The First Degree
What does it mean to be the first in your family to pursue a college degree? First-generation students share a basic unfamiliarity with college culture; their parents haven’t been able to tell them what it means to be a college student. They may also have troubles with academic preparation, study skills, and confidence.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
by Meg Kimmel
It was two in the morning. The sounds of AK-47s and grenades had quieted a few hours earlier, as the rebel forces that menaced the Mogadishu streets took a break. The boy’s mother woke him, and they quietly climbed into the back of a miniature truck with his father and older brothers, and squeezed together under a scratchy wool blanket. The rusted truck bed hurt the boy’s face. He was sweating from the heat, the blanket, and the fear.
Mohamed Egal ’13 will never forget that night. “That treacherous ride and the fear of being discovered and slain makes the freedom that I’ve received in America all the more priceless and meaningful.”
Egal and his family spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before receiving word that visas had come through for him and his mom to join an uncle in Atlanta, leaving his dad and brothers in Kenya. He learned English “from Barney and Sesame Street,” and in middle school enrolled at Westminster School, where his mom had gotten a job in security. Egal describes his life as a “blessed chain of events” leading him to Davidson.
Egal is one of 58 members of the Class of 2013 who are the first in their family to pursue a four-year college degree; today, roughly 9 percent of Davidson’s student population is first-generation. Davidson has always enrolled students who were the first in their families to attend college, but their numbers are increasing, following a national trend.
As part of an effort to better understand and meet the needs of these students, the college invited Jeff Davis, a leading scholar and author of The First Generation Student Experience, to spend a day on campus working with faculty and student life staff. Davis applauds Davidson for taking the first steps toward recognizing that first-generation students may have special needs, and for finding ways to address those needs.
“Being a first-generation student is a very big deal,” Davis says, citing national six-year graduation rates for this cohort at just 57 percent.
Davidson hasn’t been tracking graduation rates for first-gen students per se, but with an overall graduation rate of 91 percent, it seems likely that the majority of these students are finding success at this college. As their numbers increase in coming years, the college is developing resources to ensure this success will continue.
A first-generation college student herself, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life Patty Perillo is heading up this effort. “We’ve begun to hold focus groups to help us better understand the needs of first-generation students at Davidson,” she says, adding that programmatic and service initiatives for first-generation students will be also available through the college’s new Multicultural House.
What does it mean to be the first in your family to pursue a college degree? According to Davis, these students share a basic unfamiliarity with college culture; their parents haven’t been able to tell them what it means to be a college student. They may also have troubles with academic preparation, study skills, and confidence. They may feel like “imposters.”
To explore this question on our campus, I talked with more than 30 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and one parent who speak from personal experience. Not all of their stories are as dramatic as Mohamed Egal’s, but they share common threads of independence and initiative, ambition and opportunity, gratitude and pride.
…they share common threads of independence and initiative, ambition and opportunity, gratitude and pride.
Although Jeff Davis points out that, nationally, first-generation students do not equate with low-income students, all of the current first-generation Davidson students I spoke with have received aid and struggled to some extent with finances. Many first-gen alumni agreed that money can be an issue, but that’s “just part of life,” Bob Miller ’84 says.
“Money was certainly a problem for me,” remembers David Staton ’69, although Davidson helped him with increased financial aid during his years as a student. “I appreciated it then, and I still do.” A psychologist and longtime member of Davidson’s student health staff, Staton admits that he was not happy in college. His sheltered background, his shyness, and his limited resources made Davidson a difficult world to navigate, both academically and socially.
Staton is one of 17 Davidson faculty and staff who responded to my e-mail asking for first-generation stories. A number of them came from working class families and the emerging middle class of the 1950s, like Watson Professor of Psychology Ed Palmer, whose dad was a factory worker, or Millner Professor of Music Bill Lawing ’73, whose father had moved to the city from the farm. Many, like Professor of Political Science Brian Shaw, grew up in urban, working-class neighborhoods, and many, like Assistant Professor of English Onita Vaz-Hooper, had single mothers who were eager for their children to pursue the education that they were unable to have.
