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Associate Professor Susan J. Baker


First-Generation Students

Leaving Home

Susan J. Baker, Associate Professor
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

        The expectation was always clear from our parents that their three children would go to college.  Neither my father nor my mother ever had the opportunity.  Both came from poor families, most of whose members only completed elementary school.  Just as my father was finishing high school, he was drafted into the Marine Corps to fight in World War II.  After the war, he decided to stay in the military and that is where he received his education as a navigator.  My mother went to work for Douglas Aircraft, not as one of the famed Rosie the Riveters, but as a secretary to a manager there.  Later she trained to be a dental hygienist.  She was in her late twenties when she met my dad, and it would be nearly four years after that before they would start having children.  Maybe it was the fact that they both grew up poor during the Great Depression, or maybe it had something to do with losses they experienced during the war, but they both wanted something better for their children.  Perhaps they wanted the war to mean something, its purpose being progress for the next generation.  My older brother was told he would certainly become a doctor (which he did).  My sister and I were expected to be wives and mothers, but not until we were educated.  College was necessary for us girls to meet a good man. 
        As the youngest, getting into college was perhaps easier for me than it was for my siblings.  Both my brother and sister had already figured out how to find appropriate colleges, how to take the necessary entrance exams, and how to apply.  They were very willing to help me to find my way.  Even so, I was too scared to go too far away from home.  Even though I was at the top of my high school graduating class and could likely have secured financial aid to attend a top college, I decided to go to the nearby state university.  I wasn’t very sure how to do anything else.  My dad bribed me with the purchase of my own car if I would live at home while going to school!  That’s all it took!  Looking back, it must have been quite a financial burden for my parents to send three kids to college.  We all took on part time jobs, but my parents did not make us spend it on school.  They also didn’t want work to detract from our studies.  After my first year, I started to earn scholarships which helped.
        I decided to major in art history.  I had a very influential teacher, Professor Dennis, who triggered my interest in art and gave me the confidence I needed in myself to choose art history as a major.  It took a while for it to occur to me, however, that I could make a career out of studying art.  The idea that I could have a profession whereby I mastered a particular field of study (rather than taking a job just to make money), did not come to mind until I was in my second year of graduate school.  My realization came from getting to know several women professors of art history at the University of Kansas where I earned my postgraduate degrees.  They offered me models other than what I had had at home.  At home women were proud to be wives and mothers, but at college the female professors, while also wives and mothers, did not see their domestic duties as precluding them from having careers.  My friend, Valerie, who I met in graduate school and with whom I am still friends after twenty-five years, also helped me to realize my career goals.  She was much more extroverted than me, and she took me under her wing and helped me to make the contacts I needed to succeed in school.  Valerie and I struggled together as we were offered our first art history survey courses to teach at KU with over 200 students in each of our classes. 

        Valerie and I learned how to teach by watching our professors at KU, but mostly I learned from both my dad and my sister.  My sister had majored in education in college and was therefore a rich source of information.  She is now a professor of management at Millsaps College in Mississippi.  To this day we spend hours talking about our students and strategies for teaching our courses.  My dad taught computer programming.  After twenty years in the Marine Corps, he went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration.  There he learned computer programming skills when computers were in their infancy, back when the machines were run using stacks of punched eight by three inch cards and tower sizes were so large that they took up whole rooms.  Later he became an instructor, teaching other students how to program computers.   As I listened to him talk each night at the dinner table about his classes, he served as an important role model for me as I developed my own teaching philosophy.

        Yet my father and I did not always see eye to eye.  The hardest thing about going to college, and then to graduate school, was the ideological differences that started to develop between my parents and me.  It was very alienating at first, and I felt really lonely for a long time, like I was homeless.  As I better understood the reasons for these differences, my relationship with my parents improved, and we learned to accept one another.  The last words my father said to me before his death two years ago were how proud he was of me.  That made all the uncertainty and challenges worth it. 


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Last updated or reviewed on 9/30/14

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