Little Details (4/1/10)

Thank you, Mom, Dad and Mrs. Andersen

April 1, 2010

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

It’s April. College acceptances arrive soon. Some among us are raised to go to college. Others experience active discouragement. Some choose not to go. Others feel they lack the choice.

This column offers reflections from friends who were “first generation” college students. Each demonstrated the tenacity to realize one of life’s great intangibles: a college degree.

Respondents answered two simple questions: How did college impact your life? Who, if anyone, encouraged you to go?


Teacher: Somehow I knew there was more to learn than what was offered in high school. I learned the world wasn’t as black and white as my parents believed. College made me feel part of a bigger world. I learned to be self-motivated, self-reliant, curious and a better person.

No one encouraged me. I just knew in my bones that I was going. In fact, my dad on his deathbed said, “Don’t go,” fearing the local college’s tuition would be burdensome for my mother. My mother helped me and I always worked. I saw college as a way to a better life. I really enjoyed reading and writing, so I didn’t think it was going to be too bad!


IT consultant: I was the youngest of four. There was never any talk of college at my house. Neither my parents nor siblings attended college. My mother dropped out of high school.

I will never forget the person who encouraged me to attend college — Paul Snell. He asked me the summer following high school what I was doing. I said I’d just continue working at McDonald’s. He told me it was never too late to apply and go to school in the fall. I started at community college, eventually transferring to a four-year college where I earned my degree.

I make more money than I could have dreamed of. My first year out of college, I earned more than my father ever did. I love feeling part of a group that makes decisions that can (hopefully) positively impact others.


Priest: My parents and teachers encouraged me. Most of my friends intended to go to college. They saw my abilities and helped me to see them. One teacher (fifth grade), Mrs. Andersen, told me if I did not go to college I would find the rest of my life boring. College strengthened my ability to think clearly and for myself, rather than following the crowd.


College professor: I was the first in my family to go to college. The motivation was simple: Parents who valued the education they themselves did not have the opportunity to receive, being convinced it was your sacred duty to live up to your intellectual potential, and the pride of your family and ethnos. I also had supportive teachers who were kind enough to live by the motto “… treat someone as they ought to be and they will become what they ought to be.” Goethe had it right.


Soldier serving in Iraq: College is years of study, but it’s also an investment in yourself. It is something intangible and no one can ever take that away from you.


Former teacher: My father worked every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. running a grocery store and knew that, “even though we were girls,” my sister and I would need more opportunities than were available to him.

College gave me many chances. Just being in a place where there was more than working at Kmart or the shoe factory opened my eyes tremendously.

College gave me an opportunity to choose a career path instead of falling into the one already trodden upon by my family. After teaching and marrying, I went right back to what my mother was — a stay-at-home mom. But I did this with the full realization that my journey was taken with me choosing my own way. I can choose and keep on choosing all through life because I know what’s out there.


Educational administrator: College impacted my life greatly. My parents were immigrants who spoke very little English. They encouraged me to go to college since it would help me get a better paying job. While in high school, the question of “if” I should go to college never came up. The statement of “when” I attended college was the only conversation my teachers had with me.


Physical therapist: College impacted my sense of who I was. It gave me a stronger sense of my desires, goals and direction. It helped me be more self-sufficient and learn from situations that were not academic as well as from academic situations. College was a time to learn total responsibility for myself.


As a fellow “first generation,” I remain eternally grateful to folks who encouraged me. Many of Williston’s kids, by virtue of the relative wealth of our community, are college bound. Who among us will reach out to be that Mrs. Andersen or Mr. Snell for promising kids needing extra encouragement? Consider the possibilities.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or