For most, the public school system played a prominent role in their paths to higher education, allowing them to be identified as strong students and tracked into pre-college courses. “I am so grateful for the commitment that North Carolina makes to public education,” says Associate Professor of Medical Humanities Kristie Foley, and her gratitude extends to the opportunities she found at the University of North Carolina. From necessity, many first-generation students have developed a strong sense of initiative and independence; they are commonly on their own in the college search and the confusing process of application and financial aid forms. Cathy Marques ’11, a Portuguese immigrant, often served as a translator for her parents, and while they supported her ambition to go to college, she had to manage the process. It was no easy task to find the numbers she needed to apply for financial aid, she says.
Sabra Faires ’77 grew up in Charlotte, where her father worked for a trucking company. “My mother married young,” she says. “She was smart, but didn’t even finish high school.” Her parents wanted her to go to college, but Faires’ dad was pulling initially for nearby Central Piedmont Community College. “I wanted to go somewhere I could get an education,” says Faires. “I guided myself.”
Now an attorney, she serves as tax counsel to the North Carolina Senate. And two of her three children have come to Davidson, Sam ’14 and Mark ’10 Trawick.
Twists of Fate
Luck, coincidence—and financial aid—have played a role in bringing many first-generation students to Davidson. Bob Miller played high school football in a “one-traffic-light town” in upstate New York where his dad owned a gas station. Miller figured he’d get a scholarship to nearby Colgate, until his coach visited Davidson on a job interview. He convinced his young player to apply to Davidson. “I left New York on a snowy day to visit campus,” Miller remembers, “where it was 75 degrees, and cute girls were walking around in shorts. I figured this was the place for me!”
Now a Davidson trustee with a daughter in the Class of 2014, Miller enrolled in 1980 with a combination of loans and grants—“Davidson took a real chance on me.” During the summers, he worked two jobs: the 4 a.m.-to-noon shift at a local tannery, “squeezing liquid out of cow hide,” afternoons at his dad’s gas station. Long days.
On his admission essay 30 years ago, he wrote, “I personally get a great feeling of satisfaction when I help someone, especially someone not as fortunate as I am.” Fast-forward to 2006, when he created an endowment to bring high-need high school students to Davidson’s three-week July Experience program to see what this college thing is all about.
One of those students was Kaneisha Gaston ’13. She grew up in Davidson, but her time at July Experience—made possible by the Miller Endowment—helped her imagine coming to school here. The application process nearly overwhelmed her. “I knew I needed to fill out something called FAFSA, but how would I find it?” she says. Online research helped solve that, and also helped identify scholarship opportunities. Between her resourcefulness and support from The Davidson Trust, “my whole first year cost me nothing out of pocket.”
Kim Crabtree Price ’89 did not imagine college as a child, growing up in a trailer on her grandfather’s truck farm just outside stand across the street,” she remembers. When her granddad sold some land to an airline pilot who wanted to build a house, Price became friends with two girls in the family who were going to college. Price set her sights on college, too.
She was fortunate to meet Steve Soud ’84, who was then an admission counselor, at a college fair. Soud believed Price should be at Davidson, so he called her high school counselor to support the process. The counselor drove Price to campus for a visit that convinced her to come to Davidson. Today, Price is still on a college campus, as director of academic services for Duke Continuing Studies and Summer Session.
Unlike Price, J.C. Faulkner ’83 understood from an early age that higher education was in his future, even though his parents did not finish college. He figured he would go to nearby University of Kentucky, until he happened to meet a guy on the golf course one day while practicing for a high school tournament. By the end of 18 holes, Woody Van Meter ’75 had pointed Faulkner toward Davidson. Faulkner scraped together the price of a plane ticket, but not much more, so he hitchhiked from the Charlotte airport to campus—and the man who picked him up was also a Davidson alumnus. “I don’t remember his name,” says Faulkner today, “but the chain of coincidences was beginning to make an impression on me.”
Please Speak Up
Somehow, it was junior year before Faulkner had to open his mouth in class, when Professor Emeritus Tony Abbott asked him to read a poem. “My throat closed up after the first few lines. I couldn’t do it.” Abbott asked him to stay a minute after class. “You’re going to need to beat this,” he told Faulkner, and walked him down the hall to see Jean Cornell, who ran the college’s speech program in those days. “I enrolled in her class and learned that not only could I be a public speaker—I was great at it!”
Today, Faulkner is an independent investor on the board of four companies he was instrumental in forming. And he talks a lot.
