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Anne Grulich, editor
Phone: (240) 895-2160
18952 East Fisher Road
St. Mary's City, MD 20686
Last year, 17% of St. Mary’s first-year students were “first-generation” college students—children of parents who didn’t go to college. This diverse subset cuts across ethnicities and income levels, drawing attention to that old sociological conundrum, “class.” These pioneers are emissaries of change who affect more than just their own futures. Forging slightly different routes along the traditional, well-established paths of academia, first-generation students carve new outcomes for themselves, their peers, their professors, and their families. Subtly, the whole landscape changes. This courageous minority makes a difference. As you read these seven personal stories by first-generation faculty and alums, ponder the statistics. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 17.5% of the U.S. population has a bachelor’s degree; 7.1% have a master’s, and only 1.2% earns a doctorate. St. Mary’s offers students who only a generation ago might not have crossed its threshold access to a rarified stratosphere of educational opportunity. And each of our storytellers relates that attaining degrees is not an end in itself but rather a means to motivate others to the same fulfillment.
by Linda Coughlin
Linda Coughlin is an associate professor of biology and associate dean of faculty. She came to St. Mary’s in 1994 after earning her B.A. at Purdue University, her M.S. at Medical University of South Carolina, and her Ph.D. at George Washington University.
Being a first-generation college student was fairly easy; I played ‘follow the leader’ and figured things out with the help of lots of people. At a Big Ten school everyone seemed lost, not just me. Becoming a first generation Ph.D. and college professor was subtly more difficult. I began to feel self-conscious about the cracks in my upbringing, training, and experience. I was a pioneer in another country, leaving family and all that was familiar behind, as I learned the language and customs of a new culture. The citizens of academe seemed to have genteel approaches to life and problems that were beyond the ken of regular folks like me. I felt a great loneliness for my homeland at times.
Navigating the complexities in a life of teaching, research, and service is possible for first generation Ph.D.s who work hard, have a good education, and great mentors. I was mentored by many people here at St. Mary’s and made to feel welcome and a vital part of the life of the College. Gradually, I learned to love teaching and understand the heavy sense of responsibility faculty feel. But being an administrator fits well with my more practical, problem-solving style, which I probably inherited from my father. He was a high school grad who started on the loading docks of a paper company and eventually worked his way to upper management.
The quote that prefaced my doctoral dissertation still applies to my feelings about being in the first generation to travel to this strange land. In The Oregon Trail (1849), Francis Parkman wrote, “Not then having learned the philosophy of yielding to disproportionate obstacles, I resolved, come what would, to continue the pursuit of the Indians.” The incredible resolve of Parkman in the face of companions turned back, the loss of his horses, and nearly crippling foot sores appeals to me on two levels. Like Parkman, I had no philosophy of yielding to the obstacles I was facing when I chased my dreams; and I didn’t even really understand the possibilities of my life once I had found my ‘Indians.’ The second reason this speaks to me is because I am in fact descended from those wondrous Indians Francis Parkman sought to find against all odds, including his own inexperience and lack of good sense.
I grew up in a family of three girls with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who was also a pioneer. I was always independent, and perhaps that’s why my parents never worried too much about me when I went out into the world they didn’t know. There were so many extraordinary people along the way who sensed I was a clueless stranger in a new land and extended a hand. I still recognize the clueless among my students today, and try to point out the hazards along the road. I can’t tell them what they may face, only suggest they open their eyes to the possibility of facing and overcoming rather than yielding to those disproportionate obstacles.
by Clinton Gilbert '07
I arrived at St. Mary’s in August of 2003 after a journey of uncertainty. As a first generation college student from Baltimore, this was an adventure I undertook without much guidance. My family was supportive, but they lacked the knowledge to help me through the process. One of my biggest concerns was that the distance between Baltimore and St. Mary’s would weaken my family relationships.
