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First-Generation Students

William Waller, Ph.D, Associate Professor
College of Sciences & Technology

       I think first-generation college stories are supposed to be uplifting, heartwarming tales of close-knit families sharing sacrifices and scraping together hard-earned dollars to put a beloved family member through school. The mythical image in my mind involves gauzy scenes of immigrant parents sitting around a modest but well-scrubbed kitchen, instilling the love of learning and the American dream in their modest but well-scrubbed offspring, usually in their native tongue.

       Uh, that’s not quite my story. My mother seemed indifferent to me attending college and never offered any kind of support or encouragement that I can remember. My father and I didn’t speak to one another for prolonged periods when I was in college. It’s not that attending college was viewed negatively by my parents – I think they certainly saw it as preferable to, say, imprisonment. Indeed, I was born while my father was enrolled in Baylor University. But he was never able to graduate, mainly due I think to financial strains imposed by having young children. I know this is one of the major regrets of his life. But going to college was definitely seen as my choice and my responsibility. It was not a family endeavor.

       All of this is not to say I wasn't incredibly lucky or I didn't have help – I was and I did. For several months after I graduated from high school, I worked full-time in the photo darkroom of a print shop, a job I had begun part-time when I was a senior. At some point – I can't remember when or why, maybe because of boredom – I decided to enroll at Eastfield, which was the local community college. This was especially fortuitous, for two reasons. Since I wasn't on particularly good terms with either of my parents, I moved in with my maternal grandmother, who happened to live less than a mile from the college. This allowed me to quit my job and use my savings to go to school full-time (tuition and books were incredibly cheap then). I think my mother thought I was a lazy freeloader, because my grandmother had very little money. My father soon moved out of the state, without bothering to tell me he was leaving. But my grandmother had faith in me and stuck beside me. She was the major influence in my life.

       Believe me, I could not have cared less about my parents’ attitude. From the first moment I sat in a college classroom (which I remember very well), I was sure I had made the right choice. It was an exhilarating experience. I guess looking back on it now, I was somewhat self-centered or self-absorbed. But I don't think this was the product of laziness – more like desperation. I felt very deeply that getting a college degree was my only chance for a different life than my parents and grandparents. I wasn't going to let anything get in the way of that opportunity.

       At Eastfield, I gravitated toward math classes, because the math instructors there seemed better than the other instructors. They were very passionate and challenging. I had no idea of this at the time, but Eastfield was recognized for its excellent math faculty. So by the time I got my associate's degree, I had decided to major in math. I wanted to transfer to SMU, but that was way out of the question due to cost. So again for purely serendipitous reasons, I wound up transferring to the University of North Texas in Denton. I had to scrape together money to pay for that first semester, but somehow I managed, by taking in laundry and selling apples on the street. (OK, I made the last part of that up, but it was pretty tight.) Again, I had no idea of this at the time, but North Texas was in the process of building one of the best math programs in the state. I was exposed to some really outstanding educators and mathematicians, like John Neuberger, Dan Mauldin, and John Allen. Student life in Denton was a lot of fun too, because it was still pretty much a college town in those days. It was all a phenomenal stroke of luck. I'm not sure when it finally explicitly dawned on me, but I think I had decided to become a mathematician fairly soon after I got there. I certainly kept consistently making choices in that direction.

       Later in my undergraduate career my father and I reestablished our relationship and he did help me some, I suspect at my stepmother’s insistence. One thing he did for me was help arrange a small student loan through the bank in his small home town in northern Florida (this was long before student loans were as prevalent as they are today). Sometime after that the loan officer caused a huge scandal by killing himself by jumping into the Apalachicola River, which runs through the middle of the town. To this day, my father still asks me if I repaid that loan, although it’s been more than thirty years ago now. I think my father believes I didn’t repay the loan, somehow contributing to the loan officer’s suicide. Just for the record, I did repay the loan, right on time.

Bill Waller


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Last updated or reviewed on 9/30/14

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