David Staton recalls that he was scared to death to speak up in class—he was afraid to be wrong and intimidated by his professors. “I saw them as the repositories of knowledge—it would never occur to me to challenge or question anything they said.”
Judy Klein, who now works with students from all backgrounds as Davidson’s access coordinator in the Residence Life office, recalls that she was “painfully shy.” It took her six years and almost as many institutions to finish her degree. “I had no mentor, no role model,” she says, and her timidity kept her from finding community at her various schools.
Ketan R. Bulsara ’92, now teaching and practicing in the Yale Department of Neurosurgery, arrived at Davidson as a 16-year-old immigrant. “My peers and teachers created an atmosphere that facilitated everyone feeling comfortable, no matter who they were or where they came from,” he says. Although shy in those days about speaking in public, today he says, “My early years at Davidson College taught me how to begin expressing myself and my views.”
Setting the Example
Tyler McGee ’12 says his parents realized the importance of college for him because they weren’t able to finish college themselves. “Life happened,” he says. He’d been looking at Georgia State and Furman, and visited Davidson as an afterthought. “I was sold,” he says. “It was the campus tour, the laundry, and a hammock hanging between two trees on the front campus.”
Fortunately, with The Davidson Trust, Davidson turned out to be “cheaper than anywhere else.” He declared himself financially independent to make things more affordable, and took out loans in his name. “My parents will do what they can, but I’m paying for things on my own.”
Finances are a challenge, but he says, “I try to take a step back. When I was 16, my friends were getting new cars—oh, man. But look at me now, sitting around reading a good book in an Adirondack chair—that’s my job.”
And after her son applied to Davidson, McGee’s mom started taking classes at the University of South Carolina, where she works in the human resources department. They might graduate together in 2012.
Unlike McGee’s parents, the family of Professor of Psychology John Kello did not see college in his future. His father, a sign painter, had lined up a job as a bank teller for his smart son. “I was good at math, so it seemed logical.”
Kello was near the top of his high school class in Norfolk, Va.; a counselor thought he could get a scholarship at the local college, now Old Dominion University. So, with a full ride and his parents shaking their heads in confusion, he lived at home and commuted to class, graduating in 1968 with a 4.0 GPA.
His father, a sign painter, had lined up a job as a bank teller for his smart son. “I was good at math, so it seemed logical.”
One of five children, Kello is still the only college graduate in his family. But he has sent each of his five children to college, and his octogenarian dad got a GED a few years back and began to take classes at his son’s alma mater. Like son, like father.
“My father died when I was a child; my mother sacrificed for me without question,” says Onita Vaz-Hooper, who left her native Sri Lanka in 1989, when civil unrest shut down the universities there. “By the time I decided to leave, most application deadlines had passed.” Only after she was arrived at the University of Southern California did she learn that financial aid was almost exclusively for U.S. residents.“These were pre-Internet days,” she says.
She was working three jobs, and struggled financially. Vaz-Hooper’s mother sold her house and used all her retirement savings to help fund college; she then followed her daughter to the states to help. “She even took very menial jobs, but we made ends meet,” says a grateful daughter, today an assistant professor of English at Davidson.
When Logan Lewis ’12 visited Davidson with his single mother, they sat in on a lecture on Milton given by Randy Ingram ’87, the Wall Professor of English. Afterwards, Lewis told his mom, “That’s what college is supposed to be.”
Lewis’s maternal grandparents were a huge part of his childhood, sacrificing to send him to a private school in nearby Winnsboro. He had been born with a major hearing loss in his left ear, and the family thought he would need special help. Turns out he really didn’t. He excelled in everything and played every sport he could—football, basketball, and baseball.
Davidson is the best thing that could ever have happened to her son, Carol Lewis says. “And I want people to know how accepted I feel at Davidson. Everyone makes you feel like you’ve always been there.”
Now a classics major, Logan Lewis has taken Ingram’s class on Milton, and preaches the blind poet at the drop of a hat. He is deeply grateful for his Davidson experience—but not just for himself. “My mom didn’t get this chance,” he says, “Davidson is her college experience, too.”
“You can be anything you want to be here…. I appreciate every single bit of this opportunity.”
Eyes on the Prize
Randy Ingram says that when he came back to Davidson to interview for a job, “it was like a second admission process. It was a little weird—these people had been my professors.” The weirdness continued after he got the job. “The classrooms—the spaces—were haunted.”
