Earlier this week I travelled to Champaign-Urbana to the University of Illinois to meet with the Undergraduate Deans from the CIC (Big-10) schools, and to attend a conference on transferring to a four-year institution. I learned a lot about the issues facing a student moving from the experience of a two-year community college program to the often overwhelming environment of a school like Ohio State. I also learned that the economic challenges that we are facing in Ohio, and the potential impact on higher education, are challenges that our sister colleges in the Big 10 are facing as well, and in some cases are already part of their reality.

When I was leaving to come home, I had to wait at the University of Illinois Willard Airport for my flight. If you’ve never been in that airport, it is an experience… it is a new building with 2 gates, with flights only to O’Hare, Dallas and Detroit. And not many of them, it turns out. I followed the restaurant/bar sign, and it led me to a line of four vending machines. But they have free wireless, and I had no problem finding a seat, since there were only four of us waiting for the commuter plane.

While I was waiting, I couldn’t help overhearing a cell-phone conversation between a young woman and her mother. She was a student at UI and was traveling to check out a graduate school assistantship opportunity at the University of Colorado. It seems that her mother had sent her a package to the wrong address… actually she sent it to the apartment complex, but hadn’t put the apartment unit number on the label.

After ending the call, she started a conversation with me by apologizing for talking so loudly. Her frustration with her mother centered on the idea that her mother just didn’t get the complexity of her life at college. She laughed when she told me that she was from a really small Illinois town, and the concept of an apartment with more than one unit was absolutely foreign to her mother.

Our conversation turned to the fact that she was a first-generation college student, and her feeling was that this was the reason that there was no understanding of her experience at college. I asked her what the other important misunderstandings were, and she launched into a Letterman-esque Top-10 list of questions that tell the story: 10. Why can’t you go to a college closer to home? 9. Why can’t you continue to date your high school boyfriend (who didn’t go to college)? 8. There are no classes on the weekend, so why can’t you come home? 7. Are you sure you want to be friends with those foreigners on campus? 6. Dad wants you to work in the store when you’re done, so why do you need that degree? 5. How will a major in Comparative and World Literature get you a job? 4. What do you mean you get course credit for working with the poor? 3. You were never stressed at home. What can possibly cause so much stress there? 2. What’s that new music you’re listening to?   1. So, you feel you’re better than us now, huh?

All of these things resonated with me… I, too am a Gen-1. I left my very small town in rural Idaho to go to college in California. My parents, my friends, and really nobody in my town had any understanding of what I was experiencing. How could they?

It was a shock for me as well. I was hardly prepared for what I encountered when I got to campus. There had never been any conversations in my house about life in college, or what to expect when I got there, or how to budget my time, or the importance of making connections with faculty, or the diversity of ideas and people I would encounter. And I too had to deal with their perception that I felt I was superior to them.

We boarded our plane, and I wished her the best. The fact that she is going to finish her degree and go to graduate school means she has cleared many of the not-so-insignificant hurdles of a Gen-1 student. But she still faces a future of explaining the intricacies of her college experiences to family and friends that may never really get it. To that, I can attest.

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