Monday, September 17, 2012
“ Don’t aim too high.”- Stan Carpenter
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!