On Being First-Generation
Personal stories and advice from Bucknell faculty and staff members who were first-generation college students.
Homer P. Rainey Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Animal Behavior
A.B., Pomona College; Ph.D., Princeton University
Even today, after a long career in higher education, when someone mentions the difficulties for children who approach college with no or a poor background, because of poverty, race or any factor that limits exposure to education, my heart tugs.
Both my parents left school after eighth grade because they needed to work to support their families. I did not go to college.
My high school teachers helped me to apply to places, but none offered me enough scholarship money, so I went to work for the CCC (California Conservation Corps) picking weeds out of the Angleles Crest Forest with prisoners -- an education in itself.
In October, the admissions dean at Pomona College called to say that he expected I was in college somewhere, but if not .... When he learned what I was doing, he said that Pomona had received an unexpected scholarship, and I could come late if I wanted and was willing to wash dishes for my room and board. So I went.
It was truly uncomfortable. These students lived in a world I couldn't imagine. They ate things I had never seen. They laughed at my pronunciation. Indeed, I was sent to the professor of rhetoric to learn to speak acceptable English. I cried a lot in private.
I graduated from Pomona in 1956 and received a PhD from Princeton in 1959. Teaching at Bucknell from 1960 to 2002, I also served as visiting professor at Virginia, Tulane, Cambridge (UK) Berkeley, Mysore (India). So, it can be done, but not without pain. Understanding helps, and however it's found, it is necessary.
Associate Professor of Comparative Humanities
BA, University of Toronto; Ph.D. Duke
My parents were both brought up in Ireland, and they grew up not even thinking of college. My dad left school at the age of fourteen to go to work (which was normal for the kids in his neighborhood -- that's when mandatory full-time school ended). My mother finished high school and became a nurse, but she didn't go to college either: You trained in a hospital to become a nurse in those days. Plus, sad to say, my grandfather didn't really see the point of girls going to university.
My parents came to North America, worked hard, and did well, and I grew up with the expectation that I would go to college (although maybe not for quite as long as it takes to get a Ph.D. . . .). I remember the first day that I arrived for orientation at the University of Toronto as if it were yesterday. My parents had given me all the love and support in the world, but there was one thing that they couldn't give me: They couldn't give me the feeling that I belonged there, that it was a place in which I could thrive. I realized that most of the kids around me had university-educated parents and that, at some level, they knew this world better than I did. They had had siblings in college, or had gone to reunions with parents -- they just felt more at home in a university setting
But, before too long, I realized something else as well: that because I had no strong preconceptions about college, I could make it what I wanted it to be. I started out studying computer science and comparative literature, but left the computer science behind after a D- in my second semester. I added a history major, but experimented in philosophy, film studies, French -- all sorts of things. There was no one to tell me that this was a bad idea or not a very conventional path; my parents were just thrilled that I was going and doing okay. They couldn't have cared less what my major was. My younger brother came to the same college a year later, studied medieval history . . . and became computer software designer.
Bucknell can be that place for YOU. You will feel a little weirded out among so many people who have lots of college degrees in their family trees, but that will pass after a month or so. You are here because we WANT you here, and you have the same chance I did to make Bucknell what you want it to be. So experiment; take intellectual chances; seize this opportunity to learn as much as you can about whatever subjects you like. Finding the subjects that you want to study in depth and make yours will give you a sense of belonging in college that far exceeds anything that anyone's family tree can give them. Welcome, and if you ever want to talk to someone about feeling a little bit like a fish out of water, my office is Vaughan Lit 115. Stop by anytime.
Associate Professor of Education
B.S. and B.A., Quincy College; M.Ed., Ohio University; Ph.D., Michigan State University
About a year or two ago, I was teaching a course on adolescent development, and we got into an interesting discussion of parental influence on young people's career choices. Some of the students, who were from fairly affluent families, indicated that they found themselves feeling constrained by their parents' concern for their ability to pursue lucrative employment after college, depending on their choices from among the various academic majors offered at Bucknell.
