Are you the first person in your family to graduate from college? That is great. That is absolutely fantastic. You should be proud of yourself, and I bet your family’s proud you didn’t become a cracked-out coke fiend. With that said, I should add in the caveat that I’m not exactly the first to graduate from a traditional four-year university—depending on which side of the family you look at. My uncle on my dad’s side has a degree from Harvard, which is pretty cool. My cousin on my biological dad’s side and I graduated pretty close to each other. I think he may have beaten me by a year.
(But he also invented screenless computers, so I don’t feel so bad about that.)
If you’re the first in your immediate family to pursue higher education directly after high school, you may have noticed that there are things you talk about that your family can’t keep up with. Or that they just don’t know: what it’s like eating in a cafeteria all by yourself; waking up to find seven strangers sleeping on the floor of your dorm room; and, yep, that’s really a fucking clown following you and not a result of a bad LCD trip.
It’s not your fault and it’s not theirs—you’re not smarter and they’re not stupid. There’s a disconnect, though: a tangible and stark gap in knowledge and experience. I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011, a year that just keeps getting further and further away. As much as I love my family, there are things I just can’t talk about with them because they have no connection to them.
#1: What Living on Campus is Really Like
When I first started at UT, none of my parents had four-year degrees. Those in academia call students like my parents “nontraditional.” Three of them joined the military, all of them had kids way before they should have, and all of them built lives outside the Ivory Tower. They had apartments, bills, tax issues, marriage issues, etc. Eventually, they would have mortgages, bills, tax issues, and marriage issues, etc.
None of my older relatives lived on campus, so I really had no one to talk to about what to expect from that. My only references were movies like this piece of shit:
This is from Road Trip (2000).
What’s important to keep in mind is that this (or, Christ, Animal House) is all my parents had as references, too. I didn’t really know what to expect from college.
Living on campus can be fun. Games like Assassins, Werewolves, or Zombies (which are all pretty much the same game) have a way of making you feel like you belong, and that’s a nice feeling when you’re at a school of more than 50,000 people. It’s easier for you to attend campus events, and a place like UT will have events that you like. If you like sports, attending at-home games will make living on-campus a must. You’ll be able to line up quicker, get tickets earlier, all that good stuff. Napping in between classes in my cozy room was the best. I loved being able to do that and loved being just a few minutes’ walk from my classes at any given time. Eight a.m. classes are much easier to handle when you live in the same building in which the class is being held.
Living on campus is also really, really shitty. Jester East and West house 2,000 people, which is disgusting. It’s like living in a house crawling with roaches, only those roaches throw up in the hallways and clog the toilets.
It took me two years to get a room to myself, a sad little space, and I still had to have a communal bathroom. Which is better than my freshman year because then I shared a sad little space with another human being—and had a communal shower. My parents kind of understand this because they endured similar (though, I imagine, much more intense) conditions as part of their basic training. However, they were paid to endure these conditions. I got to shell out $8,000 for a room smaller than some people’s closets and getting naked in front of other guys.
But at least my parents could understand some of my pain. This doesn’t happen when you keep…
#2: Explaining Your Degree. Again. And Again
I mentioned that I started at UT before my parents had four-year degrees. My dad and I actually got our BAs at the same time; my stepmom is a nurse; my biological dad has a couple of certificates (and an AA? I can never remember); and my mom will graduate with a BA this spring. While I attended UT, my parents understood that I majored in English. The Rhetoric and Writing part took a little more explaining, but they got that it had something to do with the written word.
But Jesus Christ, explaining my degree to any other member of my family is like explaining the color red to a blind person.
First of all, no one knows what English is. They have kind of an idea of the work it entails, so they know you spend a lot of time writing essays and reading. But these are people who haven’t written an essay since high school, which may have been more than 40 years ago. They either don’t know or have forgotten the kind of effort and sheer force of will it takes to write a paper. They don’t understand the notion of researching—like, real researching, the kind that involves article databases and library archives.
Once I start talking about Rhetoric and Writing, forget it.
Rhetoric, if you don’t know, is essentially the art of talking to achieve some end. That end could be persuasive, motivational, or informative. I have an aunt who won’t even try to understand what I’m talking about. She’ll just raise her hand, shake her head and say, “Eric, it’s like you’re speaking a different language.” That’s OK. As I progressed in my degree, I began to realize that the more I learned, the less in common I had with members of my family and the farther away I seemed to move from them. This is still better than that one cousin who tries to downplay what I’ve accomplished.
But I still can’t quite get over…
#3: “What can you do with your degree?”
Unless you’re my mother, don’t ever ask me this dumb-ass question.
I have a great-aunt, bless her heart, who always goes on and on about what I can do with my degree. She’s the only one in my family who insists on framing my degree in terms of dollar signs. And I just want to grab her by the shoulders, shake her, and say, “Don’t you understand that I’m educated? Don’t you understand that just because my degree hasn’t had an immediate financial benefit that it’s still worth something? Don’t you understand that I graduated from the best university in this state? The twenty-fifth best university in the world? Don’t you get it?”