Ingram’s parents were good students in their rural North Carolina high schools, but there were no opportunities for them to go to college. They determined that their three children would have that chance. Davidson intimidated them, though—“It was an elite place in their minds,” says Ingram. He gratefully remembers how kindly they were treated during orientation, reassured that their son would be fine.
He was fine, although “socially, I found it a hard place. But I was so engaged with learning, and I found people of like mind.” He never missed a single class.
He is grateful for the financial aid that made Davidson possible. He worked in the college library and every summer at home, but was aware that his parents were paying more than they might have elsewhere. “I give regularly and very happily” to scholarships at Davidson, he says.
Ketan Bulsara said something I heard from almost everyone I interviewed. “I felt no pressure from my parents to succeed. Any pressure to succeed came from within. And I was determined to do the absolute best that I could at whatever task I undertook, because I knew of no other option.”
Conarroe Professor of Spanish Mary Vàsquez’s parents worked hard to enter the middle class, and “nurtured always in me a love of learning.” Her home was full of magazines and books, and her parents took care to give her opportunities they had missed. “Education was prized,” says Vàsquez.
Now chair of Davidson’s Biology Department, Barbara Lom says that her parents were “farmers’ kids,” who never thought of going to college. But for her—“It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go.”
She considered big universities, but at the last minute applied to Lawrence University in her hometown. “It never crossed my mind that I was special, or needed any help adjusting to college,” she recalls. But she encountered culture shock in her first class, a common course for all freshmen. Like her classmates, she had her copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the assigned summer reading. When the professor instructed the students to open their books for discussion, Lom was shocked to see the highlighted sections on the pages and notes her fellow students had written in the margins of their texts. “I would never dream of it! It was against the rules to write in a book.”
Brian Shaw grew up in working-class, inner-city Providence, R.I., where his father was a civil servant at the Navy base. “He was self-educated,” Shaw says. On Saturdays, he and his dad would go to the library; on Sundays, they went to the railway station to get the papers—The New York Times, the Boston Globe. They had plenty to read and talk about.
Today, Shaw’s 93-year-old dad is housebound and nearly blind, but “he still ‘reads’ (via an automated telephone service) a dozen periodicals a day.” During Shaw’s daily walks to and from his Chambers office, he is often on the phone, talking to his dad. “We still talk about books and politics,” he says.
Mohamed Egal is at Davidson today with a Snider Scholarship, a comprehensive award for gifted high-need students. “You can be anything you want to be here,” he says. “I appreciate every single bit of this opportunity.”
Dickson Professor of Psychology Julio Ramirez’s parents emigrated from Cuba in the ’40s, seeking a better life for their children. They were factory workers—“like most people in Bridgeport, Conn.,” he says. He was a smart little kid who wanted to be a scientist. “I was fascinated by the space program. I actually ‘taught’ science in the eighth grade to my classmates.”
Ramirez had no idea what college was, but he tested into the college prep track at his high school. “It all seemed vague and nebulous. There was no guidance counseling.” He took the SATs and applied to schools within commuting distance of home. Fairfield University gave him a full ride.
He remembers his very first day on the Fairfield campus. It was 1973. He looked around; students were dressed in cutoff jeans, hanging out, playing music on the lawn. He remembers thinking, “I’ve got to figure out how to do this for a living.”
It was a privilege to be there, Ramirez says. “I wouldn’t do anything but the best I could possibly do.” Now an award-winning scientist with an endowed professorship, he gazes out his office window onto Chambers Lawn, where students from all backgrounds—even those whose parents never imagined college—can hang out andplay music under the trees.
He turns back to me with a slight shake of his head. “This is a great country.”
Many more students, faculty, staff, and alumni shared their stories about being first-generation college students.
Allie Coker ’10 calls herself the “luckiest of the unlucky.” Diagnosed twice with leukemia, once when she was five and again at the age of 11, in many ways, she grew up fast.
Lack of money and the complications of life had kept her parents from having a college experience, but for their only child, it was their dream. “Education is something no one can take away from you,” her mother would say.
Coker spent several summers at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, created by actor Paul Newman for children with cancer. “It was a safe, close community,” she says. “I came to love it.” When she first visited campus, Davidson reminded her of camp. “The students, the people, the professors—it felt compassionate, warm, and quirky.”
