First Generation Academics Reflect

Below you will find an anonymous reflection by a first generation academic: neither of her parents graduated from college with a four year degree and she not only earned her BA, but went on to earn a MEd and finally a PhD.  She is one of many university faculty who are attending the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning Fireside chat series, First Generation Academics.  Faculty members who also persisted through undergraduate school through to a PhD gather every other week to tell stories of their experiences in an effort to identify what knowledge and skills (and questions) would be most helpful to our incoming first year students.

These are the discussion questions this essay prompted:

  • As a first generation student, in what way if any, did you feel “culturally disadvantaged”in the university system? If you wish, tell a story of a time you made a “social mistake” that could have been prevented by a “sensitive mentor.”


  • What personal and/or social characteristics have you shifted in order to better “fit” in the university culture?


  • What knowledge and skills are key for incoming first generation students to have in order to effectively maneuver through a university system?

As a young person, I was slightly aware of social class distinction because as an adolescent I read had the classic Elmstown Youth ethnography as part of my science project.  What I didn’t realize was that Elmstown Youth was describing the kind of small town I had been raised in…and that was all the world I  knew.  I didn’t realize Elmstown was, like all other small rural villages,  a community embedded within a much larger system of social strata.  Over the years I have learned that even the number “ones,” in Elmstown Youth, the families who are the top of the town’s social strata are, on American standards, middle class.  Today, I interact with people from a far more expansive social system: students from illiterate families to world renowned researchers and policy makers. What prompted me to expand my social fluidity?

I attended the nearby State University and studied to be an elementary teacher; my undergraduate education did very little, if anything, to develop my professional dispositions for the world of work. In fact, I felt “at home” socially as a public school teacher; my colleagues and I all hailed from the lower middle class. My awareness of other social classes beyond those of a small rural town began to develop when I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington.  It was then that I really began to stumble socially: I talked too much; laughed too loudly; angered too quickly.  I poured my wine glass too full.  Used too harsh of descriptors.  Spoke with too much passion.

Today I think of the social transformation I have made over the years as a process of developing personal grace.   I have learned to be more diplomatic, and less reactive.  I listen more carefully, but commit with less passion.  I am tempered; like glass, I can take more abuse without breaking. The process has been long, embarrassing at times, and is still ongoing.  I can only remember one time in my academic career when I completely reverted to my unpolished upbringing: I was falsely accused of ineffective practice and threatened by an administrator with public humiliation.  The threat of injury to my reputation, the professional personae I had so carefully crafted over the years, cut me to the quick.  I raised my voice.  I said exactly what I thought about the situation and I called in “back up.”  Why did I react so violently?  Because I was, by that time,  living by one of the key tenants of  university faculty life: power is earned through expertise and relationship…and such a reputation must be carefully and continuously tended. Our reputations are who we are in a university faculty.  Administrators clearly have “formalized power,” but if their formalized power is not also complemented by power of expertise and power of relationship, the administrator is viewed by faculty as impotent, ineffective, or as “one to wait out.”  Such administrators actually have very little influence on faculty behavior unless they use their formalized power to punish or control faculty: then they are feared and avoided.  This was the case for me…my administrator who we all hoped we could simply “wait out” decided (on some level) to injure my professional reputation.  Of all days, to lose all that I had learned…in that one closed-door conversation, when faced with injury to my academic reputation, I reverted back to my original heritage: the unpolished rural Montanan who can calf rope words faster than frogs swallow flies.  The administrator was shocked…and there is still a part of me that slightly smug about that…but in the end, I am more ashamed than proud.  How deep, then has my transformation been?  Where is the authentic self?

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