Thursday, April 19, 2012
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.