Monday, September 17, 2012
My birth name is Charles Christopher Jones Jr., but my friends and family call me Chase. Raised in the sticks of Arkansas, I knew from the beginning I was going to make it out of there, I just didn’t know how. Before I go any further I want to toss in warning or two. My story is not for the faint of heart nor is it shared for sympathy. I want to be honest in what I reveal so that those who read this may be inspired and know that there are others who have faced life’s obstacles and overcame.
I did not do it alone. That is an important piece of the puzzle, I was lifted up on the words, praises, challenges, little pushes, and prayers of a community of people who saw in me the potential to make a difference. I lived with my grandparents most of my life. Other members of the family would float in and out but considering a majority of them had detrimental behavioral or substance addictions, it was hard to know who would be around the next week. Now don’t get me wrong, my family was comprised of great souls that had befallen to the spirals of worldly recreation that often lead to the diminishment of potential and the loss of ability and access to institutions outside of their rural experiences. Over the years I saw many of them pass, from one ailment or another, drug overdoses, and even murder. In each of these instances I had two things, a choice and others standing behind me. The choice was simple, either be a victim of my circumstances or use it as motivation…and the obvious choice was motivation. To succumb to the perils of self-proclaimed victimization is to give up hope, lose faith in self, and fold a hand you’ve yet to see all the cards for.
Those who stood behind me pointed at the cards life had dealt me and said, metaphorically speaking and literally in some cases; “Play this one here.” or “Discard these, they can’t help you.” Each statement made more powerful by the previous. I knew I would indeed make it.
Confidence in your own abilities is key as a first generation college student. Not many can tell you what will and will not work; you just have to believe you have what it takes and try your darndest to manifest that desire. The desire to be successful, to be an achiever, and to move beyond the accomplishments of your family and set a new standard for the next generation of (inserts your family name here).
When I lost my grandfather in 2003, I saw the first examples of love from abroad. My closest friends in the area stepped up to let me know I had family in them. When my grandmother passed in 2005, I found myself facing the possibility of being homeless, without money, and would likely have to drop out of high school (this was my senior year). Instead, members of my community stepped up and gave me a home, food, jobs, and everything else I needed to graduate in the top 10% of my class, to be an honors graduate, and to receive a full ride scholarship to the University of Arkansas.
As I navigated my college years I immersed myself in social student affairs programing. I was a campus ambassador, a first year experience mentor, and orientation leader, and so much more. I thrived off the energy of others and to give back in some way was what I knew I was destined to do, for it had been modeled by others in my life for years. This is when I decided to become a student affairs professional.
So why am I professional, plain and simple, is to give back. To do for others what was done for me. I may not always work in student affairs, but I’ll always work with student affairs to illuminate new avenues for student success, the development of self, and to advocate for those whose voices are quaint amongst the crowd. As a professional, being first generation has been motivational, one of the many moving parts of my past that drive me to be so much more than anyone ever imagined. For those of you reading this as first generation students concerned with your ability to reach the summit of your circumstances know this; Life is a gift to each of us whose wrapping paper and bows are never the same, for the gift is inside. Peace and Smiles my friends, Peace and Smiles.
Through a circuitous turn of events including some time in what was known in the late 50s as a “Childrens’ Home, I wound up the middle child of seven in a blended family. Soon, there were eight children and we moved frequently to follow the work that my dad did as a bricklayer. We usually had very little money and certainly none extra. It is certainly the case that “things” were different then and we weren’t obviously worse off than many others, but looking back, I wonder how we got along without the use of doctors or dentists or barbers or any number of other niceties—our parents performed all those duties as needed perforce. Still, we were poor enough that we knew we were poor and moved so often that adjustment was difficult. In fourth grade, something wonderful happened—I learned that I could open a book and go anywhere I wanted, having every adventure imaginable. I began to read everything I could get my hands on and almost instantly began to excel at school.
And I continued to, through junior high and two more moves, until we arrived in a small college town 60 miles from Fort Worth called Stephenville. As it turned out, we settled there for high school and after scoring extremely high on the various 10th grade preliminary college aptitude tests, I found myself fielding offers to apply to MIT, Michigan State, Rice, the University of Texas, and many other places. I didn’t know anyone who was a college graduate, except teachers, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do that. In any case, I didn’t understand the materials I had received. For example, at Michigan State, one could only work 21 hours per week and, at the minimum wage, I knew the math didn’t add up to pay out of state tuition. I was so naïve that I had no clue that scholarships could be had and that the out of state part could be waived so I crossed them off the list. But I was intrigued by MIT and Rice, so I went in and asked our college counselor, Coach (actually the title should have been Failed Coach) K……. what was up with these 6 page applications—what were they looking for on the sheet that was titled “autobiography” for example? I knew what the word meant, I knew lots of words, but what did they want me to say? He looked at me, with the context of very high scores and grades, my address on the “wrong side of the tracks,” my family’s nonexistent means and standing in the community and he said, not unkindly, but chillingly, “Stanley, don’t aim too high.”
Stung and stunned, but with no recourse, since I manifestly couldn’t complete the applications without adult help and I figured he must know something I didn’t, I reeled in my aspirations and began to target the local small, regional state school, Tarleton State College (now university). In retrospect, I may have received good advice, since I had an incredible experience at Tarleton and I have never regretted attending there. But I will always wonder what might have happened with more support, about which more later.
So, I started college, on my own financially and most other ways, still very naïve. On my first day in my new dining hall job, I asked my fellow student worker, if it could really be true that we could have as much milk as we wanted, every day, if there was dessert at every meal and seconds whenever you wanted. I could not believe my good fortune! Somewhat coincidentally, I was a late bloomer, so I grew two more inches in height and gained 50 pounds, finally growing up. Unwittingly and without real guidance, I managed to have a good residence hall experience, becoming an RA and later the undergraduate hall director. I was very active in a service fraternity, with which I have stayed in volunteer leadership nearly ever since. There were intramurals and student government and work study jobs—lots of ways to stay active and engaged in campus life. I loved it all and I knew my life path had changed. I wouldn’t characterize what we had at Tarleton as professional student affairs as we know it now, but there was a sense of caring and of helping students through. For example, we student workers were able to pay throughout the semester on an informal installment plan. Each month, I would meet with the business officer and we would decide how much pay I could keep and how much went to the college. I sounds quaint now, but it was essential to my ability to continue in school.
I didn’t know what to do when it came time to graduate, but I knew that I wanted to be involved with a college. After a very brief dalliance with economics graduate school and a “real” job, I found myself in a counseling based student personnel program. When I asked what the words meant, they said helping college students succeed and I realized I had found my calling—I wanted to help students like I had been who didn’t know who or how to ask for the help that they might not even know they needed. I got my master’s degree and went on to the University of Georgia for my doctorate. I finish my educational history here to make one final point. As a first generation student, innocent of any clear clue about what I was accomplishing, upon graduation with my baccalaureate degree, I had already overreached any knowledgeable dream I may have had. I was on the mountaintop and had no idea where the next mountain even was, let alone if I should go and try to climb it. The same was true again as I finished my master’s except that I finally had some faculty members helping a little to define what should happen next.
I think the best thing we can do for our first generation students is to give them permission and information to dream big and with some specificity. They really don’t know what they don’t know, including what a proper aspiration should be. After all, the sky’s the limit with an education!