First-Generation College Students as Post-Election Go-Betweens

Stacy Torres

Contrary to prevailing ivory tower stereotypes, many academics work in less of a bubble than it might appear. How do we engage students with different viewpoints and help them engage home communities and places faraway from academia?

Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Ryan Yang

With the brute reality of a Trump administration sinking in, it’s tempting to give up on talk. But as we move forward with taking action, I’d urge people not to abandon talking, especially to people of different political affiliations. Given the stakes, continuing conversations with people who disagree with us is critical to long-term organizing against the threats of Trump era policies that could reverberate for generations

Contrary to prevailing ivory tower stereotypes, many academics work in less of a bubble than it might appear. Take my institution, for example. I teach sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY, and my students come from a wide swath of New York State, including New York City, Long Island, the Lower Hudson Valley, and economically struggling areas upstate. For many the journey to college is more profound than geography: Underrepresented minority students make up 40 percent of our undergraduate student body and 43 percent of students are the first in their family to attend college. The demographics are similar to many state educational systems nationwide, including the UC system in which underrepresented minorities comprised 27 percent of undergraduates and 42 percent were first-generation college students.

We shouldn’t underestimate our working-class, first-generation college students as bridges to communities outside the proverbial ivory tower.

We shouldn’t underestimate our working-class, first-generation college students as bridges to communities outside the proverbial ivory tower. My students’ journeys resemble something akin to immigrating to another country, as they learn new customs, gain exposure to new ideas, and develop new identities, political and otherwise. The liberal values we expose them to on college campuses will go home with them. We should try our hardest to understand where they’re coming from and encourage them to talk to their different constellations of family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

I began this journey almost twenty years ago. Like many of my students I grew up working-class, the first in my family to attend college and the only to graduate. I have as many degrees as my younger sister has children. These days I straddle both worlds and don’t feel completely at ease in either. At times in my academic life, I’ve felt as though I’ve wandered into the recent SNL skit, “The Bubble,” where mostly white, similarly dressed people nod in agreement in an expensive, glass-encased urban area resembling brownstone Brooklyn.

I was surprised but not as shocked at the election results as many academic friends and colleagues. The outcome stirred memories of my conversations with people I’ve loved who voted Republican. While I didn’t always agree with their positions, my proximity forced me to listen and find common ground where possible. One of the challenges to breaking down this bubble is that many academics from middle and upper-class backgrounds don’t have much practice interacting with working-class or conservative folks. A grad school friend came from a family of PhDs, and academia was the family business. Several of my classmates’ parents were professors. My father still has only the faintest idea of what I do.  Even those of us from humble beginnings get rusty as we distance ourselves by choice and circumstance from the communities we grew up in.

I hadn’t chatted with my father about the election (as a legal resident he cannot vote; as a skeptic, he thinks all politicians are corrupt anyway).  But his reaction surprised me. “I’m very upset,” he said the day after. He worried about Trump’s hostility to undocumented immigrants and his racist and sexist language. I thought he’d be neutral or perhaps even support the outcome. Despite facing discrimination and forging diverse friendships (a natural byproduct of living in New York City for more than 40 years), my father internalized a lot of racism. He entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant from Chile in 1975 and received his share of ethnic slurs and other discriminatory behavior. Growing up I felt horrified and ashamed at his misogynistic language and anger when he laughed with approval at Archie Bunker’s racist quips on All in the Family re-runs, a stark contrast to my mother’s tolerance and the progressive views of my schoolmates’ parents.

An office-hours conversation with my student, a young Dominican-American woman, reminded me of how far my father has come. Prior to the election she described a conversation she overheard in Spanish at a beauty salon in New York City between women Trump voters. “They said they hoped he kept out lazy immigrants,” she told me, surprised.  Other students, particularly white men, spoke about trying to understand Trump support in their home communities and their bumpy road to a political identity at odds with their upbringing. Today my father is a more tolerant and respectful person. I like to think my sisters and I contributed to his evolution, standing up to his bullying and disagreeing with his bigoted views over the years.

To support students beginning these discussions, we need to ensure they’re comfortable in the classroom. That doesn’t mean condoning intolerance, but we shouldn’t assume the same outrage about the new administration. In past election cycles I remember my discomfort with subtle references to we, our side, and jokes about far-flung conservatives that people only interacted with during strained Thanksgivings. I rarely mentioned how the thoughtful people in my life felt let down by Democrats. My mother stopped voting Democratic in 1992, slighted by Hillary Clinton’s remarks about choosing career over staying home to bake cookies. After losing her secretarial job in the early 1990s recession, Mom had no choice but to string together side jobs like selling Avon and stuffing envelopes while staying home with her four daughters. She baked cookies for us since she couldn’t afford to purchase store-bought goodies. Or my Libertarian ex-husband, a poor kid from the Lower East Side who clawed his way out of a chaotic household and read Ayn Rand cover-to-cover despite growing up with a portrait of JFK in his family’s tiny apartment.

Opening communication with students requires patience. I often need to remind myself of the topsy-turvy nature of forming political identity, especially for my first-generation college students who’ve traveled a great distance and feel pulled in all directions.  Where do they come from and where do they want to go? The journey is scary but exhilarating with potential. I plan to redouble my efforts to put myself in my students’ shoes and help them learn from each other.

How do we engage students with different viewpoints and help them engage home communities and places faraway from academia? Sociology lends itself to these exchanges.

How do we engage students with different viewpoints and help them engage home communities and places faraway from academia? Sociology lends itself to these exchanges. In a course I co-taught at NYU, we had students participate in family policy debates and randomly assigned them to argue the conservative or progressive perspective. For our mostly liberal students, arguing “the other side” forced them to take seriously views different than their own. Last semester my students wrote an op-ed about any topic they wanted related to the course’s focus on gender inequality. Many didn’t believe at first they had enough “expertise” to say something. These assignments asked them to join the public conversation, to make a persuasive argument and support their opinion with facts. My seniors collected their own data for mini-research projects in which they interviewed peers, family members, and a range of community members including older adults, police officers, and a trans Latina neighbor.

For those students from more affluent backgrounds who hail from families with Republican and Trump supporters, sociology pedagogy can also help open these lines of communication, collaboration, and exchange. Students can interview family members about their backgrounds and the formation of their political beliefs. And sending them on their own data collection missions may help bridge other differences. For instance, students can take field trips to different campus-based political clubs and interview people with opposing views. I could imagine exchange programs that last a day to a semester between students in more liberal and conservative areas or at elite private universities and state and city schools (think a Stanford-Cal State or CUNY-Columbia exchange). Dialogue can also begin earlier than college. My department’s “University in the High School” program representative consults with area high schools who want to offer sociology courses. The visits and feedback we provide offers another opportunity to build these bridges for discussion earlier in students’ educational trajectories and a path to encourage studying sociology in the future.

I cannot predict what students will remember from my courses, if anything, but I won’t regret asking them to present a coherent argument and to understand other people’s perspectives on their own lives. Given collective fatigue and uncertainty, it’s tempting to commiserate in the warm company of those who share our political views.  But preparing students to participate in democracy requires that we encourage them not to dodge uncomfortable conversations. And as we academics strive to lead by example in this endeavor, we can deepen our empathy by learning from the dispatches of our first-generation college students as they traverse campus and home.