This is the short answer: no. No, she doesn’t understand. My great-aunt has been thinking about money and in terms of money her whole life. She’s had to. Back in the 1960s, getting an education wasn’t a normal thing. Getting a job was. Getting job so you could buy a car, buy a home, raise a family—that’s what the ’60s valued. And that’s what she values and what she did. So when she asks me, “What can you do with that?” what she’s really asking is, “How can you support yourself with that?”
If you have a relative like my great-aunt, this is how you should interpret his or her question. They’re not trying to belittle what you’ve done; they’re just concerned about your ability to succeed in the real world. And, no, I don’t put that in parentheses. If you’re a full-time college student and you don’t have a full-time job, you are not in the real world. You live in the Ivory Tower, a place that has not opened its doors to everyone but that has opened up to you.
#4: Loans—Holy Shit
I have a unique situation here in that I have four parents and belong to two different households. My first year at UT, one set of parents took out a loan for me to attend. Then my dad was stationed in Germany and I was nervous about putting them on my paperwork. So, I used my other family to get a loan. Only, my other family has terrible credit, so they didn’t qualify—which means, I took out the loan.
I’m not going to go into actual numbers, but my first family’s loan covered the whole first year. My mom started bugging me about helping her out with the loan about a year later. Then I remembered my own loans that I’d taken out. When my dad and I finally had a discussion about this, he was surprised. He thought his loan had covered my whole three years at UT. What it demonstrates is a lack of understanding of the cost of higher education on my dad’s part, a man who has a BA paid for by the Army (or subsidized one way or another).
I think the best example of misunderstanding loans, though, is the beginning of my sophomore/junior year when I switched families to get a loan. My biological dad was easily the most excited to hear that I’d gotten into UT (my own mother had been outright surprised, which I’m still kind of insulted by) and he said that I should take as long as I needed to get the degree.
Fast forward a little bit. I start asking my biological dad for financial information and he grows audibly more nervous as my questions get more specific (as I read from the FAFSA application). Then we got down to the timing of the payments and he lost his shit. He was under the assumption that he wouldn’t need to worry about those loans until I graduated. This is not the case. If you’re currently in school and your parents have taken on loans for you to be there, that means they are making payments on those loans right now. They’re not the ones in school, so they don’t get a grace period. Well, as soon as my biological dad figured that out, his tune changed. It wasn’t “take as much time as you need” anymore. Now, it was “as soon as you finish your degree, you’re gonna start paying this loan.”
But he didn’t pass the credit check, so I took out the loan. So I guess everything worked out? The point is that none of us really knew what we were getting into when I was accepted into UT. Acceptance is just one hurdle that leads to many others.
You should have honest conversations about loans with your parents if you haven’t already. Loans are serious business and if your parents have taken one out for you to attend school, you should know that you’re loved.
#5: You Have to Accept What You CAN Talk About
Let’s say you just spent the last 24 hours binge-watching Brazzers. You know… for research.
You finally decide on a research topic: The Effects of Perpetual Shame on Personal Interactions. In between feeling disgusted with yourself and taking scalding showers, you realize how into the research you are and want to tell someone about it. If you live on campus, you can call up some buddies and have a midnight circle jerk. I mean…a lively discussion. Sorry, my gay is showing.
But then you go home for Christmas break and after you’re done sobbing to the family priest about what you’ve done, your mom (or whoever) asks you what you’ve been doing this whole semester.
I’ve had similar problems (though they involved less porn). When I was working on my thesis (which is vampire-centric) all I wanted to talk about was vampires. Vampires in film, vampires in books, vampires on TV. And I wanted to talk about the research I’d done and the authors I’d read. My mom asked me once what I was researching and I said, “I’m exploring the transformation of literary vampires through a new historicist lens.” And I lost her. I saw it happen. My mom is the smartest person I know and if she couldn’t follow my topic, I had no hope for the rest of my family. It’s not because they’re stupid. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they don’t have the experiences I do, the particular knowledge (and, I have to remind myself, normal people don’t care about vampires). They’ve never had the *ahem* pleasure of taking a literary theory course. New historicism is a fairly popular literary theory, but only academics have a reason to use or even know about it.
In the end, you kind of have to resign yourself. There are things you know that you just won’t be able to communicate to your non-college family and you’re going to have to accept that as OK. But I can still talk to my mom about popular books. We can still make fun of awful ’70s shows. My grandma will always be up for a discussion on Elvis Presley. My great-aunt can spend hours talking about the neighbors. Sometimes I have trouble bringing my experiences into a conversation, but that doesn’t mean I have to be silent. My family drives me crazy, but they have my best interests at heart and they love me. Sometimes their criticism is sharp and their questions probing, but I try to remember that their concern is much better than indifference.