Financing Davidson was daunting, but “when I learned I had gotten the Kuykendall Scholarship, I knew I could come,” says Coker, who was also a Bonner Scholar. Still, Davidson was an adjustment for her. “I’d had to be so independent, it was hard to ask for help. I had to swallow a lot of pride.” She admits that the socioeconomic differences at Davidson could be challenging, but she “grew up being resourceful and frugal, so I never felt lacking while at Davidson.”
And she became more at ease with reaching out as she found her niche—a natural one for a cancer survivor. “Project Life!” she exclaims, referring to the bone marrow typing organization that was begun 20 years ago by an earlier cancer survivor at Davidson. “The drive has been a huge focus for me,” she says.
With her hard-working parents, those who helped during her illness, and the financial assistance that made opportunities like Davidson possible, Coker says, “I feel so much gratitude toward so many people.”
Patti Phillips Clark ’77 grew up in a “cotton mill village” in Greenville, S.C. One of 10 siblings, her father was determined that his children would have “everything they didn’t have growing up.” He worked hard and was able to move his family out of the mill village into a better neighborhood, fortunately in the district of the best high school in town.
One of three children, Clark says, “I never knew we were poor.”
The Phillips kids were smart, and it never occurred to them “that they couldn’t go to college.” Her parents were not involved in the process—“They assumed we would know how to do it.” One of her brothers would have loved to come to Davidson, but was diverted by a Morehead Scholarship from UNC.
UNC was a possibility for Clark, too, until she visited Davidson with her high school friend Kathy Aycock McLendon ’77—“Kathy’s mom invited me along.” Clark credits her mother for understanding that this smaller school might be a good fit for her shy daughter. They applied for financial aid, but were stunned to be told that they did not qualify. But her parents took out a six-year loan and made it work. “They would do anything for us,” she says.
It was the right choice. Clark “came out into the sunshine” at Davidson, flourishing with the attention that comes in small classes, just as her mother expected. Now part of a legacy family, she and her husband, Jordan Clark ’77, sent their oldest daughter, Dorsett ’06, to Davidson—she’s now married to Preston Davis ’05.
College seems to run in the family.
Ann Marie Costa, now Chair and Professor of Theatre at Davidson, grew up as one of five children in a second-generation Italian family in Boston. Her mother was an avid reader, and academics were stressed; the children weren’t allowed to watch TV or talk for hours on the phone.
“And we were expected to come home after school and sit at the dinner table,” Costa remembers. “Academics were cherished. We were always told, ‘Do the best you can do at anything you do.’” But most working class people didn’t go to college, she says, “They went to war.”
Costa’s father was a self-made man, the owner of an air-conditioner business. He was able to support his family, but Costa was aware of the toll it took on her parents to make ends meet. “I didn’t want that stress,” she says, “and college was a way out.”
She was accepted at both Boston College and the Boston Conservatory of Music, but “no one sat me down and explained about the difference between a conservatory education and a liberal arts education,” she says. She chose the conservatory, and today, wishes she had known the difference—“I missed out on so much. And as a teacher, I make sure my students understand this difference when they are thinking about graduate school.”
It really wasn’t until she came to Davidson that she felt out of her element. “It was a little intimidating” at first, she admits. Today, she is happy that she can be a resource both to her students and her family. “I remember walking my sister through the [financial aid] process, and helping my nephew in his college search.”
Her parents were thrilled with their daughter’s accomplishments. Costa lost her father in 2009, but she remembers his words: “I’m so very proud of you.”
Associate Professor of Medical Humanities Kristie Foley is the only child of a single mother who worked as a cost clerk for a Gastonia textile mill. She, along with Foley’s grandparents and a college-educated aunt, provided support and strong role models for a smart little girl who never doubted that she was headed for higher education.
Foley was tracked into a gifted and talented program, the first of many aspects of a public education system that she appreciates deeply. “And my mom and grandparents sacrificed to send me to enrichment programs and summer camps.”
Foley worked all through high school at various jobs—at a grocery story, at a textile mill. With advice from friends and a high school guidance counselor, she applied to several schools in the UNC system and was accepted at Chapel Hill. She declared herself financially independent from her family and filled out the financial aid paperwork herself.
