A Foot in Two Worlds

First-generation faculty draw from dual perspectives to support students.

By Elizabeth Anderson

Colby King

Colby King recalls the moment when he realized his education granted him access to a world vastly different from his working-class upbringing.

He was invited to a graduation party for a student who, like him, had just completed a master’s degree. The student’s parents hosted the catered celebration at their home, a large brick mansion on a lake near Columbia. While marveling at the opulence of the setting, King wondered how he had been invited to such a fancy event.

“And I just had the realization that oh, if you go to graduate school, you get access to other social circles that you never would have gotten invited into otherwise,” he recalls. “But I didn’t really feel comfortable.”

Being both an insider and an outsider is an unsettling feeling that many first-generation faculty at USC Upstate say never leaves them, even after they’ve achieved career success. But understanding that many students share that same discomfort helps first-generation faculty provide support and encouragement that they themselves often did not receive.

King, associate professor of sociology, says having faculty who come from working-class backgrounds is a strong asset for the university. “I think what first-generation/working-class faculty bring is a real understanding of our students’ lives and what they’re bringing into the classroom, why they’re coming to class,” he says.

A helping hand

Tyrone Toland '90

Tyrone Toland '90, chair and professor of informatics and engineering systems, recalls that when he was an undergraduate at USC Upstate (then USC Spartanburg), going to graduate school never crossed his mind. “In our family, it was understood that if you went to college, you got a job,” Toland says.

He drove a school bus to help pay the bills while he was in college, where he majored in computers and applied mathematics. He also got involved in a new organization on campus, United Students, a mentorship program that paired first-generation freshmen with upperclassmen.

Through the group, Toland met Warren Carson, who in addition to directing the Gospel Choir was also an English professor. Carson seemed to have a fun job traveling and publishing, so Toland asked him what it would take to get a position like that. Carson told him he’d need at least a master’s, but to really advance, he’d need a doctorate.

That conversation started Toland on a path to graduate school and helped him get serious about his classes. “From Dr. Carson, I learned about faculty teaching, but he also was kind of like my adopted daddy. He was a mentor to other people as well, but I’m known as son No. 1,” he says, laughing.

Mentorship played a key role in Araceli Hernández-Laroche’s academic journey as well. Hernández-Laroche, who is USC Upstate’s first tenured Mexican-American professor, feels fortunate to have had many resources available to her at the University of California Los Angeles when she arrived as an undergraduate. Though not specifically for first-generation students, the tutoring and support services that were offered served many students who, like her, were trying to navigate college alone.

She also found a robust Hispanic/Latino student network, with upperclassmen committed to helping new arrivals stay in college and graduate. But it was a study abroad trip to France her junior year that changed Hernández-Laroche’s career goals.

Araceli Hernandez-Laroche

“I thought I was going to be an immigration attorney, because when you’re an immigrant family, you want an immigration attorney in the family,” she says. “But once I came back from France, that was such an intellectual pivot in my life.”

Hernández-Laroche was fascinated by France’s relationship with North Africa, and wanted to dig deeper into the history. That interest coincided with her participation in a pilot teaching program that placed UCLA students in underserved Los Angeles public schools. Hernández-Laroche taught at three high schools, all predominantly Hispanic/Latino.

The experience was transformative. “The first time I was in a classroom in front of students, I thought, oh my god, this is so much fun, trying to speak to them in an engaging way,” she recalls. “I realized that law was too dry, and that I needed more literature, intellectual history, the humanities.”

Encouraged by two law school students who were her mentors, Hernández-Laroche decided to pursue a doctorate at the University of California Berkeley. “That experience teaching prepared me to see myself as an educator,” she says.

Going it alone

For those without support or mentors, getting to graduate school can be a matter of luck or persistence. Sharda Jackson-Smith, associate dean and associate professor of elementary education, spent her first year at the University of Florida “trying to find myself” on the large campus. She was part of an inaugural group who received a scholarship specifically for talented first-generation college students, but at the time, additional support resources had not been set up on campus. To make connections, Jackson-Smith joined the competitive cheerleading team.

Sharda Jackson-Smith

While she had fun, she was also aware most of her teammates didn’t look or sound like her. During her sophomore year, she joined a historically Black sorority, and found the friendships she’d been looking for. “It was like a light turned on in my college experience,” she says. “Had I not done that, it would’ve been very easy for me to say, this is not for me, and just gone back home.”