That was a real point of realization for me, because my working class parents were completely supportive of any major that I might have chosen. There were truly no restrictions whatsoever, and I'm sure one factor in that was their confidence that a college education would help me to enjoy a more comfortable life than they had, regardless of what major I might choose.
In retrospect, that was very liberating for me, and I think it illustrates very nicely what a unique opportunity a college education provides for first-generation students. I was free to follow my passions, and that ultimately led me to a wonderful career as a faculty member at Bucknell.
Writing and Teaching Consultant, Bucknell Writing Center
B.A., UNC-Asheville; M.A., Virginia Tech
My first year in college, I didn't come out of my room until November except to go to class and to the cafeteria, and all I did those first few weeks was study and write to my boyfriend back home. With no "insider" information from family and friends, I arrived at college with no idea what to expect. On the one hand, I felt liberated, in a place where no one knew my family or had heard of my home town. On the other hand, I felt dislocated: If I didn't have to be who the people around me assumed I was, then who should I be?
Once my hall mates coaxed me out of my room, my world started slowly expanding. My view started out pretty narrow and I made a lot of mistakes, but college — and a liberal arts education, in particular — not only allowed me to explore my intellectual potential while developing expertise in one field, but also gave me a whole collection of lenses through which to see and learn about the world. Everything overlapped, and some weeks I'd be startled and thrilled to find same concept coming up in my humanities, psychology and biology classes. But probably the most valuable aspect of college, and later, graduate school, for me was access to thoughtful people from different backgrounds, people who challenged my assumptions and opened my mind and heart to new understanding and empathy.
So what did I learn that I'd like to pass along? 1) That you can stay true to who you are, honor your "roots," and still grow to embrace new ideas and values. 2) That many of us first-gens have limited knowledge of what college-educated people do for a living, so we tend to want to be teachers, doctors or psychologists. Get to know the folks at the Career Development Center and see what other opportunities are out there before you commit to a career path. 3) That there's no one right path, and the only constant is change, but if you follow your heart, it will take you where you need to go.
Bucknell Magazine editor and director of University photography
BA, Pennsylvania State University, MFA, Pennsylvania State University
During my freshman year of college, I once commented to a young woman how striking the diamond-and-onyx ring was that she wore. She thanked me, smiled and said that the ring was her grandmother’s college class ring. My face must have shown first, overwhelming surprise, and then, deep embarrassment.
During the time I was growing up, I knew very few people my parents' age — with the exception of teachers — who’d gone to college, much less someone my grandmother’s age. The idea of almost anybody’s grandparents attending college was inconceivable to me at the time.
I thought of my own grandmother, stooped with age, standing over a tub of bread dough, rolling the elastic stuff deftly between her gnarled hands, triumphant as she spelled for me: c-a-t, P-h-i-l-a-d-e-l-p-h-i-a, words she'd taught herself. She had a third-grade education in southern Italy and figured out English on her own in America. My father had an eighth-grade education and had traversed the globe several times. He couldn't understand why I wanted to go to college. His advice to me was to continue waitressing. I could make good tips.
My father felt his obligation to his children ended at age 18. He always said he would keep a roof over our heads and a meal in our bellies until then, but we were on our own after that. My father's contribution to my education was a 10-speed bicycle, and my mother once sent me $20. I worked anywhere I could find — housekeeping, gardening, babysitting, stocking shelves, cleaning plates in the caf.
When I did drop out of college for a while and join the Merchant Marine, I had nine part-time jobs. When I was younger, I resented classmates who didn't have to work, whose parents visited on weekends, who had time for things I didn't. I bought season tickets for the football games and never attended one. I was either working or studying. And I needed the money I got for the tickets.
When I finally graduated, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, I know my mother was proud of me and more than a little pained that she couldn't have helped more. I've met first-generation students who feel some of that same resentment and always tell them that while their experiences have kept them from feeling completely unfettered from worries about money and family, they also have a resilience that will benefit them forever.