Erik Farley '03
My freshman year was marked by the ebb and flow of adjusting to a new environment and transitioning to college-level coursework. As a first-generation college student, I experienced doubts about my ability to succeed in college. Never had I been in an educational environment where I was not among the top ten high achievers or from one of the more financially stable or affluent families. Coming to Denison quickly changed that reality. At times, I felt overwhelmed and frequently took the greyhound bus three hours home to my comfort zone in order to feel safe and to matter.
One way I managed to cope with the unfamiliarity of my environment and new set of expectations was to seek out others that affirmed my presence at this institution. Hence, the black community on campus was my refuge, my family and sustenance during this transition period. In fact, I retreated from cross-racial socialization as I felt more cultural congruence with other blacks. Routinely, I found myself attending classes and going to the Black Student Union but not diversifying my experiences beyond these two activities.
As I insulated myself from fully experiencing campus life and range of academic or social interactions that could be enriching, I gradually could not shake whether college was for me. One means of food for my academic soul came in the form of rigorous classes that assisted in my development. I recall enrolling in courses in history and education at Denison University and being called to sharpen my skill set necessary for success. While matriculating from one course to the next, I found it was important for me to identify faculty and administrators to help me navigate what I perceived to be a chilly campus climate that was culturally incongruent and particularly class conscious.
One fall semester, I enrolled in an English class that examined the role education plays in aiding the downtrodden of society. On Tuesday and Thursday of each week, Dr. Kirk Combe challenged our class of eleven to look beyond our sheltered educational experiences to think critically about how children in the nearby city of Newark, Ohio lived from day-to-day. Inspired by the work of Jonathan Kozol, among others, I was given the opportunity to experience the exchange of theory and practice by tutoring at-risk students five hours a week at a local elementary school. By the end, I possessed an understanding of their fears, social inequalities, and climate of hopelessness. It was at that point that I knew that I had to be further engaged with education and its effort to provide enlightenment to all those who possess a teachable spirit.
The years that followed my time as a student at Denison were the polar opposite. I had learned from that first difficult year of college to traverse Denison’s environment, as it is a microcosm of society-at-large. I knew as an African-American male with a conferred bachelor’s degree and aspirations for graduate study, that my future academic/occupational settings would have a dearth of individuals resembling me albeit in terms of race/ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and so forth. Therefore, I developed a survival strategy and personal ethos to take full advantage of every opportunity. I resolved to live, learn, moreover flourish in environments that generally lack a critical mass of persons of color. My implicit theory outlined what skills were needed for me to pilot the world and all it had to offer. One example of how I played it forward into practice was by participating in a number of campus organizations. Becoming engaged in campus life was my saving grace. Through student involvement, I found a sense of community. My campus affiliations included but were not limited to the Denison Campus Governance Association (DCGA), Greek life, Black Student Union (BSU), the Denison Lecture Series (DLS). In retrospect, every experience was meaningful and rewarding; however, none were as instrumental in creating a life-long affinity and source of identification for me as being president of the Black Student Union during senior year.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to give back to a community that served as my family during those four years. As a Denison student, I was able to be a student advocate and challenge members of the community to diversify extracurricular activities and to foster much needed leadership development for collegians. Reflecting back, I believe that classes and student organizations at Denison were pivotal in directing me toward my purpose in life. Prior to this period, I never had to work hard for anything as my parents and older brother lavished me with attention, encouragement, material things… I wanted for nothing. In short, everyone loved me and worked diligently towards my happiness. Therefore, from the time I stepped on Denison’s campus, it was painfully obvious that the world did not revolve around me. For the first time, there were causes (e.g., Million Women/Million Men Commemorative Rallies, the protests in support of professors denied tenure, etc.) that needed my immediate attention and getting my haircut once a week was no longer a priority.
I have Denison to thank for many lessons without which I may not have realized my life’s goal — to assist students in their development: academically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially. I was asked if I ever experienced “Chaos of Community.” My response is the terms chaos and community are mutually exclusive yet inextricably linked as in most college settings you will be primed to experience both.
In closing, we each have a story to share; a reality that is all our own yet mirror others. Underlying every story is a powerful message. The words that each of us string together in weaving our individual and collective stories illustrates our truth. Dr. Kirsti A. Dyer, MD states, “Storytelling is a part of life, intrinsic to most cultures. They help people make sense of the world—life’s experiences, dilemmas, and hardships. Stories can educate, inspire, and build rapport. They are a means of communicating, recreating, and helping preserve cultures by translating memories into a more concrete manner that can be handed down verbally or in written form. Telling the story can provide the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of one’s experiences and oneself.” It is my hope that the sharing of my college experiences serve as a lens through which first-generation, domestic students of color can envision themselves as scholars and worthy contributors of the campuses they inhabit.