Jackson-Smith was fully focused on preparing for her career as a teacher, when, toward the end of the semester, one of her professors asked the class, “Who’s ready to go to grad school?” Jackson-Smith was intrigued, so after class she approached her professor, who invited her to come by her office to talk more.

“That was my first time going to office hours,” Jackson-Smith says. “I did not know what office hours were.”

Her professor was also African-American, which made an impression on Jackson-Smith. But once she’d made the decision to attend graduate school, Jackson-Smith realized she was back to square one in navigating a program without any idea of what to do next. “Each time there was a whole new learning curve on understanding what this is,” she says.

Things got even tougher when she began her doctorate. By then she was working full-time as a first-grade teacher, had gotten married, and was expecting a baby. Though she was still at University of Florida, she did not have mentors or faculty she felt she could turn to for support. On the first day of her doctoral research class, the professor who would become her dissertation advisor issued a blunt assessment.

“I remember he comes in with his briefcase, drops it down and says, ‘Most of you won’t be here in two years,’” she recalls.

Though he had encouraged his students to send in their first chapter for his review, the professor never responded after Jackson-Smith submitted hers. After several months had passed, during which she completed another chapter, Jackson-Smith decided she was done waiting. “I got to a point where I was like, you know what, I’m gonna just write this whole thing so he thinks I’m serious,” she says. “That is when he turned on his interest and started giving me rapid-fire feedback.”

Long and winding road

When Jackson-Smith looks back at her journey to graduate school, she notes she never had a specific goal in mind. “At every step, I had no plans to do it until it happened,” she says. Wren Bareiss, professor of communication, understands that experience well.

Wren Bareiss

Bareiss wasn’t even thinking of a four-year degree, let alone graduate school, when he finished high school. He enrolled in community college with a “vague idea” of going into radio production. But his first year didn’t go well. “I had no clue really what I was doing in college,” he says. “I dropped out after freshman year and worked in a factory.”

It didn’t take Bareiss long to realize he didn’t want to make gaskets for the rest of his life. He returned to school, and, inspired by a class he took, discovered a love for anthropology. By then he understood he’d need a four-year degree to get anywhere in the field, so he transferred to the University of New Mexico to complete his studies.

“I never thought far ahead,” he admits. “I always thought in terms of the degree. Which is not the best idea, because you need to be thinking about the next thing after that.”

While working on his bachelor’s, he got interested in radio after taking a class from an instructor with a campus radio show. Bareiss continued to work part-time at the campus station for a few years after graduation, unsure of what to do next.

“I thought, well, maybe I should get a master’s degree,” he says. “I didn’t really have a clue about how to make all this work, and that’s the curse of a first-generation college student.”

A scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where Bareiss studied communication and anthropology for his master’s, led to another detour, this time into arts administration. But after a one-year internship, Bareiss felt no more purposeful than he had before. “I thought, well, now what do I do?” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how to get into the business.”

He again went back to school, this time at Indiana University, and got his doctorate. “I was always in this loop of getting more education,” he says. “I was good at this stuff, but I never really understood what to do. Even when I was in a Ph.D. program, I didn’t know how to find a good job.”

A non-traditional route

Tracey Woodard, associate professor of criminal justice, had a great job and a well-established career in IT management when she decided to seek a graduate degree in her 30s. Woodard had attended Syracuse University as an undergraduate, and though aware of how different she was from her peers as a first-generation student from a very small town, she loved the diversity of people and ideas she encountered.

Tracey Woodard

She didn’t end up in a job related to her telecommunications management major, but the school name opened career doors for her. She eventually landed at a Fortune 500 company, where she worked her way up and earned a good salary. But, she says, “I was miserable, because I was working six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day.” She often worked during her vacations, and her unhappiness took a toll on her family life.

Woodard was ready for a change. She had always been interested in true crime, and decided to pursue a master’s in criminal justice. Though still juggling her job and raising two young daughters, Woodard discovered she loved teaching. She did some adjunct work after graduating, then was offered a visiting position.

The job paid less than half of what she earned in management, but Woodard’s second husband fully supported her career change. Encouraged, Woodard asked the department chair how she could get a full-time teaching position. He told her she’d need a Ph.D., which at first seemed overwhelming to her. “I’m like, are you crazy? I have kids, I can’t go back and get a Ph.D.,” she recalls.

