from our professional staff members to our upper-level administrators.  It took some explaining to my parents what exactly I was doing and why I didn’t want to go into the FBI anymore.  The moment the phrase, “I could be president of a university someday,” came out of my mouth, they were sold.  Their support has never ceased, even though I’m not exactly on the path to take over the family business. 

Sometimes I feel guilty that I’ve moved away and am pursuing another degree.  Even more so now that I’m not ten minutes away to be able to run home and help out with something or run uptown to the market to see Mom while she’s out selling.  These feelings come from a multitude of places.  There are many days when I miss being barefoot in a field, planting vegetables, or digging trenches to save our valuable plants from floods.  I miss helping my family and doing manual labor.  That’s where I’m from and a huge part of who I am.  The work ethic that my parents instilled in me is still one of my driving forces.  I love the work that I’m doing, the field that I am, and the path that I’m on (as unknown as that may actually be).  I know that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing, and I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  

So, should I feel guilty?  Probably not.  My parents worked hard to get to where they are and so that I could be in a position to go to college and follow my dreams.  They have worked hard to be supportive of the decisions that I have made, even if that meant that I decided to move 1,200 miles away from home to go to graduate school.  I have worked hard to get to where I am, and I will continue working hard.  I’m incredibly thankful for the amount of support that I have continued to receive my entire life.  While I am now a 23-year-old woman, making my parents (and several other important figures in my life) proud will always be of importance to me.  Feeling guilty will only hinder my ability to do good and to do well.  These thoughts remind me of one of my favorite quotes: 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
-Nelson Mandela 

As different as the job that I’m doing is from what my family is doing, there is still overlap in the values.  Hard work.  Passion.  Serving others.  This is how we make a difference in the world, one person at a time.  #iSAbecause I want to help students recognize and unlock the potential and passion that each of them have. Regardless of where they come from or where they’re going. 

Blind faith really is sometimes a part of finding that passion.  Let go, and let God.  Work hard towards what you want in life.  While there will inevitably be obstacles, road blocks, and detours, faith and the ability to be critical thinkers will help us prevail.  Discover your passion and unlock your potential, no matter what generation student you are, what your background is, or what your goals are.  You are worth it, and together, we can make a difference.  

In faith, 

Sara Hazel Harrison

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fareine Benz

I'm from that awkward, in-between place of not quite being first-generation, but not quite coming from a long line of college graduates. You see, both of my parents immigrated into the United States from the Philippines in the 1980s, neither of them with a college education nor support from their families. They grew up in the same Filipino city, but didn't meet until both of them happened to be at the same place at the same time, at a little party in North Carolina. Several months later, in 1986, they eloped at a Maryland courthouse. My dad was 18, my mom was 21. I was born a year later.
My dad supported me, my mom, and my two younger brothers on an enlisted salary, courtesy of the United States Navy. Looking back, I don't know how he managed to support all of us with just his salary. He didn't believe in taking out loans, so most of our belongings, including our college educations, were paid for up-front, in full. Needless to say, we lived a very frugal childhood.
He always pushed us to do well in school. At times, it felt like our sole purpose of living. We weren't allowed to miss class when we were sick, and anything less than an A on a test was unacceptable. You could say we fit perfectly into the Asian stereotype of overachievers, but my dad just wanted a better life for all of us. He didn't want us to have to resort to emigrating to a whole different country to escape poverty like my mom and him.
When I was seven years old, my dad earned his bachelors degree through a satellite program in the Navy. Back then, I didn't know what that meant to him and my mom. I merely identified his cap and gown as another aspect of school, a depiction of my goal to reach graduation.
Eventually, the time came for me to apply to colleges. I always imagined attending an Ivy League such as Harvard or Yale, or perhaps a large urban institution like NYU. I wanted to be a world-renowned journalist. I was practically a straight-A student, so I was under the impression that I could do anything, be anything, go anywhere.
My dad told me that our family couldn't afford any schools outside our home state of Virginia.
So my aspirations to pursue that Ivy League education were knocked down several notches. After months of arguing whether or not I should attend a school that I could commute to from home and going through dozens of scholarship applications, we finally scrounged up enough funding for me to attend an in-state Master's level institution. I was elated.
But here's the thing: The high school I went to, and the friends I made, mostly came from low-income backgrounds. My dad dedicated his life to making sure his kids attained a college education, but some of my friends did not come from families with the same philosophy. Despite their intellectual capabilities and potential, they ended up dropping out of college.
I hated my freshman year. I didn't feel like I fit in, and I felt as if I was slowly losing my friends from high school. I ended up driving almost four hours to go home every other weekend, because I'd rather be home with my friends and family than at school with a bunch of strangers. I begged my dad to let me transfer to a school back home, but he told me that we worked too hard (and fought too much) to get me into that college, and to give it another semester. It wasn't until my sophomore year, when I started getting involved with the university's activities council, that I found my place at the university. I met new friends who understood me and was able to take part in activities that supplemented my major. Suddenly, life wasn't so bad. I started spending more weekends at school and less time at home. I was happier.
A funny thing happens when you go to college. You change. The way you talk, the way you see the world. College changes you. And when you go home for holiday breaks, there's this disconnect, this feeling of not belonging. There's this divide between you, your friends, and your family. And you stop talking about college to make that feeling of discomfort go away.
I never quite got rid of that feeling, even after I graduated from college in 2008. I ended up getting a job back at home, and all of a sudden I was making far more money than any of my high school friends and family. Our lifestyles were different. I was different. And I couldn't stop thinking, how could these people, these smart, amazing, talented people, not have the chance to earn a college degree? Their grades were good. They had ambition. The only difference between us was that I had a parent who gave everything he had to make sure I went to college, and I was lucky enough to find an organization that made my university finally feel like a home. And then I realized that made all the difference.
I haven't mentioned my mom much. When I was growing up, we used to be really close. She would tell me tales about her dating life before she met my dad, about how she wanted to eventually return to the Philippines, and how my brothers and I were her entire life. She was a stay-at-home mother, and she dropped out of college in the Philippines in favor of moving to the United States. She's an amazing cook, a great listener, and a compassionate person. She'd know exactly what to say whenever a dumb boy broke my heart or when I'd get angry at my dad for having unrealistically high expectations. But when I talk about access, equity, social justice, and the state of higher education in our country, she's completely silent. There's a barrier between us that I don't know how to break, and it just grows every time I see her.
Through this long, disjointed, narrative, I hope you can see why I decided to pursue a career in student affairs. Childhood, friends and family do not go away when you enter college. They follow you through the rest of your life. And if you don't have a support system to challenge you, help you, and comfort you, it is easy to quit. First generation students, children of immigrants, and all types of students face these challenges. And those challenges don't stop after you graduate.
I was lucky enough to have a support system to get me through school. And I want to create that same supportive environment for all students I come in contact with. That's why I chose student affairs.