Thursday, June 28, 2012
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- 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!