I remember filling out a college application and seeing a question about the highest grade of school my parents completed. I thought I was doomed. What college would want the daughter of two high-school dropouts?
Today I am a university professor, but I am still occasionally plagued with nagging doubts about my place in the world. Entering academia as a first-generation college student from a working-class family was not easy, but it has been a valuable experience to share with my students. This experience is especially valuable at Roosevelt, where more than 45 percent of our undergraduates are first-generation.
I was fortunate to be enrolled in college in the early 1970s, a time of political excitement on many campuses. It was an excitement that found its way into the classroom, and I found my way into one of the first women’s studies programs in the United States. At the State University of New York at Buffalo, I learned about gender and patriarchy and social movements for liberation. I learned about class.
I thought I was doomed. What college would want the daughter of two high-school dropouts?
For the first time, certain events in my life began to make sense: feelings of being out of place or not smart enough or too smart or not dressed well enough. I remember going to summer camp and feeling ashamed that my folks had sent me off with old suitcases and towels. How was I, or they, supposed to know that camp meant a trunk with pretty sheets and matching towels?
It was not the only time I felt like there was a set of unwritten rules that everyone else magically knew.
Along with my periodic embarrassment, however, came feelings of pride. I was proud that my father was one of the smartest people I knew despite his lack of education, and that he dropped out of high school because it was the Depression and his family needed him to work. I felt pride in his pride as a member of a union. I don’t think a single piece of printed material ever came into our home without Dad turning it over to check for the printers’ “union bug” (the label that identified the product as union-printed). It was the union that made camp, and college, possible.
Today I teach an introduction to working-class studies class as part of the major in Social Justice Studies at Roosevelt. From my syllabus:
To say that America is a class society is heretical in some circles. After all, the promise of the American Dream is that regardless of circumstances of birth anyone can make it. But the rub is that not everyone can make it. And so we are engaged in a competition for the spots at the top of a supposedly non-existent class hierarchy. While our laws protect against discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and increasingly sexual orientation, there are no laws protecting us against class discrimination. How could there be if classes do not exist?
Of course, classes do exist, and one of my goals for this course is for students to see their lives and their families in a social context. I am privileged to watch as my students experience those “aha moments” that I also experienced. For example, one student cried when she realized that she didn’t have to be ashamed of the fact that her father was a janitor; in fact, she could be proud. In essays they write for class, some students notice for the first time that their class background influenced their educational choices. Maybe they were steered into community colleges when their test scores and grades indicated they had a much wider range of choices. Some of them were steered away from college altogether, or not steered at all. They notice who was seen as “college material” in their high schools and why.
Ultimately, I hope that my students experience a pride in their families, communities and collective history that helps them to develop their voice and successfully navigate college, no matter their background.