But she took the leap, and began a doctoral program at Florida State University. Woodard admits it was “brutal” getting to the finish line. The university was nearly three hours away from her home, and after trying to commute, she finally ended up staying in Tallahassee during the week and coming home on weekends. “There were times I wanted to quit, when I was like, I’m not going back, and my husband would say, see how you feel in a couple of days,” she says. “Between him and my kids, I had so much support, it was incredible.”

But like many other first-generation faculty, she had to figure out how to negotiate graduate school on her own. “I went into it thinking, this is just like getting my master’s, I can just show up to class, go home, do my schoolwork,” she says. “That’s not how it was.”

Because Woodard was older than the other people in the program, she didn’t feel comfortable turning to them for advice or help. It wasn’t until she began working with her dissertation chair, two years into the program, that she finally found someone she could talk to.

Alone in a crowd

Race and gender can also compound feelings of isolation during graduate school and after. When Toland began his master’s program at USC, he was one of only three African-American students in the computer science program. While they all became friends, and one of them graduated with Toland, he was the only one to enter the doctoral program. He became the first African-American to receive a doctorate in computer science from USC.

After he was granted a fellowship, he asked the program director if there were any additional funds available for African-American graduate students that he could apply for. “And he said, you know, no one’s ever asked me that question,” Toland recalls. “He said, if you find out any information, let me know so I can write it down!”

Hernández-Laroche says being a woman from an immigrant group can make it hard for others, even other women, to see you as a leader. “When you’re an ultra minority, you know that sometimes what you’re doing is changing things,” she says. “And people don’t always like change.”

But seeing progress always gives her hope. Five years ago, she and others on campus established Avanzando Through College, a program to help first-generation Hispanic/Latino students navigate college. Two years from now, a student who was part of that first cohort will complete her doctoral program.

Making ends meet

Because first-generation students tend to come from working-class homes, paying for the years of schooling needed to get a doctorate can pose a substantial obstacle. When Toland graduated from Upstate, he enrolled in classes at Clemson to fulfill prerequisites for graduate school while also working at MetLife in Greenville. He’d get up at 7 a.m., drive from his home in Spartanburg to his job in Greenville, put in an hour or two of work, drive to Clemson for classes, then return to work to finish out the day before heading home. “I can’t believe I did that,” Toland says now.

Realizing he couldn’t keep that up, Toland applied for on-campus jobs at Clemson and at USC, and decided he would apply for a master’s at whichever one offered him a job. USC came through.

Toland worked as a programmer throughout his master’s program, taking one course per semester. It took him four and a half years to finish. “It was very challenging, because people behind me were getting a master’s,” he says.

Still, by the time he graduated, he was fully vested in the state retirement system. And, having done well in the program, he was offered a fellowship for students underrepresented in their fields. That allowed him to pursue a doctorate without having to work.

King opted for a quicker, but riskier, approach to paying for graduate school. He took out all the loans he’d need to pay for school without having to work, gambling on getting a teaching position quickly after graduation. He was able to complete his master’s in two years and his doctorate in another four, but also was saddled with debt he continues to pay.

“I was really naïve to how much it would cost and to how daunting the job market would be,” he says. “But in some ways things worked out because I was naïve enough to take the chance.”

He notes not everyone is so lucky – he’s had friends and colleagues who have had to adjunct teach for years, sometimes at three or four schools to make ends meet. “I’ve been fortunate not to have to do that, but at the same time, the remuneration has not been enough to pay off the student loan debt.”

Coming from a working-class family also means there are no financial resources you can draw on from home, Jackson-Smith says. “I think for a lot of first-generation students, you don’t have the option of failing, really,” she says. “If you make a mistake and lose your scholarship, you are done. Daddy’s not coming to help.”

Drawing on strengths

The struggles many first-generation/working class faculty have experienced on their way to career success are only part of the story, however. Bareiss notes that focusing too much on deficiencies misses the strengths these faculty – and students – have.

“One of their strengths is that they’re really resilient in ways others are not, and they’re resourceful,” he says. “The problem is that first-generation college students don’t realize that they have these skills because no one’s ever told them, hey, you’re good at that.”

Hernández-Laroche tries to show her students the “competitive edge” they have. For many first-generation Hispanic/Latino students, that may seem paradoxical, she says. Being the first to attend college can feel very lonely and bewildering, especially if your family can’t share in your experience. “But what you bring to the table is the sense of collectivity,” she says.

