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.

Carolyn Golz

Growing up, I was always told by my family that I could be whatever I wanted. I believed these statements and never doubted that I would go to college. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school, and I was ultimately the first person to go to college. Yet, I still had no doubt that I would go to college and I had no concept of the barriers that face most first generation college students. I was naïve. In fact, I didn’t even start to think about how I would pay for college until my junior year of high school, when I started to look at college applications.

I couldn’t afford most college application fees, and I only applied to two schools: a small private school in California that I absolutely loved and a mid-sized public university in Alaska where I had been offered a tuition scholarship for my first year. I was accepted to both schools, but I was forced to make the practical choice and I enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) because it was the school that I could most likely afford. Keep in mind, I still hadn’t really figured out how I would pay for everything, but I knew that a full tuition scholarship would go a lot further towards covering my costs.

During the second semester of my freshman year, I became a Resident Assistant. I then served as an undergraduate hall director (Community Advisor) during my junior and senior years. Through my involvement on campus, I fell in love with UAF. The positions that I held in residence life made it possible for me to continue in college with few worries about the cost of college because they provided stipends and housing. It dawned on my after my first year in residence life that I was making as much in my student position as my mom was making in her role as a waitress. My mom had spent her life serving others as a waitress, and now I was serving others as a resident assistant. The irony wasn't lost on me.

The connections that I made with professional and student staff at UAF were the most influential part of my college experience. The friendships that I built during my time at UAF continue to be an important part of my life. The mentoring from my supervisors and the skills and experience that I gained as a part of the Residence Life team led me to Student Affairs as a profession. These supportive connections made a real difference in my persistence in college and I wanted to do the same for other students.

Since graduating from college, I’ve earned two masters degrees and I’m now working on a doctorate. I currently serve as Senior Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life at Lake Forest College and I get to make a difference in the lives of students on a daily basis. I didn’t go to college expecting to begin a career in student affairs – few of us do – but I’m glad that residence life led me here.