I learned about St. Mary’s and other colleges with the help of my high school’s College Bound Specialist, Catherine Moser. With her help I applied to schools both near and far and was accepted at every single one of them. My top two choices were St. Mary’s and Dickinson College. I was very excited by the prospect of college, but after talking with my mom I quickly learned there was more to figure out. Growing up in a single parent home with three other siblings, we simply didn’t have the money to pay for college. I would have to rely mostly on financial aid.
St. Mary’s was the best choice for me. I matured and developed both in the classroom and through campus life, and felt well prepared for the world beyond the flowing St. Mary’s River. As a student I developed my leadership abilities. I served on the executive boards of several clubs, worked with the late poetess Lucille Clifton to install her September 11th series of poems around the perimeter of St. John’s Pond, and worked with the Maryland Heritage Project office. When I graduated in May of 2007, I knew I’d be back. I went off and earned my master’s in higher education administration at Salisbury University just across the Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore, and worked at both Salisbury and York College of Pennsylvania.
St. Mary’s truly changed my life. When I first arrived, I intended to pursue an occupation in ministry by directing a funeral home. Though that goal has not come to fruition, I have found my current work to be a ministry within itself. This July, I returned to St. Mary’s as the area coordinator for Multicultural Initiatives in Residence Life and coordinator of the Multicultural Achievement Peer Program. And though the college is far from home, my original fears that my family relationships would suffer proved unfounded. Indeed, they were strengthened and today my older sister has graduated from college and my younger family members often comment about their desire to follow in my footsteps.
by Jeff Byrd
Jeff Byrd is a professor of biology who came to St. Mary’s in 1990 after earning his B.S. at Rutgers University, M.S. at the Pennsylvania State University, and Ph.D. at the University of Maryland.
When you are 10 years old and look in the pantry to find cans without labels and crushed boxes of cereal, you wonder about your standing in life. As a child I thought that was normal. My father was a Dial soap/Armour meats salesman and, since he couldn’t sell any cases of soap or cans that were dented, he either brought them home or traded them with other salesmen. I never used an undented bar of soap or ate uncrushed corn flakes until I got married! Growing up in a multi-racial, working-class neighborhood where most of us were first generation, I never felt “different.” Working as a busboy, dishwasher, or janitor at the local country club I did get an inkling that, being an A student didn’t help me understand all of the conversations the patrons were having. My parents told me I needed to go to college.
When did I realize that being first generation made me very different? College, graduate school, and teaching at St. Mary’s. Since I went to a big state university (go Scarlet Knights!) to study microbiology I could focus on what I loved. In fact, even my history course was the history of science. Though I have only recently realized this, I gravitated to roommates and friends who were first- generation students. When I interacted with my non-first-generation peers, I felt out of my league in literature, history, and the arts. My parents hadn’t taken me to theaters or museums growing up, nor had they talked about the great writers. I was able to hold my own in science and sports but soon discovered that’s not what too many academics wanted to discuss. So, for the past 20 years I have been making up for my first 30 years. For example, this summer, inspired by St. Mary’s new president, I read Faulkner—wonderful stuff!
Was being a first-generation college student a disadvantage? Yes and no. I learned early on that I had to do whatever it took to survive. To make it through College and graduate school, I held three jobs that entailed cleaning toilets on a regular basis. I had plenty of drive and desire; what I was lacking was the breadth in the liberal arts that many of my peers had. I would have been much better served attending one of the liberal arts colleges that accepted me. Why didn’t I? Simple—we couldn’t afford it, and the idea of a public honors college hadn’t arrived yet. My past makes me very aware of the struggles of our first-generation students. When they explain to me how they feel like fish out of water here at St. Mary’s because of their lack of breadth or inability to go out to dinner like their peers do, I can relate. I quickly explain to them that I still feel like a fish out of water as a professor. After a long conversation, we readily agree to keep swimming because it is too much fun academically here not to.
by Martina Dockery Belfield '93
In May of 1985, when I was 13 years old, I made a life-altering decision that would start a trend in my family. I decided to become a doctor. This was a big deal for my family; I would be the first to attend college. I had a tremendous amount of support, love, and encouragement. The only thing I didn’t have was a lot of money.
