Joseph Blankholm

What advice would you give first-generation college students?

Keep a calendar in which you budget time for almost everything, including reading. Check it every day, and live by it. Go to office hours. If interactions are awkward, that’s OK. You get better at dealing with awkwardness when you get older, and you'll eventually realize that it's unavoidable and normal. And talk to your friends and classmates about their plans in school and after. You'll learn a lot from other young adults who've gotten lots of advice from their parents and other mentors. For instance, I didn't know about summer internships with companies until after I graduated from college even though this is the main way a lot of students get post-college jobs. If I'd talked to more people about their plans, I would've had more ideas for how to plan my own life.

What are some things you didn't know when you were in college?

There's so much I didn't understand. This is true for all young adults, but it's especially true for those of us on paths our parents never traveled. Every day you're going to encounter things you've never done before. Learn to trust the person you've become and recognize that you're able to handle new things. Yes, you're making it up as you go, but if you've made it this far, you're doing pretty well at improvising.

What specific challenges do you think first-generation college students face?

First generation students often don't know to ask certain questions because they don't realize there's something they don't know. They face a lot of unknown unknowns. This leads to a lot of embarrassment when they feel like they should know something. Try to get over that shame as quickly as possible -- though it's probably not going away any time soon. Learning to appreciate yourself and your individual struggle can help, as can the recognition that other students are facing the same challenges. You're here because you've earned it.

What didn't you know when you went to college?

I didn’t know how to talk to middle class and upper middle class people, and that was the hardest for me. The way they talk is different. The food they eat is different. How they dress and groom themselves can be different. What they do for fun -- where they go on vacation -- all different. I resented them sometimes because they made me feel inferior without intending to, and I had to strike a balance of learning how to fit in without losing who I was. I think that’s probably a common challenge. It made me really agile. I see power now from the outside in. I don’t do things because that’s how they’re done. I do them because I figured out how the system works, and I know how to make it work for me. That’s an advantage now, but it was a huge struggle to get here. It’s an advantaged that any so-called disadvantaged person has. We know exactly what it takes to be good at something because we had to figure it out from the ground up. It was never taken for granted. We also get to take pride in our accomplishments in a special way. It’s a nice life arc we get to live. We don't have to figure out how to find meaning in the absence of struggle. We struggle, and we get to live our success. It’s very satisfying.

What did you think you would be doing for a career? Are you surprised where you ended up?

I was very aware that public schools were my only chance at making it out of poverty. I did well at school, I received praise for it, and I learned that it was a way out. I really valued those institutions, and I wanted to make them better and stronger for future students. I'm not surprised I'm a teacher, and I feel fortunate to be able to teach at the college level at a public university.

What advice would you give the parents of first-generation college students?

Encourage your kids to develop discipline, but don’t make your love contingent on their success or failure. They need to assume they’re going to succeed, and they need to be able to push themselves and face failure. I’ve been rejected from most things I’ve tried to achieve, but I’ve landed some big ones because I got lucky. I stayed in the game so I could take advantage of some opportunities when they came up. That’s life for most of us -- for those who aren’t the destined handful of people who get everything they strive for. It's still a good life even if there are lots of failures. Also, encourage your children to become an expert at something as quickly as possible even if they’re not sure it’s what they want to do forever. Learning to become an expert at something makes becoming an expert at other things easier, and it opens doors because experts bring value. It’s like learning a language or an instrument: the next one is easier.

Joseph Blankholm
Professor, Religious Studies
UC Santa Barbara