For me, being a first-generation college student has a certain amount of pride in it — it’s pretty damn neat to embark upon the unbeaten path, after all.
But, at the end of the day, it’s also incredibly alienating.
Terms like “imposter syndrome” and “stereotype threat” are often lobbed over to first-generation college students in an attempt to help us articulate the feelings we have: the guilt from separating ourselves from our homes in seen and unseen ways, the feeling that we will just never quite be good enough, the anxiety of skating by unnoticed until someone finally realizes we’ve made it here by luck alone and actually don’t belong at all and we’re just lying to ourselves and, oh God …
Our feelings are valid, but our logic may be flawed.
One instance — out of an unfortunate many — that has triggered these anxieties for me just so happens to be one of my least favorite memories at Lawrence.
Picture this: You’re sitting in class, discussing the inequities present in the American education system. Stimulating conversation. Then, just as you’re about to scoot out of that stuffy classroom to grab a rightfully-deserved coffee from the Café, your professor says that no one can succeed in America without a college degree.
And you look at them, praying that God will whisper in their ear to go back and just, you know, not say that. But, instead, they continue on, furthering their sentiment that without a college degree, an American is destined for a life void of success.
Immediately, you think of your family — how neither of your parents went to college, so, by this professor’s logic, they will never achieve — had never achieved — success. And it feels like there’s acid in your stomach as your insides revolt against what you’ve just heard, as you debate whether to push back or to just walk out the door and maybe never come back.
The acid is still in my stomach as I think back on that experience in a classroom at my beloved, oh-so-accepting, liberal-minded, accommodating Lawrence University. (Yes, that one.)
The sentiment is problematic for a plethora of reasons, one of which being that success is incredibly subjective. There’s a reason Kate Zoromski asks her UNIC 117 students to write about what success is for them — it simply is not a universal concept.
Beyond that, there are still many more issues with this statement, especially with the price of a post-secondary education being so absurdly high in the U.S.
But, in that moment, I didn’t think of classism, regular ol’ ignorance or anything more sophisticated than simply, screw you.
And then I knew I was my father’s daughter.
When my dad was approaching high school graduation, he made a decision that really fulfilled the stubbornness of his Irish heritage.
For many years, my dad worked as a caddie at a local golf course, and he was, according to him, pretty excellent at it. Now, what you might not know about caddying is that the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship awards over 1,000 renewable, full tuition and housing college scholarships each year to eligible caddies.
That’s a pretty big deal, especially for a poor boy with duct-taped shoes, biking to football practice.
But, when someone told my father that he would have to pursue a college education if he ever wanted to be anything, he washed his hands of any potential scholarship or college degree. And I do believe that he said, or at least thought, something stronger than “screw you.”
So, my father took his high school diploma and went to work. He dedicated countless hours to learning while working in automotive shops and dealerships as a mechanic. And with his hands in the cars, he dreamed beyond his role as a mechanic.
He gathered up roughly $500, and he took a chance: he started his own automotive shop.
When I look at how the business has grown and how my parents are now in a position in which they can give back to the community that has stood by them for decades, I’ll be damned if I don’t chalk that up as a success.
Now, it may be surprising that I am so adamantly against that professor’s sentiment, considering I work in the CCE as the Equal Access to Education Program Coordinator and recently developed a first-generation student mentorship program with a local high school.
But my anger and this role are not conflicting.
I believe that everyone has the right to an education which will defend and further their potential. I do not believe that a college degree is a prerequisite to success in this country.
These beliefs do not oppose each other.
I advocate for the choice, for everyone to have the same access to education and be able to choose what they want to do with their education, and even if they want to continue that education.
I advocate for college to be accessible — not to be a requirement.
Not every student needs to, or even should, choose a college education, but every student should be allowed that choice.
So, with that said — Dad, I’m proud of you. And I’m proud of myself. We chose different paths, each with the potential for success.
I’m proud of us.
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