Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I noticed

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

I am a third generation college graduate and a second generation Ph.D. so my awareness of first generation college students has built up slowly over the years.  I was clueless about social class as a college student because I was Markey Majority on my campus.  I fit right in, well at least I fit in based on my social class, and I experienced little or no social class contrast.  I fit right in as a Master’s student, but I did feel a little superior because I had more cultural capital than most of the other grad students on my campus.  I fit right in as a Doctoral student, at least socially.  Since my social class identity has cultural capital and intellectual capital as key features, my Doc program was a natural fit. 

I began to accumulate notice of social class when I moved to Terre Haute, Indiana for work.  Most of my time before moving to Terre Haute had been in school and I was not really engaged in the towns where I lived.  The more engaged I got in Terre Haute the more I noticed class differences.  On campus the same class-invisibility enveloped me.

As I began to pay attention to social class in my scholarship I began to see more of the realities of social class everywhere, including campus.  The invisibility of social class shifted to shadows for me, then to shapes, and now social class is brightly lit and illuminates everything around it.  I often wonder why other people can’t see what I see now.  Social class is so obvious to me.  Back in the day it was invisible to me. 

I had finally accreted enough experience that my awareness shifted.  Now I see social class everywhere.    

I have conducted a lot of workshops and made a lot of conference presentations on social class.  One of my questions, in order to create awareness of social class among participants, was to ask who among the audience was a first generation student.  I was initially surprised by the large number of people raising their hands.  As I reflected on it I thought that first generation student were more likely to attend my conference presentations because of their awareness and interest in social class issues.  However, it slowly occurred to me that I might be wrong.  It might be that there were a lot of first generation students in student affairs. 

First gen students are half as likely to go to college as second gen students, half as likely to graduate, and half as likely to go to graduate school.  Given this demographic reality there should be very few first generation students working in student affairs or enrolled in our graduate programs.  And yet, there were a lot.

This is interesting.  Why has this happened?  What were the motivations for first generation students to go into student affairs?  I know the number of first gen students in our graduate program at Indiana State University but what are the numbers at other programs?  What is the retention rate in the field for first generation students? 

Basically, what are the stories of first generation students in student affairs?  What are the stories of others like me who came to see social class as a key issue?  Can the stories help us all?