For example, Hernández-Laroche sits on many boards that are trying to reach diverse communities. “The strength I bring is that they don’t have access to the networks I have, and in these networks are representatives of the communities they want to serve,” she says. “So what I tell students is, you have this magnificent network, and you have a greater idea of what talent is, those people in your own families who are just going to make things happen.”

Shared experience

First-generation faculty also use their lived experiences to help them guide students in similar circumstances. While many say “imposter syndrome” – the feeling that they don’t really belong in academia – never goes away, they encourage their students to seek out activities that will foster a sense of belonging.

“Everyone always says get involved, and you think they’re just saying that,” says Jackson-Smith. “But for that person who already feels out of place, that this isn’t really for them, you really should, so that you can meet other people who are also second guessing themselves, and help each other to the very end.”

One of the reasons Hernández-Laroche and her colleague Maria Montesó created the South Carolina Centro Latino on campus was to give students just such a place to come together and find support. Not only is the space used as a meeting place for clubs, but it’s also a popular study area for students. “That’s why we call El Centro a hub, because we want students to invite each other to the space,” Hernández-Laroche says.

Empathy also informs how first-generation faculty approach their classes. King often shares stories with his students about his experiences growing up in a working-class home in Pennsylvania, where his dad worked night shifts. Several of his students have done that, too, going straight to class from their job. “It helps me understand how much work my students are putting in just to get to class,” King says.

But being understanding doesn’t mean lowering expectations. Toland says he expects students to put in a full effort in his classes. Like his own teachers, however, he’ll try to break down big problems into smaller, more manageable pieces. If he sees students who still aren’t understanding it, he invites them to come to his office to work, where he keeps a supply of snacks handy – a practice he started when a student who had come by for help hadn’t been able to eat due to back-to-back classes.

Both Woodard and Jackson-Smith try to quickly offer assistance if they sense a student is struggling. Remembering her own introversion, Woodard encourages students to ask for help. “Your advisor is your lifeline, and you should go to them with any questions,” she tells her students. “And if you don’t want to go to them, come to me.” Some days, she says, she’ll just close the classroom door and ask, “OK, tell me what’s going on here, why are you all so stressed?” It’s an opportunity for her to offer students academic advice and suggestions on how to effectively advocate for themselves.

One of the first things Jackson-Smith says she’ll do when she enters a classroom is do a quick scan to read students’ body language and expressions. “And there are plenty of times where I just pull out a chair and sit down at a table where I’m eye level with them, and I say, ‘What’s going on, how are we doing?’”

Rarely do students’ concerns involve class, she says. The stress is usually a combination of things – their home life, trying to balance all their classes, uncertainty about the future. “So every couple of classes or couple of weeks, I’ll try to do a temperature check, and give them some advice based on that,” she says.

Bareiss says it’s also important to remind students that it’s OK to fail. Getting a bad grade can seem especially overwhelming when you’re a first-generation student who may not have been prepared for college as well as your peers. To keep students motivated, Bareiss offers points for improvement as students go along. That applies to everyone in the class, but first-generation students find it particularly helpful. “It shows them I have confidence in them,” he says.

Finding a home

One of USC Upstate’s strengths as a regional comprehensive university is that it welcomes people from all backgrounds, particularly those who are from first-generation/working-class homes, King says. “There are so many of us, and it’s such a part of the institutional culture, that it’s normalized,” he says. “You don’t have to be quiet about it.”

Woodard says that’s one reason she loves teaching at Upstate. “I want to teach where students are lauded as first gen," she says. “Especially at our university, where our student-to-teacher ratio is small, we can really connect with the students and identify with them, and hopefully they can connect with us and feel safer with us.”

First-generation faculty at Upstate also support many student groups that help foster a sense of belonging. In addition to Avanzando, which gives students the tools to navigate college, there are also Tri Alpha, the first-generation honor society; the Latin American Student Organization; and TRiO, which helps first-generation students succeed in college.

As the cost of a college education rises, and the job market for faculty tightens further, convincing more students from lower-income households to pursue an advanced degree could become a bigger challenge. Losing those perspectives would be unfortunate, King says, not just for universities, but for all students, who benefit from those experiences and receiving mentorship.

Just as they themselves encourage and guide their students, first-generation faculty hope their students will do the same for others. “We tell them all the time, this is such a transformative experience for you and your families,” Hernández-Laroche says. “But at the same time, transform this university. Make it yours. Build community beyond these years.”