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First-Generation Students

First Generation Story

Adam Ellwanger, Assistant Professor
College of Humanities & Social Sciences

       I grew up in Rochester, New York, a cold city on Lake Ontario just south of the Canadian border.  Neither Mom nor Dad went to college, but I was born into a family that placed a high value on thinking for thinking’s sake.  My mom worked at a library, my dad was the owner of a successful appliance parts distributorship.  My toys were all toys that required a lot of imagination on my part.  Even before I began kindergarten, Mom would color with me and read to me in the morning and afternoon.  When Dad came home, I can remember doing multiplication flashcards and having fun because he would always make some kind of game out of the lesson. 

       For as long as I can remember, I have had a very deep curiosity about the world in general.  Everything about it made me wonder.  I don’t know if I was born with that curiosity or whether I learned it from my parents, but Mom and Dad worked very hard to nurture it.  When I started school (I went to public school), it was made clear very early on that my parents and teachers had high expectations for my performance in school.  I had about two or three hours set aside for homework when I got home from school.  But school wasn’t even over when I got home: if I talked back to my mother, or refused to eat my dinner, instead of being punished I was sometimes told to write an essay on the topic of, say, respecting your parents, or appreciating what you have.  Looking back, I know that these high expectations were essential to the early development of good study habits: focus, concentration, diligence.

       By the time I was about ten years old, I can remember being especially interested in the conversations of adults: particularly the regular, friendly arguments that Mom and Dad would have at the dinner table.  They talked about all sorts of public issues, political ideas, and policy questions.  My Dad was a perennial loser of local elections.  Today, it seems to me that most of those losses were probably due to the fact that my father is a far too reasonable man to be elected by any majority in our savage age.  He did eventually win a position on the school board, and his experience there sparked in me an early interest in educational politics.  Anyway, those suppertime arguments were my introductory course in rhetoric, which (years later) became my area of focus as a professor.  As I neared the end of high school, I was no longer part of a silent audience at dinner: I was voicing my own opinions and ideas. 

       As to why I decided to go to college, I don’t have much to say.  It never occurred to me that there was another option for me.  My parents had never asked “Do you think you want to attend college?”  Their questions were always more along the lines of “What do you think you will study in college?” or “Where do you think you will go to college?”  My teachers asked similar questions.  I applied to three schools without doing much research (at seventeen years old, all of the colleges seemed the same).  I applied to Clark University (in Worcester, Massachusetts), Boston University, and the College of Charleston (in South Carolina).  Boston denied me, but I had my pick of the other two.  I had spent more time in Charleston, so I went there.  What happened after I got to college was interesting, but that’s another chapter of my life (one in which I learned new things, thought about careers, partied, and met my wife, at a library of all places).  College was neither the beginning nor the end of a journey.  It was a part of the perpetual middle portion of my life’s narrative, but it was an important part that truly helped me to realize some of the hopes and dreams I had discovered at a very early age.  


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Last updated or reviewed on 9/30/14

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