In 1929, my grandmother, a first-generation American from Czechoslovakian parents, graduated proudly from the eighth grade. That was the end of her formal education because she was needed to help run the family restaurant during the Great Depression.
Unfortunately, quitting school or completing minimal education requirements was typical among the sons and daughters of working-class families in those days. Higher education was not an option for people who could not afford it, and many parents did not encourage college, especially not for women. (See “Closing the First-Generation Gap”)
Times certainly have changed. Nearly 60 years after my grandmother quit school, I enrolled at the University of Richmond.
I grew up in Boonsboro, a small town in rural Maryland. I attended the same school as my mother and grandfather, and most of my classmates were the children of my mother’s classmates. Although my parents and grandparents never pursued higher education, I always planned to go to college. My determination was due partly to the influence of my family, who recognized my ambition and encouraged me to always strive to be the best.
I remember the day I received my first college marketing material. It was from Ithaca College in New York. I had never heard of Ithaca, but I was naïve enough to think that the college’s admission officers had sent me a personal invitation to attend their school. Every day, I would hurry home to see if I had more mail from colleges. It was one of those pamphlets that attracted me to Richmond.
One of the best decisions I ever made was applying to the University of Richmond. The skills, relationships, and opportunities that Richmond provided made me the person I am today. Who would have thought that an elective course on terrorism would have led me to become a homeland security/counterterrorism analyst? That single class inspired me to pursue opportunities in that arena before homeland security became a buzz word. In the mid-1990s, I enrolled in a national security studies program with a concentration in political violence and terrorism. I remember people asking me what I was going to do with that master’s degree. Little did I know.
Today, I wholeheartedly encourage young people to consider college—even if they think they can’t afford it or aren’t sure what they would do with a degree. Regardless of major, the University of Richmond’s stringent liberal arts curriculum gives students opportunities to learn and employ essential skills that are transferrable to all jobs. Data gathering, analysis, writing, time management, and task execution are competencies that I learned at Richmond and use every day.
More and more top employers require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. In my profession as a government consultant, I am constantly seeing more government procurements with minimal education requirements of not only a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree. My expectations for new graduates and junior employees do not revolve around expertise in a certain subject, especially in my line of work. I am looking instead for highly marketable skills that are transferable to multiple projects.
I am extremely proud to be a first-generation college graduate, and I know that my family is proud of me, too. And the fact that my degree is from UR makes me especially proud. During my sophomore year, the value of my education to my family was etched in my memory. I was home for the holidays, and I took my terminally ill grandfather to his chemo appointment. I remember him bragging to the doctor about my career plans and how smart I was. My grandfather was so proud that I was the first person in our family to go to college. Even though he did not get to see me graduate, I know he would have been proud to see me accept my diploma from the University of Richmond. He delighted in the opportunities that my education would afford me, just as the families of Richmond’s current first-generation students must enjoy watching their students take full advantage of a Richmond education.
Mary Anne Rodenhiser McKown, W’92, is a homeland security consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton in Virginia Beach with clients in the Washington, D.C., area.
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