Flashes of Memory - Emily Nemeth '04
K-12: Every grading period in primary school, I would rush my report card to my grandfather's hands. A dollar for every A, $6 for straight-As, and so As lined the grade column. For different familial reasons, my grandfather left school in the 11th grade and my grandmother left school in the 8th grade. While they didn't finish school, they reinforced its importance in the lives of their four granddaughters. For them, it wasn’t a question of if we would go to college; it was a matter of where. My parents reinforced this message, affirming my love for learning and encouraging my commitment to school. I often got out of dish-duty (no dishwasher) after dinner so that I could finish my homework, which meant that I always had homework to do.
With my grandparents' message firmly embedded in my psyche, I went to college. I was unaware at the time that I would carry the label of first generation college student. Once I matriculated into college, though, I quickly realized that my experiences were different from those of my peers.
Paying for college: I received a generous financial aid package, but found myself working two jobs from my sophomore year into my senior year. My jobs on campus ranged from labeling books in the library to serving as a resident assistant. Employment off campus included working as a barista at a coffee shop, serving as a waitress at a local restaurant, and folding clothes for a retail store at a nearby mall. The hours were difficult and keeping up in my classes proved to be challenging, but I managed to balance a rigorous course load and 20 to 30 hours of work per week. I remember feeling exhausted and envious of my peers who had leisure time. I wondered what I was missing while at work and how my experience would be different if my family had more money. Unfortunately, envy and insecurity clouded my perception of my own experience, preventing me from seeing how my jobs had become an extension of my learning. Sure, I missed out on a handful of activities, but working in foodservice and retail strengthened my abilities to work on a team, network with people (and persuade them!), and manage money. If you've not read Mike Rose's piece, The Intelligence of the Waitress in Motion, it's worth the time. It's about his mother and the thinking and learning of working people.
If you find yourself in a position where you have to work to help pay for your college education, remember that you are developing skills and habits of mind that will serve you in the long run. While there is learning in just about every job, if possible, I would encourage you to be selective about where you work and consider the ways it might connect with your long-term goals.
A sense of belonging: As a first-generation college student, I had to learn to embrace my story and get past the sinking feeling that I didn't belong. I remember sitting in an introductory Spanish class my first year of college and the professor asked everyone in the class if we had traveled abroad. There were about 25 students in the class and everyone raised their hand except for me and another student. Two of us?! Was this a prerequisite to attending college? I remember feeling out of place in that moment that exposed, and promptly contrasted the socioeconomic differences between me and my peers. Over time, the feeling subsided as I recognized the funds of knowledge (Moll) I could draw on from my own unique background. While I had not traveled abroad, I knew how to wire an electrical outlet and hang drywall.
Belonging doesn't mean having the same experiences as everyone in your community. I discovered a sense of belonging in the relationships I established with people—relationships grounded in care and respect for one another's unique experiences. I would encourage you to embrace the diversity that surrounds you; it is truly one of the greatest strengths of the Denison community. That diversity includes you. Don't shy away from sharing your story.
Returning home: At some point in my college career, I became aware of the ways that I was changing through my education, an awareness that was more acute when I would return home for breaks. I remember one break when I was talking with my aunt and we were swapping stories. As time tends to do, it has scrubbed my memory of the content of those stories, but I vividly remember the exchange. To provide some context, you should know storytelling in my family is supposed to entertain. If your story isn’t entertaining, you won’t hold the discursive floor for long. Clearly, my aunt was not entertained and told me that I sounded like I was lecturing her (which now makes me smile since I became a professor). I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but I linked it to college. I could tell stories before college and now that I was in college, my approach was being challenged. I blamed college. The truth is, I had changed in significant, as well as ordinary ways during my undergraduate education. Some of these changes went unnoticed and others, at least initially, were sources of tension in my family, including the way I talked.
Change is a part of college because change is a part of learning—it is inevitable. Since that conversation with my aunt, I have earned two additional degrees, which means I've changed even more! My language—like a lint brush—has picked up bits of vocabulary, sentence structure, and accent everywhere I’ve gone. I have changed in other ways, too, because of the education I have claimed (Rich). I would encourage you to nestle into the sometimes-strange space between home and college and share with your family some of the things you are learning. If they are anything like my family, they will hold you accountable for keeping parts of yourself intact and rooted in your home culture, which is an important part of this journey.
Graduating: Many of my family members attended my graduation. They were proud—as was I. Even though it is customary for each guest to take just one graduation program, my father took a stack! “Put some of those back for other families.” I urged him. I still find programs tucked away in dusty drawers and sitting on bookshelves in his home. Following graduation, my father made copies of my degree, which he prominently displayed at home and at work. I initially blushed at the idea that my degree was so publicly stationed and cringed at the image of my dad boring colleagues with the story of my college graduation as they walked past his cubicle. Now, though, I can understand this was an expression of love and pride.
To the first-generation reader, if your family is trying to rent a bus to get immediate family, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. to graduation, I would encourage you to just let it happen. There are plenty of seats and your accomplishments are worth celebrating!
The first: I am proud to be a first-generation college student, and subsequently, the first in my family to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D., all three degrees which are now photocopied and framed in the home of my retired father.