A Fine Mesh

Brenda Bretz '95 and William G. Durden '71

Brenda Bretz '95 found an enthusiastic supporter when she first spoke with William G. Durden '71 about her research. Like her, he is a first-generation college graduate who has never felt stuck between two worlds.

Dickinson's First-Generation Graduates Ably Integrate Two Cultures

By Matt Getty

When William G. Durden ’71 earned his diploma on a May afternoon in 1971, he looked out over the freshly trimmed lawn of Dickinson’s campus and saw something that has stayed with him to this day. His father, who enlisted in the military at 15, never went to college and worked as rodeo rider, minor-league baseball player and hospital cook to ensure that his son could, wasn’t sitting in the throng of parents on the lawn. Instead, he was looking on with pride from just outside the college’s limestone walls.

“I remember seeing him there, and it struck me as very symbolic,” Durden recalls. “He couldn’t sit with everybody else. He had to be outside that circle.”

Brenda Bretz ’95 was a secretary in the art department in 1984 when she had a moment of panic while planning The Trout Gallery’s first reception. Coming from what she describes as a “very, very working-class background,” Bretz had never been to an art gallery and didn’t know what kind of hors d’oeuvres she should serve at the opening, but she couldn’t ask her family for advice. Her parents didn’t support her desire to take college courses and disapproved of her association with faculty and others from the college who were from a different class.

“That was a real moment for me,” Bretz recalls. “In my family’s minds, anyone with money was bad, and now I was in the midst of the enemy. But I liked it. I felt encouraged by these people, I liked these people, and my parents didn’t like that.”

In the Enemy’s Midst

Feeling torn between two worlds is common for first-generation college graduates. Even after moving on to successful careers, graduates whose parents didn’t go to college straddle two cultures. Most commentary on this group identifies this as a problem. Books like Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams argue that first-generation college graduates feel alienated from their roots and disconnected from the higher-status classes they’ve joined.

But Bretz, who started taking classes at Dickinson in 1984 and now is the college’s associate provost for curriculum and a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, never saw it that way.

“Everything I’d read said that this creates all kinds of turmoil for people, that they’re unhappy because they’re in a kind of limbo,” she explains. “And I thought, ‘You know, this hasn’t really been my experience. I’m happy with where I am, so why is this the only narrative that we’re hearing about?’ ”

Lost in Two Worlds?

That question inspired her dissertation topic—a study of first-generation Dickinson graduates of the last 50 years. She aims to discover whether or not their education left them feeling lost between worlds, like those featured in Lubrano’s book, or perfectly happy with where Dickinson has taken them, like Bretz.

To begin her research, Bretz met with Durden, who supported the project based on his own experience as a first-generation student, and sent an e-mail on Bretz’s behalf to 2,000 alumni in December 2010 seeking their participation. In just two days, Bretz received more than 500 responses. Though she only needed to interview 15 subjects to establish her dissertation’s validity, the overwhelming response prompted her to interview 39.

“I can’t even begin to say enough about how appreciative I am of our alumni,” she says. “They’ve just been incredible. And I think the huge response speaks to how supportive Dickinson alumni are and how eager people were to talk about this.”

Perhaps they were so eager because what they had to say contradicted all of the published findings about this demographic. “What I found was that the participants don’t fit, like others, but the difference is that they don’t care—in fact, they’re quite proud of it,” explains Bretz. “There isn’t this anxiety that’s been discussed in a lot of the literature. They don’t feel like, ‘Oh, woe is me. I don’t fit in anywhere, and I’m a failure.’ Their attitude is, ‘I don’t fit, and that’s OK.’ ”

No Limits on Mobility

The reason, she says, is simple—practice. “They grew up with a strong sense of individuality because they didn’t fit when they were growing up. They already stood out from their family and peers, so they had a lot of practice at not fitting in, and it didn’t keep them from reaching their goals.”

The experience is one with which Durden can identify. Raised by parents who grew up during the Great Depression, he recalls learning the importance of education but receiving a mixed message regarding upward mobility.

“My mother used to take me to New York City, and she would point people out, saying, ‘Those are the wealthy people, and look at their shoes; they’re shined. Don’t forget to shine your shoes.’ But then my parents would also tell me, ‘Remember, we’re not them.’ So it was almost like, ‘You’ll get an education, you’ll be successful, but you won’t be them.’ And that was OK, because I came away from that thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just be myself then.’ ”

When his father worked as a hospital cook, a short bus ride whisked Durden from shooting the breeze with the kitchen staff to hob-nobbing with the sons of CEOs at Albany Academy, the private school he’d entered in the eighth grade after his parents scrimped and saved for years to pay the tuition. “I was balancing worlds very early, so I got very comfortable doing that,” he says.