Foley drove off to college in a gift from her grandfather, a 1982 Ford Escort. “Before I got to school, I felt ready, but I soon realized that my writing was not up to par,” she says. She found it hard to ask for help—“and I still don’t do this easily.” And the lack of money made her feel “different from the others. Although lots of people were in the same boat.”
She believes that such experiences teach you to be strong and perseverant, to be accountable. And she knows that she was never alone. “I am so grateful for the resources that were put toward me,” she says, speaking both of her family and of North Carolina’s strong financial commitment to public education.
Foley now oversees the largest grant ever awarded to a Davidson College faculty member. “Being a first-generation college student is just part of my story,” she says. But it does make her “especially sensitive to those students who might be struggling with some of the same issues.”
Foley and her husband, Mark, have three children, who benefit from the resources of a dual-faculty family. She wonders, “How can we make them aware of their privileges? Their playground is the college campus; mine was a textile mill.”
Associate Professor of Mathematics Laurie Heyer’s route to college, not to mention college teaching, was indirect. “My story is complicated,” she says. “I grew up poor in rural Texas; my horizons were never wide.”
Her grandparents and an aunt and uncle helped with campus visits, and she started out at Baylor University. “Baylor was not a good fit for me,” she says. “I just never found my way at all.”
After her stepfather died during her first semester, she transferred to a junior college before landing finally at the University of Texas at Arlington. Living at home, she paid for school with grants, scholarships, loans, and jobs. “I worked at a Sonic drive-in and a K-Bob’s steak house—those kinds of jobs motivated me. I wanted something better,” she says.
As service jobs gave way to tutoring jobs, Heyer developed her love of teaching. Doggedly, she pursued this goal, taking a lucrative job in the defense industry, and eventually pursuing a master’s degree. With careful planning, she was finally able to leave her job to pursue a doctorate in applied mathematics at the University of Colorado.
Heyer is encouraged to hear that more first-generation students are coming to Davidson. “That will make us a better place,” she believes. “Until people understand how to it feels to have a hunger for education, but lack the resources to get you there—I don’t know how we will live the American dream.”
As for realizing her own dream, she is grateful for the forces that brought her to the classrooms in the Chambers Building—“the love of my family, the grace of God, and my education.”
Amanda Hansen ’11 came to Davidson from Sevierville, a small town in the eastern Tennessee mountains, where she went to a small public school. A high achiever since kindergarten, there was never a question that she would go to college. However, without strong collegiate role models in her family and with a growing concern about financing her education, Hansen was unsure where she should and could afford to continue her education.
“Most of the students from my high school graduating class—save four of us—chose to stay in-state for college,” says Hansen. With the help of a family friend and college counselor, she was able to see over the horizon, into North Carolina and beyond. She applied to many top-notch schools, including Middlebury and Princeton, but when she visited Davidson, she explains, “I felt it as soon as I hit campus.” This was the place for her.
Hansen adjusted well to college, partly thanks to a gap year she spent in Japan as a Rotary exchange student. But she admits that there is a transition between home and college life. Her best friends are still from Sevierville, and, while supportive of her decision to study at Davidson, they can see a growing rift between her aspirations and their own.
On campus, Hansen sees a “marked socioeconomic divide” among Davidson students. “While it doesn’t impair my relationship with other students, my experience as a need-based scholarship student certainly gives me a different perspective than my peers. It is an additional strain on my study and social time that I am working so I can buy groceries, so I can go to a play, so I can pay my tuition and my medical bills.”
Hansen believes strongly in the value of her Davidson education. She appreciates the chance for personal interaction with members of the faculty and staff and sees that—for them—working at Davidson is much more than a job. A political science major with an eye toward foreign service, she hopes to pay forward their kindness and wisdom one day at a time.
Bill Lawing ’73 says that being a first-generation college student “never seemed special” to him.
His dad came from a family of mountain farmers, and followed his brother to Winston-Salem, N.C., looking for opportunity.
“My mother was a classic Depression-era story,” says Lawing. “After her father’s death in 1931—she was nine—her mother lost the house, and my mother had to live with various relatives and friends through her graduation from high school.” Mom and dad met at a boarding house in Winston, married one week after he returned from World War II, and were eventually able to send their three children to college.
“There was never a question about going to college,” Lawing says, but there was a question about where. He considered Wake Forest University, Duke, UNC, and Davidson. “But my high school AP History teacher was a Davidson alumnus.”
