Taking risks, crossing boundaries
Consider the standard example of risk for a college student. It might be writing an essay about a controversial topic, challenging a professor or studying abroad in a foreign country.
Now consider how a first-generation college student would define a risk.
For Dwight Lang, being the first and only person in his family to attend and graduate college was deeply courageous as well as risky.
Dwight grew up in Rio Linda, California (north of Sacramento) with his parents, who always expected that he would go to college. College was not an option for either of his parents. His father attended high school, joined the U.S. Army, worked as a plumber and never finished high school. His mother’s education concluded with her high school diploma. Nevertheless, they both valued and stressed the importance of education.
“First gens are risk takers and boundary crossers,” he says, “which has many positive effects on them as they progress through life.”
While Dwight’s parents were always interested in his academic life, they were less inclined to try to understand it – especially while he was in college. This lack of engagement set up a significant disconnect between them and risked the quality of their relationship.
After Dwight completed his BA in social welfare at Sacramento State College, his parents were reluctant to endorse his decision to pursue graduate studies. He describes the perceived risk associated with entering a higher level of education as the prospect of becoming too “individualized.” His parents and their broader community stressed the importance of attributing academic success to the people who helped you achieve success and to the place where you grew up and flourished.
Summing up his parents’ sentiments about graduate school, Dwight says, “The sense of individualism is in opposition to the working class sense that places greater importance on the community. The community is more important than the individual,” he notes. To his parents, he believes graduate school meant moving far away and abandoning the community.
Dwight stayed close to home for his M.A. in sociology at California State University, Sacramento, and chose to move a relatively short distance away to the University of Oregon for his Ph.D. in sociology. Then he took the ultimate risk by moving to Michigan with his wife (also first in her family to graduate from college) to create a new life of their own.
While this decision put a strain on his relationship with his parents, Dwight feels the experience molded him into the individual he is today. “First gens are risk takers and boundary crossers,” he says, “which has many positive effects on them as they progress through life.”
As Dwight’s educational path and career became more professional, he felt more comfortable encountering people from whom he was different. In doing this, he sacrificed both mental and physical closeness with his family and community, comfort and approval in order to achieve his dreams and productively live within both middle and working class worlds.
Whether or not Dwight felt the benefits of his schooling outweighed the costs, he always has known that his education was a privilege. “I think middle class kids see education as a right, while working class kids see it as a privilege,” he says.
As emeritus professor of sociology at Madonna University and currently a lecturer in sociology at U-M, Dwight also serves as faculty advisor to the first-gen students’ group at U-M. He clearly has employed his privilege admirably in the most beneficial way possible—in helping to guide other first gens through their turbulent and risky years at the University of Michigan.