My journey began at private, all female, Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Maryland. Seton had an excellent academic reputation. My parents both worked two jobs to pay the tuition. My mom was a laboratory technician at two hospitals; my dad drove a Greyhound bus and also worked as a painter. And I worked after school as an assistant in Seton’s Home Economics Department. My senior year at Seton I earned a 3.8 GPA and was accepted by the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland, and St. Mary’s. But in the midst of the celebration of each acceptance letter came disappointment. I didn’t receive scholarships from the first three schools. It was St. Mary’s College of Maryland that offered me a full scholarship, salvaged my dreams, and made desire a reality.
I had to work hard and fight for every grade to keep my scholarship. I majored in biology and was challenged day in and day out. Overcoming organic chemistry and physics, I graduated in May 1993 with honors in biology amid the roars of all of my family. With undergraduate degree in hand, I earned two acceptances to the University of Maryland and the Hahnemann University schools of medicine. With the help of the Lord, I persevered, graduating with my doctorate in medicine from the Hahnemann University/Drexel School of Medicine in four years.
I have now been in practice for 10 years in family medicine. In rural eastern North Carolina, I serve an indigent population of people of mixed nationalities. I encounter people who are in tough times, have no medical insurance, and are illiterate and unemployed. Through them I have realized my purpose in life. Yes, the hard work was worth it all. My goal now is to motivate and encourage my patients and my two daughters to follow their dreams.
The trend I started is now the norm. My journey has inspired many family members and friends to pursue college educations. I am humbled to know that being the first to walk this road has given me a platform to encourage others. I am able to remind them that when the heat of the pressures of life leaves them dying of thirst, the well of success is just ahead; because I myself have drunk from it!
by Tracy Vallandingham '04
“College.” More than just a word on a T-shirt in the classic comedy Animal House,—a stepping stone to a modern day, successful life. My parents and grandparents were farmers here in southern Maryland and didn’t have the luxury of a college education. In my grandparents’ time, a college grad was a rarity here. But both generations would be the first to tell you they succeeded in life just fine, thank you very much. However, I feel in today’s world you need that college diploma to succeed.
My folks overcame many hurdles to achieve the success they did and to be able to send me and my brother, Nick, to St. Mary’s. Nick graduated in 2002 and I followed right behind him in 2004. Our mom worked at the College for 25 years, before retiring when I graduated, and my dad still works for St. Mary’s County as a highway foreman. Both of my parents grew up as farm kids where their families lived off of the land. Nick and I lived and worked on the same farm our mom grew up on, helping our uncles raise tobacco and do other relentless farm duties. Our parents kept instilling the idea that Nick and I had to excel in school, go to college, and get good jobs so we wouldn’t have to work as hard, struggle as long, and get paid as little as farmers do. Sun up to sun down, farm work gave us the strong work ethic we needed to do well in whatever we tried, from schooling to sports.
St. Mary’s gave us a great education, plus we had the fun of playing collegiate baseball. Nick was a catcher and I was a second baseman. Then, one after the other we got jobs with the Navy on the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Funny how closely I have followed in my brother’s footsteps, from going to the same college, completing the same economics major, to getting a financial analyst job with NAVAIR.
Looking back, I realize breaking this new ground in our family put my brother and me in a fantastic place. We have great jobs, lovely wives (a son and daughter for Nick), wonderful family close by, and are both living quite comfortably in our own beautiful homes on the family farm. We’re well aware these are lives we’d never have achieved if our parents hadn’t encouraged us all along the way. Turns out sometimes parents do know what’s best for their kids after all!
by Sybol Anderson
Sybol Anderson is an assistant professor of philosophy who came to St. Mary’s in 2006. She earned her B.A., M.L.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University, and an additional M.A. from American University.
I often wonder what my parents would think if they knew I’d become a professor of philosophy. I imagine my mother beaming. She loved to see her children take on formidable challenges. My father would tease me. “Philosophy? What, you want to stay in school the rest of your life?”