He applied early decision and felt ready for college, although he was aware from time to time of certain “social niceties” that were unfamiliar to him. Davidson felt like a very liberal place in comparison to his family, and he was aware that he had less money than many of his peers, but “that didn’t matter.”
Like many parents, Lawing’s mother and father were concerned about the idea of music as a career for their son. “They didn’t see it as a real job,” he says.
But it seems to have turned out okay. During almost four decades on the faculty, many of them chairing the Music Department, Milner Professor of Music “Doc” Lawing has been gainfully employed!
Sherry Nelson Malushizky’s parents both came from Carolina farm families. As the oldest child, her dad ran their farm near Charlotte before joining the Air Force. Her mother left the farm in Blacksburg, S.C., for Charlotte, where she worked as a phone operator for Southern Bell.
Malushizky was a good student, but “I never felt any pressure from my parents. Just do the best you can.” She also loved the social aspects of school—she was a cheerleader, joined clubs, and played softball during high school.
“My parents both worked hard to give us everything we needed, including paying for most of my college expenses,” she says, but they did not know how to help her with the process. “I did all the college application stuff by myself.”
Her mother wanted her to stay close, so she chose the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. To help with money, she worked every summer, waiting tables and teaching gymnastics. When she graduated, it was “a big deal,”’ she says. “My parents realized the accomplishment and were very proud.”
Malushizky remembers “a lack of confidence” in college, but when she joined UNCC’s student concert committee, she began to discover her voice. “I became passionate about presenting and promoting the arts,” she says. She went on for a master’s in education and joined the student life staff at UNCC. In 1993, she accepted the job of program director in Davidson’s college union, and is now director of Davidson College Friends of the Arts.
Malushizky believes that her two children will see college as “an automatic step.” And she’s proud to help others in her family who are considering higher education. “I can facilitate the conversation about the college search, and I even took my niece on her college tours.
“And she has graduated now,” Malushizky smiles with pride—and confidence.
Emily Matiak ’12 grew up in Georgia with a single mom who worked three jobs to send her daughter to private school. She was determined to give her daughter the opportunity for education that she had missed.
Like many first-generation college students, Matiak took on the application process alone. “I had to figure it out for myself,” she says. She is grateful for financial aid—“I wouldn’t be here without The Davidson Trust”—but she has to work two jobs to meet her expenses.
She comes from a large, extended family. “I have 13 cousins, and none of them are going to college,” Matiak says. Her Hawaiian grandmother is very proud of her granddaughter. “When she realized how hard my mom has to work to provide for me, she decided to help out with my tuition.”
Matiak believes it is important to be able to interact with students who come from different backgrounds at Davidson, but she finds the academics challenging. “I had no idea how to manage time,” she says. “My main source of motivation is my mother,” says Matiak. “I want to make her proud.”
But there’s a problem. Without any college experience of her own, Matiak’s mother doesn’t understand Davidson’s academic rigor. “She knows I did well in high school,” says Matiak. “She thinks I’m smart. So when she looks at my grades, she just shakes her head.
“Why don’t I have all A’s?”
Professor of Psychology Ed Palmer grew up in Hagerstown, Md., where his parents had moved from the tiny farming community of Wolfsville in Frederick County, MD. “They came to the big city,” he chuckles today, in his office in the Watson Building on the Davidson campus.
His dad was a factory worker, making leather soles and pocketbooks, and he farmed the large field behind the Palmer’s house. Neither parent finished high school, but his mother made it through the 11th grade, before contracting polio. With 14 children in his dad’s family “the boys were hired out to other farms to plant and harvest the crops,” he says, so they missed school for long periods of time. As a result, his dad’s schooling ended with the fifth grade.
Palmer had a morning paper route in Hagerstown, and earned enough money to pay for half the family car. “Not a fancy car,” he says. A good student, he followed his sister to nearby Gettysburg College with a partial scholarship as a member of the renowned college choir. Using his famously mellow voice, he worked as a radio announcer on weekends, and lived off campus to save money. “I was a serious student. I lived frugally. Five dollars would last me all week,” he says.
“I grew up in an atmosphere of trust,” he says. “I never wanted to let my parents down.”
After graduating with a business administration degree, Palmer joined the Army, and later worked with Arthur Andersen in accounting. Drawn toward the ministry, he enrolled at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg—where he discovered a real love for psychology. Palmer earned his doctorate in psychology from Ohio University and joined the Davidson faculty in 1970.
