Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Please help!

Greetings Colleague:

Kim McAloney and Clare Cady are conducting a study entitled “Impacts of First-Generation College Student Identity on the Work of Student Affairs Professionals.” As the title suggests, their interest is in capturing the voices of persons working in Student Affairs who were first-generation students. The future implications of this study are that it could:

  • Contribute to the creation of a more common language and understanding of the experiences of Student Affairs professionals who were first-generation students.
  • Increase awareness within institutions and professional organizations that there may be barriers or unique needs related to the identity of first-generation student among Student Affairs professionals.
  • Increase awareness within institutions and professional organizations that there may be increases and advancements in cultural capital by lending voice to Student Affairs professionals who were first-generation students.
  • Contribute to the creation of support, inclusivity, access, and professional development that will positively impact Student Affairs professionals who were first-generation students.
  • Celebrate the unique contributions that Student Affairs professionals were first-generation students have made to the field of Student Affairs.
This study is meant to capture personal narrative, perspective, and experience. The research question is:

How (if at all) does your identity as a first generation college student affect your Student Affairs practice?

In participating you are invited to share your narrative as text, audio, or video. When you choose to submit your answer via this survey tool you will be able to upload documents or files, or you can choose to type your text within the survey itself. You are welcome to take as much or as little time in creating your narrative. There are no maximum or minimum requirements to participate. You will also be invited to share demographic information and contact information for purposes of data analysis and further research. Please note that sharing demographic or contact information is not required in order to share your narrative.

Participants should self-identify as having been a first-generation student, and have held a position within Student Affairs. Participation in the survey will be confidential unless you opt to share your contact information to participate in potential further research.

Here’s a link to the survey: http://oregonstate.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_cFH9hCVSoWKgxPT. The survey will be available until June 16, 2014.

If you have questions about this study, please contact Co-Investigators, Kim McAloney at kim.mcaloney@oregonstate.edu, and Clare Cady at clare.cady@oregonstate.edu.

Kim and Clare appreciate those who are willing and able to participate. If you yourself are first generation, please feel free to participate.  If you know of other colleagues who may be first gen or interested in helping with recruitment for this study, please forward this information on to them.

Kim McAloney, Primary Investigator, Oregon State University

Clare Cady, Co-Investigator, Oregon State University

Monday, March 10, 2014

The First Generation- Michael Sprinkle

Going to college in our family was never really a choice. Even though my mom would tell you it
was, the subliminal or the not so subtle message was that we would go to college, get a great job,
make some money, and live a better life. For me that was just the way of life.
You see, I am from a family where my sister was the first one to go to college. I remember when
she went and that it was a big deal for our family. She was a trailblazer for us and because she
went into the medical field, she became the resident ailment expert for our entire family.
When I went to college, I went with the same pomp and circumstance as the others before me.
However, I was the just the second to graduate from college, and I was the first to attend graduate
school. I didn’t really realize the importance of being the first until graduate school. That was
when I learned about this term “first generation.”

I had no idea what a first generation college student was, and I examined that culture during
graduate school. It was my program chair at Indiana State who pushed us to look at those aspects
of our lives. I thank him for that because I probably would not have taken an interest had it not
been for him.

I wish I had known more about being a first ­generation college student when I went to Purdue. I
might not have had some of the issues I faced or I might have sought help more often. However,
one thing I did do was to surround myself with good people. They were people who took me under
their wing and helped mentor me.
So I pay it forward. I have mentored young adults both in college and high school. Right now, my
high school kids are selecting colleges. It is bittersweet. I still remember getting the acceptance
letter and my mom taping it to the front door of our family business so I would see it when I came
to the grain elevator that day.

The moral for all of you is that regardless if you were a first ­generation college student, you never
know the access that a young adult has had to college or their life story. As higher education
professionals we need to be able to continue to mentor, ask more questions, and find our students’
stories. You just never know the impact you will make on their life!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Stumbling into Student Affairs- Ashley McCall

Family means everything to me; it is the unbreakable ties that you can always count on as blood is thicker than water as my dad used to say. Growing up as the oldest of 4 children, I knew I had to set a good example and be a good role model for my younger brothers. I became the designated babysitter when I was 12 and ever since then I knew that I loved taking care of and helping other people.

