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.