Cameron Morrison '06
You may already be aware of what the literature says about being a first generation student, in that the odds and challenges you will face may be greater than that of your peers. Yes, your background is different than many of the students here, and some of them may have different advantages that you do not. Use this knowledge as motivation, not a crutch. You belong here.
(My perspective is that of a male from a family with a blue collar background, with roots in Appalachian Ohio, however my advice is for all)
Your background is and always will be important, but stepping out of that shadow is part of why you are here. Almost my entire family has worked in the blue collar field of road construction. And when I say “my entire family”, it is not really an exaggeration; mom, dad, step-dad, four of my six uncles, all my male cousins, my grandpa, my great grandpa, and my great-great grandpa worked in the field. I never knew anyone that didn’t come home after the sun went down smelling like dust and sweat. The values that came with this kind of work were always drilled into me; hard work is an expectation and not the exception, you work until the job is done, everyone in the crew has value no matter what their paygrade. However, by the time I entered high school, it was clear to everyone that I wasn’t meant for the family business and it was expected that I was going to go to college. Myself and many of my family members knew there was nothing for me there and that sticking with the status quo was wasting an opportunity. Take those strong lessons that have been passed onto you from generations past and apply them to your work here.
You’re not selling out. For a while, I struggled with my choice. For different reasons, I thought some of my family believed the reason that I was going to college instead of into construction was because I couldn’t hack it in that field. That I was soft, and couldn’t handle the long hours, the hard work, and the environment. I don’t know if this was the truth or my own insecurities. However, looking back I realized there were people pushing me down this path, and, in fact, going into the known quantity that was road construction was actually the easy way out. (In fact, my Dad told me later that if I had ended up in construction, he didn’t care how big I got, he would find a pipe-wrench big enough to twist my head off.) It’s not difficult in the way that many jobs that don’t require a degree are, but it is difficult nonetheless. College will challenge you, academically, emotionally, socially, and even physically. For me, I had to reexamine the prescribed views on hard work that come from blue-collar families. Just because you don’t come home covered in grease doesn’t mean you don’t get your hands dirty and hunching over a book in the library for four hours can also be back-breaking work. Stepping out into an unknown quantity takes courage and should not be dismissed lightly.
You probably came here to get a degree, but don’t let that interfere with your education. I came to college with one goal: to get a degree so that I could get a job. (I didn’t know what kind of job, just one where I could wear a suit and tie to work; I wanted a “white-collar” job in the most literal sense of the phrase.) However, I was also a quiet and shy kid, so I wanted to push myself socially and come out of my shell more. This part of my experience was as valuable as what I gleaned in the classroom. College is a great place to learn and practice “soft skills” like social interaction, leadership, and autonomy. It’s become cliché, but college is also a place to have your beliefs challenged. This certainly happened with me. I came in with a strong, particular set of values shaped by my limited experience and the limited experiences of those who also did not have the opportunity to attend college. After college, some of those values were different. It was not because I was changed as a person, but because I was exposed to new things that caused me to reflect and really decide if my previous beliefs were my own, or just what had been prescribed to me. Do not fear change. One of the definitions of education is “an enlightening experience”; do not pass up the opportunity to be enlightened.
This is the first of many opportunities; take them all. College in itself is an opportunity to improve your station in life simply by earning a degree. Education is the great equalizer. However, in order to move beyond being equal to your peers, take advantage of every opportunity available that you are interested in taking, and a few that you’re not. Taking opportunities is about expanding you experiences, and there is no substitute for experience, in the job world, in the social world, in life. As you are aware, not everyone has these opportunities, so letting them pass you by would be akin to wasting them.
Expand your network, both professionally and socially. If you are like me, your professional network coming into school is basically limited to your parents, extended family, and their friends. Most of the members of this network will be in careers that do not require a college degree. When it comes to getting internships, research opportunities, and a job at graduation, this puts you at a disadvantage compared to your peers who may already have a strong family network. Be intentional about this. Build relationships with your professors and with staff members; we know people. If you see a speaker on campus you think is doing something interesting, introduce yourself to and let them know and ask to keep in touch; most people will at least give you their card. Not taking the time to build a professional network is one of my biggest regrets of my four years. It just made everything harder. Where I did excel was in building my social network. Here you will have the chance to meet and interact with people from all over the country and world. Cultivate those relationships and they may pay dividends later. In 2008, I moved to Boston, a city I had never even visited, for graduate school. However, I already knew 8 people from Denison living there. I would not have made it through that year without that support network.
Ask for help when you needed it. Most likely the circumstances and experiences that got you to this point have made you very independent and an apt problem solver. That’s good and those skills will serve you well. However, don’t let that keep you from seeking help. Learning to seek help is about a keen sense of self-awareness, not a sign of weakness. Being successful is not about knowing all the answers, it’s about knowing where to find them. Your family, your professors, staff members, and your peers will all have knowledge useful for different situations. It’s up to you to seek it.