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From one first-generation college student to those wondering if they can do it: Take the plunge

With gratitude to all my mentors

College wasn’t talked about much in my family growing up. Our parents were “old world / old school.” I know they wanted the best for us, but I think they thought graduating from high school was enough education for any gal, and then it was on to marriage and a family. Fate had another plan for me, and I am grateful. I humbly share my story to encourage others.

Dad: an eighth-grade graduate

My Dad grew up in the deep South, the eldest of three children. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade to help support the family. He told us stories about selling watermelons door-to-door, and him overselling how hot it was outside to increase his sales. He went on to establish his own paving business. He was an intelligent, hard-working, self-made man. He wanted more for his three daughters, providing us with a much better childhood than he had been able to experience. I was the youngest, and tragically, he passed away when I was 13. But, he did get to see my two sisters graduate from high school.

The stresses of my Dad’s work and life took a toll on him, and the coping skill he had learned growing up, unfortunately, was alcohol. I always wondered, if he had the benefit of the eye-opening experience of college and further education, would he have had a less stressful life and learned other ways to cope with challenges?

Mom: made it through high school

Although my Mom’s childhood was far from rosy, she did at least get to graduate from high school. She was the big sister of her two younger brothers, taking on a parental role much of the time until she married my Dad and soon became his right hand in the business. Actually, we all pitched in running the business. From the time I was 9 or 10 years old, I was answering office phones, and helping my Mom and Dad do payroll and pay bills. It was a great education in itself. But, after my Dad passed away, my Mom couldn’t sustain the business on her own. She took retail jobs, and we were always okay, with the help of other family. But, it made me aware that I better do something to be able to support myself.

Me: after high school, no real direction, but I dove in

I always liked school, so after high school, college was appealing to me. My Mom had warmed up to the idea enough to not get in my way for the most part, so long as I went to UNR, where she was living part of the time, and we had other family. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I better do something. Teachers always told me I was a good writer and I was the editor of my high school newspaper, so I decided to pursue journalism. Without a parent familiar with higher education, I navigated the University catalogue and campus, figuring it out as I went and getting help from numerous caring professors and professionals on campus. I was able to get some scholarships and always worked at least part time. I finished my classes in 3 ½ years, then got a full-time job as a public relations assistant for The Salvation Army that I got approved to also serve as my required internship (thank you, Professor Warren Lerude). I graduated in 1986, with President Sandoval.

After college graduation: curve balls and grad school

Fast forward seven years later, I was divorced supporting myself and my two daughters, very glad to have my education, as well as to have my Mom around to help care for my daughters while I worked. I also earned my master’s degree, with help and constant support from great mentors such as Travis Linn, former Dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism. Earning my master’s wasn’t without bumps and breaks, but Travis and I would run into each, and he kept prodding me: “When are you going to finish that master’s, kiddo?”

Earning my master’s not only honed my skills, but also improved my confidence. The highly acclaimed writer and gritty-witty Robert Laxalt helped us to examine classics in Literary Journalism class. His praise of my short stories, and just sitting alongside other professionals for whom I had great respect, was a great confidence booster. My two daughters got to see their mom walk across the stage at Lawlor during a cold December day, and receive her master’s. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had set the bar for them. They both went on to earn their bachelor’s degrees at UNR, and then their master’s degrees in New York City. 

Education: The weapon of mass in-struction

One of my favorite teachers, Madame Fricke, who taught me French and so much more, told us more than once, “We women need all of our weapons,” referring to education as a tool to help us through life. She was a spirited, savvy survivor of World War II, who drifted into stories of her entertaining Nazi soldiers upstairs, while harboring Jewish friends in the basement.

So, I pass along the same to young people today: “We need all of our weapons.” Pursue a college education, even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do with your life. Few of us do at 17 or 18 years old. Don’t stress about it. “Do what you like, and you will do well,” is advice that served me well from another great mentor, Dr. Grotegut, for whom I worked in the University’s Department of Foreign Languages. A college education will provide you with lifelong lessons from great mentors, open your eyes to so much, and open doors for your future. Just do it. (Swoosh 😉)

(Editor's note: This week colleges and universities from throughout the country are commemorating "First-Generation College Celebration" as a way to honor and recognize those students from today, yesterday and tomorrow who will be become the first members of their families to attend college.)

Claudene Wharton photo
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