Kim Cromwell '81
Majors: English & Communication
Leadership & Organizational Consultant
I’d never been to Ohio, much less Granville, before heading off to Denison in 1977. For months before I left, I thought about leaving with a mixture of hopefulness and absolute fear. Even though I had great friends in high school, some of whom I had known since kindergarten, I couldn’t find the words to express my fears to them back then, and assumed I was the only one who was struggling.
I’m guessing that my struggles were different than those whose parents had also gone to college. Not only did I pursue the college application process mostly on my own, but I also felt emotionally and financially vulnerable heading off to a place seven hours away with support but not a lot of guidance from family.
At home, my self-esteem was fed by people who had known me for much of my life, and who in subtle ways affirmed who I was. I was living in a small town where I knew people, and they knew me and gave me opportunities to thrive. When I received an award for “Displaying a keen sense of justice and a joy in living,” at our Senior Night awards ceremony, I was so grateful that someone – I’ll never know who — saw those qualities in me. I saw myself through them. Leaving the comfort of my familiar, affirming community felt daunting.
So what was I afraid of? The unknown. Not fitting in. Being so far away from home. Not knowing what to expect. And the practical stuff, like how I’d pay for the things I needed.
These many years later, I am so grateful for the turns my life has taken, and I only wish I could have foreseen then what my life would be like now: a loving relationship of three decades, a successful career, a life of continuous learning and engagement with the world, a community of interesting and loving friends and family.
Looking back and knowing what I know now, here are a few pieces of advice I would offer to a first generation college student at Denison:
- Dive in. Even when the last thing you feel like doing is going to try out for the singing group, or playing a sport, or signing up for a volunteer activity, or joining an optional study group – do it. You don’t have to stick with the activities that don’t feel right, but you’ll never know if there might be a good fit if you don’t go out and try it. And if you didn’t have the guts to do it yesterday, do it today. One of my favorite memories of my Denison years is my role as a DJ on WDUB. I had just had all of my wisdom teeth out a couple of days prior to trying out, and I almost skipped the audition. I still listen to the CD of my last radio show from 1981! But how I wish I’d tried some of those other things that I know in retrospect would’ve fed my soul. Music lessons, a team sport, theater. Ah, to do it again!
- Get to know your professors. This may sound cliché, but one of the most unique and powerful things about your Denison experience is your access to top-notch faculty who want to know you. Find a faculty member who inspires you and who listens to you, and make the time to visit with him or her regularly. One of the most powerful relationships I had in college was with Dr. Nan Nowik, an English and Women’s Studies professor who treated me with such respect, and from whom I learned an enormous amount not only about literature, but also about life. While I can’t thank her now because Nan passed away far too young, I’ll always treasure the way she was honest, direct and gentle with me. She served me my first bowl of cold cucumber yogurt soup. She asked questions about what it was to lose my Dad when I was a young child. I beamed in class when she read aloud my literary analysis of Jane Eyre as part of her summary of what critics had to say about the book. And when I was in my first months of graduate school at a large university, feeling some shock when the professors didn’t seem all that interested in getting to know me (horrors!), Nan wrote to me every week or two from her typewriter in Fellows Hall, offering moral support.
- Be gentle with yourself. Frankly, I was a bit lost in my first year at Denison. It took me a while to find my self and my community on campus. And, as a first generation college student, I sometimes found it difficult to bridge my new life and old life. I remember my first semester, and my first painful trip home. When I was at school, I didn’t feel I really belonged; yet, when I was at home, I could see that I didn’t belong there either. It was difficult to find the words to adequately express my feelings. I wish I’d known that those feelings would pass. One way to be gentle with yourself is to reach out to a trusted friend or faculty or staff member and talk with them about the transition you’re going through. Find a counselor or a support group, if that might help. And know that you are far from alone in your feelings. Many students struggle with feelings of loss or sadness.
- Stretch. I always imagined how wonderful it would be to travel outside of the US, but could never imagine paying for it. I worked hard in my student jobs at Slayter Information Desk and in the Office of Admission, but had to use those funds for daily living. When I was a senior I gathered up the courage to approach the Admission & Financial Aid office and ask if I could borrow the money to go to London with a group of faculty and students during break. Somehow, we worked out a deal. I’ll never regret asking for help to figure it out. I got a taste for life outside of the US, and I loved it.
- Give back. If you want to get to know yourself and build on your strengths, find a way to give back, because there will always be a need for what you have to offer. Maybe you’re helping a classmate who is struggling with a subject that comes easily to you. Or you’re volunteering for Big Brothers or Big Sisters. Or you’re helping to register voters, or raise money from alums so that other (first generation) students can afford to attend Denison. Whatever it is, volunteering takes you outside of yourself, while also making a difference in the world.
All these many years later, I am so grateful to Denison for the opportunities I found there. I didn’t really think about myself as a first generation student at that time, but in retrospect I see that my experience was profoundly shaped by that identity. The road was sometimes bumpy, but now I understand that those bumps were a part of the experience. The bumps helped me to develop my sense of self, my resilience and sense of gratitude.
One day, those of you who are first generation students will have your own story to tell, to pass along to those in the decades that follow.