Enormously grateful for his parents’ sacrifices and the humble example they set as a family, Palmer admits to a twinge of guilt. “Their happiness was their children,” he says.
Patty Perillo, Davidson’s associate dean of students and director of residence life, is accustomed to the bustle of people in her life. Her father, a professional gambler, was one of 15 children—Perillo had 80 first cousins; her mom stayed home to raise 8 children! She was the first of that clan to go to college, setting an immediate example for two younger sisters who followed her.
Perillo’s parents shared strong family values, and when their academically inclined daughter needed an education, they would do whatever it took to make it happen. They sold their burial plots so she could graduate from high school.
But Perillo says, “When it came to college, I had to figure it out. College tours, interviews. My parents were helpful, but I had to do all of that on my own.”
With strong social skills and the support of a loving family, Perillo enrolled at the University of Delaware. “And it was a challenge. I didn’t know what questions to ask!”
Although independent enough to take the step into college, she remained very close to her family, going home every weekend to see her sisters and brothers and help with chores and errands. She says that she kept “one foot in the world of opportunity and one foot in the world of stability” in those days.
Now having earned both a master’s and a doctoral degree, Perillo has a hard time focusing on her own accomplishments as a first-generation college student without segueing into her professional passion for accessibility to education. “Education creates the opportunity for greater life possibilities,” she says. And it goes beyond expanding horizons one by one, she continues: “Research has shown that cognitive shifts happen better in a diverse environment.”
Thus it follows that the infusion of first-generation students into an academic community will improve learning for all students, surely a concept dear to the heart of a director of residence life at a liberal arts college.
The first in her family to attend college, Mercedes Robinson ’09 balanced Division I basketball with a neuroscience curriculum at Davidson. “I’ve been given opportunities that people in my family so far haven’t had.”
A scholarship to a private high school within commuting distance from her Baltimore, Md., home helped prepare Robinson for Davidson, in more ways than one. “The social shock for me came in my freshman year in high school. I was surrounded by so many girls who never had to consider how they might pay for something they wanted—this helped prepare me for Davidson. “
At Davidson, she learned how to be smarter about money. “If there was ever something that interested me, I first had to think to myself can I afford this? I taught myself how to save, to live comfortably on a limited budget, because the last thing I wanted was to burden my family for something I needed or wanted.”
More than finances, there was the pressure of representing your family as the first to have a college education, she says. “My family was living vicariously through me. What if I didn’t succeed?”
In so many ways, her Davidson experience became her sister’s and her single mother’s college experience. Robinson gives all her awards to her mom, “a gesture that is a symbol of something deeper, literally a shared experience with my family,” she says.
A true scholar athlete, Robinson received a National Institute of Mental Health Research Grant to work a postgraduate year in the neuroscience lab of Dickson Professor of Psychology Julio Ramirez (see story above). She also won Davidson’s highest athletic honor for a woman, the Rebecca Stimson Award, for her outstanding career with the women’s basketball team.
“I am proud,” she will admit. ”I showed that it can be done. That college is not just an impossible dream, even though it doesn’t happen every day in our family.”
And if she has children? “Oh, they have no choice.”
At the age of two, Bivi Trejo ’10 emigrated from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with her parents. They settled in Miami, Fla.
Trejo was always a good student, and imagined her career path early. “Med school has always been one of my ultimate goals in life, and still is. It was always going to happen,” she said. “I just didn’t know how.”
The counselors at her Miami high school were “not so good,” and, with limited English, her parents could not be of much help to her. Nevertheless, with encouragement from a friend whose parents had been to college, Trejo applied to Davidson. She was attracted by the strong pre-med program, good acceptance rate for medical school, and forward-looking financial aid policies.
Adjustment came hard. “The class difference was the hardest part. You have to establish who you are to fit in and begin to feel welcome.” Since Trejo’s parents were against her working, spending money was an issue. “I’ve had to decline a lot of invitations for movies or eating out,” she says.
Naturally independent, though, she figured things out, and looks forward to graduating in December 2010. Although the Davidson experience has not been easy for her, Trejo would encourage her children to consider it when they are ready for college. And she would tell them, and anyone: “Don’t be afraid of communicating with your professors. Don’t be shy.”
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