With this foundation, Durden deftly managed the two cultures during his college years, understanding that he couldn’t talk about Plato’s views on epistemology at the family dinner table. Years later, he still straddles the two worlds gracefully. A photo of a ramshackle farmhouse on a desk in his Old West office shows that, rather than viewing his roots as something to hide, he continues to draw strength from them.

“See that—that’s where my grandparents lived,” Durden says, a flash of pride lighting up his eyes. “I think they actually kept it up better than it looks there, but they were farmers. That’s a field in Alabama. I remember—that’s where I came from, and that gives everything you do a different context. That gives you a real drive.”

Climbing the Rungs

In addition to this sense of individuality and determination, Bretz notes that respondents felt that Dickinson itself did a lot to help them comfortably climb the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The small class sizes and close working relationships with faculty, they say, helped them acclimate to a new social reality.

“The way these participants view their life now is directly related to the fact that they went to Dickinson,” Bretz explains. “I don’t think they would feel the same way if they went to a different kind of school. Several of them spoke about the importance of working with faculty on research projects and noted how that developed their confidence.”

Durden takes it a step further, arguing that the college’s character makes it an ideal training ground for first-generation undergraduates. “Dickinson has always been a place of civility that lacks pretention,” he says. “That’s something I’ve tried to get at in what I’ve written about, what I call this ‘mid-Atlantic pragmatism,’ this attitude that separates us from the New England schools. I think this atmosphere is very welcoming to first-generation students.”

That’s not to say that Bretz’s research subjects didn’t report challenges after Commencement. One recalled an awkward moment during a recent Thanksgiving dinner when members of her extended family complained that people in higher tax brackets weren’t paying enough taxes, and she realized she was one of the people they were railing against. Another noted that though his father had taken great pride in his graduation, their relationship grew tense afterwards, with his father often accusing him of “thinking he was better” than the rest of his family.

“It’s difficult because your parents want you to move on, but you’re moving away from them,” says Durden, who experienced similar challenges with his parents.

Navigating the Middle

Still, unlike the dominant characterization of first-generation graduates as unhappy in either world, Bretz’s subjects say they’re happy to navigate the middle. “Some of them are still wrestling with how to maintain civil relationships with their families, but it doesn’t cause them turmoil or make them question their decisions,” she says. “Their independence and determination allow them to be comfortable where they are. They don’t feel the need to live the way their parents did, and they don’t feel they need to do all the things that society says they should do as members of a higher-status group. They decide the rules. … It’s a completely different response from what you see in the literature.”

Encouraged by this response, Bretz has begun working with Joyce Bylander, special assistant to the president for institutional and diversity initiatives, and Erica Burg, assistant director of financial aid, to develop programming that ensures Dickinson continues to serve first-generation students effectively. In the late 1990s, when Bylander began working at Dickinson, she recalls that the number of first-generation students, 25 percent, was a point of pride. Today, it’s roughly half that.

“That percentage is much lower now because more people are going to college in general but also because first-generation students typically need more financial aid,” says Bylander. “So now it’s something we have to pay attention to in terms of access. It’s critical for us to be able to keep access open for first-generation college students.”

Assuring Open Access

In addition to seeking more funding for scholarships like the Samuel G. Rose ’58 and Posse scholarships, which have brought in dozens of first-generation students in the last few years, Bylander recommends that the college establish support programs for first-generation students. Some of the students’ needs are addressed through programs assisting students of color or financial-aid students, but that’s not enough.

“We don’t really call out to this group as a group and say, ‘First-generation college students, come to this meeting,’ ” says Bylander. “So the real challenge is how to signal that we really do want to serve them. They often fly under the radar. When you’re already feeling like a fish out of water, you don’t always want to raise your hand, so we often don’t know a student is in trouble until they’re really in trouble—like it’s halfway through the semester, and they don’t have their books. … We need to make sure we have the right safety nets.”

As Bretz, Bylander and Burg strive to create those safety nets, Bretz’s dissertation indicates that they’re building on a strong foundation. Yet further work is vital, say Bretz and Bylander, because of the life-changing potential Dickinson holds for first-generation students.

Opening the Door

“It’s important that Dickinson never become an elitist institution,” says Bylander. “Education still is the door to better health, better prosperity, better outcomes on every possible measure, and we have to make sure that we keep that open for families who have never had that experience. Once you graduate, you change your family’s future, you change the course of history in your family.”

Anyone looking for proof need look no further than Old West. After all, while his father may have felt compelled to stand outside those limestone walls during Commencement, you can be sure that Durden never will.

Published January 2, 2013