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First-Generation Students

There Is Always Something to Be Learned

JoAnn Pavletich, Associate Professor
College of Humanities & Social Science


       One of the most profound moments I have had in regard to my own status as a first generation college graduate, came about ten years ago.  My father died on Christmas Eve of 1999, four years after I joined the faculty at UHD.  A few months after his death, I spent spring break at his house going through his possessions and readying the house to be sold.  Among some old papers I found a copy of a letter he had written when I was eighteen and preparing to go away to college for the first time.   Reading this letter brought home to me the long road I have traveled since high school and the distance between my current life and my father’s life.   This realization brought sadness, but it also brought a deeper understanding of my father’s life and his love for me.

       While in high school, I had somehow come to believe that not only should I go to college, but that I had to go to a small, hip, private school in the next state.  I had no idea what this meant for my father’s efforts to support my sister and myself.  As far as I knew, we were a financially stable working class household.  We were not middle-class, but we were not poor.  My mother’s death two years earlier had not registered to me as an economic event.  But I had no clue what “expensive” or “affordable” meant to my father.  I was content to live without much money.  I didn’t realize how little it really was that we were living on.  Nevertheless, the school’s tuition was on a sliding scale---the less one had the less one paid.  I knew that we were at the very bottom of the scale.  I hoped that made it ok, and I wasn’t told otherwise.

       The letter I found that spring break in 2000 was addressed “To Whom It May Concern.”  It was hand written.  In it, my father outlined why he was going to have a hard time making tuition payments to that school I wanted to attend so badly.  His reasons included being a recent widower, raising two teen-aged daughters by himself, and struggling to pay hospital bills that accumulated as a result of my mother’s protracted illness.  Reading this letter I was hit with different waves of emotion.  The first was learning that he had financial problems as a result of my mother’s illness.  The messy truth of the family was that my father had left my mother, a sad alcoholic, two years before she died.  My sister and I went to live with my father about seven months before her death; it had never occurred to me that he continued to support her in any way or pay her medical bills.  A whole new image of my father was beginning to form in my mind.  In addition to this information about his relationship with my mother, I was incredibly moved by the fact that this proud, never-bending, determined man was throwing himself before a group of highly-educated college administrators in order to give me something I thought I wanted, but which no one else in our family had ever had or even considered trying to get.   Joe Pav, as he was called, was strong; he could be arrogant and mean.  He considered himself, as far as my child’s eyes saw, the equal of all.  And here he was describing the intimate details of his private life to people who couldn’t in a million years understand what that cost him.

       The second aspect of the letter that hit me was his actual language.  He had not finished high school; writing letters---writing anything other than Christmas cards--- was simply not something he or other members of my extended family did.   I was struck by his lack of grammatical correctness.  Not only were his words simple, but his punctuation and grammar, to this English professor, were full of mistakes that belied his own childhood in poverty, his lack of a high school education, and a life spent laboring with his hands.  It sounded exactly like he spoke:  direct, inelegant, even harsh.  Reading his request for additional financial help written with that working-class tongue made me realize the enormous distance between my childhood and my adulthood.   I don’t write those kinds of sentences.  I have written hundreds of pages of essays, reviews, grants, letters, and presentations.  I know how to hide myself in the language of academia.  He was not schooled in that sort of deception.

       Of course I cried when I read the letter.  But more importantly, I came to better understand my father- the-adult.    He was uneducated.  He did not understand why I wanted to become educated.  He argued against my repeated attempts to gain a college education, insisting that I was fully capable of getting a good job without a degree.  Yet, without breathing a word of the problems this decision of mine created, he made it possible for me to go to that school that year.  He didn’t need me to know the details of that decision or feel guilty or beholden to him about his support.  His job was to help me become an adult.  Maybe he saw how much better and how different his own life was from the lives of his immigrant parents.  Maybe a part of him simply accepted that my life would be very different from his. 

       I ended up dropping out of that school after one year.  My working class high school had not well-prepared me for the rigors of college.  My father also never made any other financial contributions to my education.  I was on my own.  From him I inherited and because of him I developed the determination and ability to learn on my own, to work on my own, and to take my own path.  I learned how to move in a world utterly different from the one in which I grew up.   I recognize that the strength that allowed him to humble himself before the financial aid administrator of that school is not so terribly different from the strength it took me to finish a bachelor’s degree (sixteen years after I graduated from high school), and then a master’s and a doctorate.  I’ve also learned that every good thing I do does not need to be published for it to be a good thing.   

 

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Last updated or reviewed on 9/30/14

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