The truth is good working class dads (and moms) worry when their kids don’t become doctors, lawyers, or engineers. We can appreciate that in these days of factory closures and home foreclosures. Working class parents hope against hope that their children will have greater economic security than they themselves have.
Mother and Dad would be cautiously optimistic for their young philosopher but proud of me all the same. These are, after all, the folks who sported matching summer suits at commencement when I earned my first master’s degree. But commencement ceremonies were the only part of academic culture that touched my parents’ lives. They had only a 6th grade education, so they knew nothing of lecture halls and laboratories, to say nothing of the tenure system that will, I hope, grant me economic security. The distance between their world in rural Lusby, Maryland, and that of a place like St. Mary’s was like the distance between the earth and moon.
Most people know well enough that there exists something called academic culture, but we don’t often talk about its impact on those it touches. It signifies much more than lectures, labs, and dignified ceremonies; it also assumes and transmits distinctive values. Within a few months of entering college, I discovered that my working class values often ran in tension with those of the academic mainstream. When Dad suffered a stroke that hospitalized him for four months, I thought it a no-brainer that I would travel home from Baltimore every weekend to see him. Most of my peers (pre-meds!) thought it “unfair” that I was “expected” to make such a “sacrifice,” as if my studies really were more important. As for my professors, not one knew about my dad or the stress I was under, because not one of them knew me. Surely they would have expressed concern had they known, but I suspect their first thought would have been for the impact of the event on my studies.
How, pray tell, have I survived space-travel? I owe my survival to my parents, from whom I inherited the intelligence, work ethic, determination, and compassion vital for ventures into new worlds.
by Layla Wynn '05
Growing up as the seventh child in a close-knit family of 14, it was hard being away from home. I remember trying to explain to my younger siblings what college was. I felt a twinge of guilt when my baby brothers and sisters asked me every holiday why I stayed away so long and why I had to spend the night at school. Was it because I was being bad in class? We laugh about it today, but their sad, confused faces back then stuck with me every time I headed back to school.
My acclimation to college got off to a bumpy start. After being at the top of my class for my entire academic career, I struggled my first semester at St. Mary’s. Underperforming was a serious wake-up call. I had to work twice as hard and learn how to study and manage a tough academic load while adjusting to my surroundings. Fear of failure weighed heavily on me, and I felt the weight of my family’s hopes, too.
Finding balance between two worlds was a challenge. St. Mary’s is a far cry from inner-city D.C. During my freshman and sophomore years, I struggled to understand the exponential personal growth I was undergoing. I realized how small my world had been before college. St. Mary’s opened many new opportunities for me including visiting The Gambia for two weeks. That was my first time on a plane and my first time out of the country. It was also a thrill to play basketball on the collegiate level. Since age 7, basketball had been my first love, and I’d won accolades from elementary through high school. Sadly, I ended up leaving the team my sophomore year because of differences with the coach. This was one of my most difficult times at St. Mary’s College. I felt as if I had lost a major part of me.
St. Mary’s provided me with a unique opportunity I can only attribute to God’s blessing. The sense of resiliency I’ve developed will stay with me for a lifetime. Former President Maggie O’Brien took a chance on me. I will never forget how her decision to step in at such a disheartening time during my senior year of high school, and her continued support throughout my college career changed my life forever. Graduating with a 3.0 and a 3.6 in my major and seeing the proud faces of my family on that day is one of the greatest moments of my life.
My journey thus far is an example of what can be done if educators boldly believe in youth and are willing to take a chance on them despite the odds. I can look my younger siblings in the eye and tell them first hand that they are more than capable of accomplishing their dreams. I can’t stop smiling when I hear my younger sister talk about how she wants to be a lawyer, and my youngest brother bragging about becoming an engineer or architect. My testimony helps make their dreams more and more of a reality. Today, I live in Alexandria and work in the environmental planning field, and I play basketball every chance I get.