English Faculty, First Generation

Seven English Department faculty tell us about what it was like to be first-generation college students.


“The defining feature of my educational experience as a first-generation student was doubt,” says Professor Matthew Vernon, who studies both African-American and medieval British literature. “Was I good enough to attend the schools that I did?... Could I make the most of the opportunity?” Years later, Vernon’s own first-generation students know the answers: Yes and emphatically yes.

At a moment when the Davis campus as a whole is drawing attention to the role of first-generation faculty, we wanted to hear from our colleagues in English. The department includes numerous faculty members who were also first-generation college students: Professors Pam Houston, Danielle Heard Mollel, Matthew Stratton, Matthew Vernon, and Joe Wenderoth, along with Professors Emeritus Linda Morris and Karl Zender.

Some 40 percent of Davis undergraduates identify themselves as the first in their families to pursue and secure a college degree. Pam Houston has a message for those she teaches in her creative writing workshops. “I want them to know that they have as much right to be here as anyone,” she says, “and that they make the University what it is; that it is not a system they have to fit themselves into, but a community we are all making together as we go along.” This is also the goal behind the campus-wide First-Generation Faculty Initiative, which in the words of Carolyn Thomas (Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education) confirms that “UC Davis is really a first-generation community.”

Looking back, our faculty remember having no trouble distinguishing their experiences at college from those of their peers. At Grinnell College in Iowa, Emeritus Professor and former Chair of the Davis English Department Linda Morris explains, “I was keenly aware that most of my friends were second- or third-generation students.” They “fit in immediately” and demonstrated an “ease with their professors” that she lacked. While at Wesleyan University, Heard Mollel remembers, she worked her way through school and was “not able to socialize as much as my peers, but this forced me to focus even more on my studies, and in the end I did extremely well in college.” For Stratton, at Pitzer College, not fitting in also made him study harder. “At the time,” he reports, “I would have said that reading every assigned page and missing a total of three classes in four years of college was because I loved ideas and information. In retrospect, it was also an unintended consequence of dumb luck, an unusually enlightened financial aid office, and worrying (or occasionally being told directly) that I didn't belong with my classmates.”

The difference between expecting to go to college and being the first in the family to do so meant appreciating undergraduate life all the more for Houston. “When I enrolled as a freshman at Denison University,” she recalls, “I thought I had died and woken up in a heaven I had no capacity to imagine…. My professors, who mostly wore ceramic peace signs around their neck, wanted us to know we could follow any career path we dreamed of, as long as we worked hard and kept the greater good in mind.” For Heard Mollel, now a scholar and teacher of African American Literature at Davis, college was an opportunity to follow her passions. “Unlike many first-generation students,” she notes, “I did not have pressure from my family to become a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer.  Rather, my mother’s lack of familiarity with higher education meant that she trusted me to make my own decisions without pressuring me in any given direction.”

Still, for several of our faculty, pressure to make the most of college could also make it a challenge to find the right path. “With little knowledge of or guidance regarding academic options, I applied only to institutes of technology and matriculated at Case Institute in Cleveland,” recounts Emeritus Professor and former English Department Chair Zender. “I wasn’t happy there but I felt I would disappoint my parents if I told them so. I believed, perhaps unfairly, that they viewed college as preparation for a career, not as an arena for self-exploration. So I persisted and earned a degree in Physics. It wasn’t until I went to work for IBM and found myself really unhappy that I decided to switch fields, take a part-time job at night, and enter an English Master’s program.”

Wenderoth, a poet and teacher of creative writing, describes a comparable revelation that his “family's conception of college as fundamentally vocational” was not the only way to understand higher education. “I gathered, after a couple years, that the value of college was fundamentally NOT vocational,” he explains. “This simple and complete reversal of purpose has informed my life since.”

Wenderoth’s changing view created a gap between family expectations and his sense of what he was doing at college. “I was, firstly, thriving in terms of grades, an accounting major, and so my family was delighted,” he recalls. “At the same time, what I was learning was a complete contradiction (even an indictment) of the worldview I was taught at home when I was a child. This is probably the most common bizarreness first gen students face--that simultaneous applause and jeering. How strange! We are so proud of you, but please stop saying out loud what you are learning!”

Understanding derived from their own college experiences is part of what first-generation faculty offer first-generation students. “Like many young people, when I went away to college, I experienced my ignorance not as a defect to be corrected but as a source of shame,” says Zender. “But that shame-inducing moment of ignorance, and its many companions, also had a less self-centered consequence. It shaped my work as a teacher.” Morris agrees with the sentiment, noting that “working with first generation students once I became a professor—that was a special pleasure.” She relished their “eagerness,” their “welcome degree of candor and enthusiasm.” “When you added to the mix those students who were also from underrepresented populations—well, I loved teaching those students,” she says.   

This kind of connection can sometimes be hard to make: “I wish that more first-gen students would identify themselves to me, because I would hand over advice more regularly!” enthuses Heard Mollel. We hope that this article helps by letting students know our faculty are ready to reach out.

Teaching in the English department offers particular opportunities. “[W]hile not having familial models to emulate presents first-gen students very real barriers,” Stratton says, “it's also true that my own ability to cross those barriers was immensely helped by being born into other forms of very real, very embodied privilege. And literature continues to help us think through complex intersections of ambiguity, ambivalence, identity, possibility, and limitation.” For Zender, literature’s capacity to reveal a “wider and more attractive world” than the one in which he grew up was appealing when he was a student and part of what he hoped to share as a teacher. Making diversity visible is key to Houston’s approach in teaching creative writing. “I suppose what I am always trying to tell [my students] is to be themselves, which is something I tell myself every day before I head up to campus. I try to make them understand that their stories matter, a lot, that people will be interested in them.”

These English faculty know firsthand how hard it can be for first-generation students to succeed but also how good it can feel when they do. Writing a strong paper, “nailing a presentation, anything big or small was an opportunity to remind myself that college was not easy but that it was something I could do as well as anyone else,” remembers Vernon of his time as an undergraduate at Cornell. We’re pleased in English to have first-generation faculty colleagues and thrilled to be teaching today’s first-generation students.