Another set of newly matriculated students, fresh from secondary school commencements and summer adventures, has arrived on our college and university campuses. Some are scions of wealth and privilege; others are sons of immigrants and daughters of the poor. Filled with hope and aspiration, yet harboring fears and uncertainty, each student is a tabula rasa of potentialities yet unrealized.
In a world of increasing change, their higher education matters as never before. It is a transformative experience, this transcription of knowledge, ideas, culture, friendship and opportunity onto each generation of young students. It is also a sacred trust, a societal compact older even than Chaucer's tales of the clerk who would gladly learn and gladly teach. On this, I speak from experience, for education profoundly changed my life, as it has so many others.
In my final year of high school, I had a long conversation with the high school counselor about my future. In this regard, I was not unique. Such conversations are commonplace in U.S. high schools as students make sometimes uncertain and stumbling plans for the transition from school to adulthood.
As a high school student, I was uncertain of many things, but my next step was clear and unambiguous. I was definitely college bound, and I had known this for almost as long as polysyllabic memory allowed. My parents repeated the college mantra with almost messianic zeal and desperation; there was neither uncertainty in their conviction nor doubt in their belief. My college education was not a possibility; it was a future certainty in an extended family where high school was the apex of educational attainment. I was my parents' only child; I would attend college; and I would secure a better economic future than had been their lot.
I learned the emotional appeal and pragmatic importance of this lesson early, born of my parents' quiet desperation and unrequited yearning, of their own educational hopes lost and economic dreams deferred. We weren't middle class; we weren't lower middle class; we were Ozarks and Appalachian poor. (See A Taste of Sherbet.) It was not the genteel poverty of personal choice, but the old-fashioned kind that leaves one awake at night worrying whether the old car will get to work on threadbare tires, whether the garden will produce enough food for canning to last the winter, and whether the last dregs of the too small paycheck will stretch to the next.
My family was not special, nor is any sympathy retrospectively sought or warranted; there were others with more severe financial constraints. These were simply hard economic truths, misery still shared by far too many on the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's War on Poverty. In my case, they were a consequence of my father's own roughly fifth grade education and a hardscrabble rural Arkansas economy incapable of sustaining more, no matter how hard or how long he worked.
In their passion, my parents were like millions of other families who saw higher education as economic prestidigitation, a spira mirabilis in their child's path to a better life. They were unquestionably correct, for education is the highest probability mechanism for jumping multiple economic classes in a single generation.
Even today, I marvel at the steely determination with which my parents approached their objective. When I entered the first grade, my parents began saving money for my college education. On my father's $40/week income, this was no small task. With a dollar here and there, they slowly began buying $25 U.S. Savings Bonds, earmarked for my college education. As a boy, I distinctly remember my mother proudly showing me the bond certificates, where I was listed as a co-owner. With that love and sacrifice, I knew I could not let them down.
I became a bibliophile, ravenously devouring almost anything within the reach and collection of a small town library, for reading was transport to vistas scarcely imagined. (Bibliophile, it is such an evocative and passionate word, far more than the English calque – a book lover). Like those in the allegory of Plato's Cave, I discovered a deeper truth, that knowledge was itself a precious thing, that ideas themselves had power. At age nine, I found science, which has remained the abiding passion of my academic and professional life. Oh, I was definitely going to college, but not just for the reasons my parents imagined. (See Eudora, You Got the Love?)
Years later, blessedly supported by academic scholarships and need-based financial aid, I found myself ensconced in college. Physically, I luxuriated in the newfound joy of hot showers and central heat, and I marveled at new and interesting cafeteria foods. Intellectually, the warp and woof of history and culture inspired me; the art filled my soul with wonder, and science and computing were joys of my life.
Despite the intellectual and cultural cornucopia of university life, I remained plagued by uncertainty and fear for multiple years. Did I belong here? Could I really make it? What if I failed? How could I face my family and myself if I did? Was I a mere poser, soon to be exposed and ejected as unworthy? In retrospect, these were just one manifestation of imposter syndrome, all too common for young students. As with many others, elements of that early fear remain, a reminder of the past.
Beyond the fears and uncertainty, the unrelenting barrage of new experiences was dazzling and confusing. My parents and family could neither comfort nor advise me, for I was far outside their realm of experience. I was excited but alone, gripped in the throes of quiet desperation, albeit not of Thoreau's type.
I now know this sense of isolation and inchoate fear is a common experience for first-generation college attendees, many of whom lack, as I did, both a social safety net and cultural referents. The commonplace to some can be frighteningly new and intimidating to others who carry emotional and social burdens unseen. Being a young adult is difficult enough in any circumstance, but braving a new world alone is often terrifying. Thus, it is especially important that universities nurture and support first year students, whether from the cities and communities of Iowa or the global village that is planet Earth.
My parents were right; a college education was and is a path to a brighter economic future. Unlike them, I was fortunate never to face an economic Hobson's choice; via the knowledge of science, engineering and computing I acquired in college and graduate school, I have been economically fortunate and secure. I have also been blessed to pursue my intellectual passions in collaboration with likeminded colleagues around the world. For this, I am extraordinarily grateful for both the belief and sacrifice of my parents and for the patience and dedication of those who taught and encouraged me.
As I have learned from personal experience, education at a public research university provides so much more than the opportunity to leap economic barriers. It is a gateway to a different Weltanschauung, an appreciation of diverse cultures, history and perspectives; a recognition of the transformative power of ideas; and an understanding that the preservation and creation of knowledge are noble things. In the crucible that is public higher education, we share our passion for the world of ideas,create new knowledge, transfer insights to a new generation, unlock waking dreams of the future, and, yes, create new economic opportunities.
It is why I have been proud and humbled to be part of great public research universities such as Iowa. I pay a debt forward from my parents sacrifice. Come, let us gladly learn and gladly teach.