As we continue to talk about the importance of postsecondary education and the United States’ goal of (again) having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world, it becomes important to focus specifically on first-generation college students. After all, the only way to truly expand the pool is to bring in those who previously haven’t been able to enjoy the swim.
To that end, today is Proof Point Day, a concept created by Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow Chastity Lord. As the Aspen Institute details, “After years of witnessing the challenges first-generation college students face, Lord decided to use her Fellowship project to start the conversation about this issue.”
Eduflack can’t stress how important a discussion this is to have. In all of our talks on access and affordability of college, we can lose sight of the motivation, supports, and encouragement necessary to both get first-gen college students into postsecondary and then to help them ultimately earn their degrees. And it starts with making sure high school students recognize they are college material, regardless of their socioeconomic or educational backgrounds.
So I’ll take Proof Point Day (#ProofPointDay) to give a major shout out to my favorite first-generation college student, my mom. Neither of my mother’s parents earned their high school diplomas. My mother herself (the daughter of a GI) came to this country at age five without knowing the language. When she graduated from high school (the oldest of five children), it was assumed she would go down the street, get a job at the local biscuit factory, find a husband, and start a family.
She had other ideas, though. Something in her told her she needed to reach farther and earn a college degree. So instead of taking that factory job, she took three jobs, with one of them being a secretary at Rutgers University. Why? Because university employees could take one free course every semester. Slow and steady could win the college race.
My mother met my dad at Rutgers, as he was completing his doctorate. They got married and moved to Buffalo. He was a newbie political science professor, and she became a full-time college student. She had to take my dad’s Poly Sci 101 class (the only time in his teaching career he didn’t have essay exams). Her junior year of college, she was pregnant with me. He senior year, she had an infant in tow, and I began my academic career as a fussy, red-haired baby at Buffalo State. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology soon after my first birthday.
But she never received her diploma. Too many family demands to get the actual piece of paper she earned. Twenty one years later, I would track down that diploma, and give it to her on the day that I earned my B.A. from the University of Virginia.
This first-generation college student wasn’t done with her education, though. More than a decade later, as Eduflack’s youngest sister was entering the public school system full time, my mom earned her teaching certificate. She student taught at an Indian school in New Mexico, then had her first teaching job in one of the roughest school districts in the Land of Enchantment. And more than a decade after that, she would earn her master’s degree in education.
She spent two decades as a high school English teacher, mostly offering 10th grade English. She taught in urban, suburban, and rural schools. She impacted, for the better, the lives of hundreds of kids, many of whom would become first-generation college students themselves.
So this #ProofPointDay, Eduflack offers huge kudos and major thank yous to Barbara Riccards, the most important first-generation college student in my life.