I knew one day I would grow up and have my own family that I would be responsible for providing for.  To me becoming a grown up included going to college and getting a degree to get a good job that I would be happy with. College wasn’t something either of my parents was familiar with as they never went so I knew that I would have to navigate applying to college on my own. However I didn’t anticipate taking on the financial burden as well but one night my mother burst into tears when I asked  her how much money they had saved for me to go to college and I knew that I was going to have  to find a way to afford college. It was at this moment that I understood the difficulties of being a First Generation College student.

Texas State University was the destination of my choice as they offered me a scholarship on top of financial aid assistance. However I knew 4 years of living expenses, textbooks, and food was going to add up quickly. During my freshman year I became intrigued by the idea of being a Resident Assistant as it covered room and board along with a monthly stipend. I applied and was hired to be a Resident Assistant thinking it was a smart way to alleviate costs, however little did I know what the job would lead me to.

During my three years as a Resident Assistant I fell in love with making connections with students, planning programs and events for residents of the building, and the craziness that was RA Training and Freshmen Move In. I didn’t want it all to end when I graduated.  That is when I found about the field of Student Affairs from my supervisor. I was baffled that I could get a job doing what I loved which was working with and helping college students. Even better yet I was happy to find that Texas State had a master’s program in Student Affairs. My next destination was obvious: apply and get accepted to the program at Texas State.

Recently I have just graduated from the Student Affairs program at Texas State and I am amazed at how much I learned from the coursework, my professors, and my cohort. As I reflect on the two years in the program I realize that a salient part of my identity is being a first gen student as that is what drives my passion to be in this field. I know how scary it was to come to college not knowing what to expect and feeling pressure to succeed and prove that I could do anything. I want to be a resource for students like me and help make the scary unknown transition to college a little easier.

I am excited to obtain my first post-graduate position in the field and start to make a difference in student’s lives. I couldn’t be happier that my status as a first generation student led me here otherwise I am not sure where I would be.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fishin’ Outta Ditches- Chase Jones

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. 

“ 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!

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.  

Danielle Morgan

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

First Generation Story- Eric Felix

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jim Banning

Some thoughts on my first generation experience.
I entered college in 1956, the first from both sides of the family to go to college.  There was no concept “First Generation.”   I imagine that many of my cohorts were also first generation, but it was not an experience that I recall discussing.   Looking back from the perspective of being engaged in student affairs work for nearly fifty years, several thought come to mind.  One, the experience of “not being in the know” was true for me as it is still true for students of today.  I recall reading information from the college as my parents were driving me to campus.  I looked over to my Dad who was driving and said:  “It says here that the average course work per semester is about 15 hours – that is a very long day to be sitting in school!”  My dad replied: “You have put up hay that many hours in a day – can’t see where sitting in a classroom would be any harder.”  I replied: “Guess you are right” – and continued the trip thinking I would be in class for 15 hours a day.   Today I would call the experience an “ecological transition” without the necessary information to reduce the stress of “not knowing.”
My second thought is that the “First Generation” experience is not a single ecological transition.  I was the first to be a second year student, first to be a third year student, the first to graduate, the first to go to graduate school, etc.  In each of this transitions, you enter with a bit more “not knowing” than counterparts who come from a sending environment where most of these transitions have been experienced.
                My last thought is that I believe from my experience (not from my research) that the “First Generation” experience is also connected to the experience known as the “imposter phenomena” (Chance, 1985).  The imposter phenomena -  folks who have attained achievements, but not for sure they are deserving and perhaps even  see themselves as frauds.   Being “not in the know” at every step may cause one to doubt previous learning.  To end on a positive note, I think that being in the “not in the know” group as a first generation traveler – helps to dampen the “I know it all” that is so prevalent in academia.   
Jim Banning,  
Professor, Colorado State University

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Corey Peacock

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.