For the last several weeks, I have been struggling with the death of a good friend who helped me survive and even thrive in college. When I learned late on a Friday night that she was too ill for home hospice but was going into residential hospice, my life became a 12-hour blaze of social media messages and constant communication. It lasted only 12 hours because that is when she died. But then it kept going. The flood of people who knew what she had given them, who knew where they would not be if not for a piece of candy, a bummed cigarette, the thing that opened the door to personhood and possibility for so many. Myself included.
You see, when I met this wonderful woman who became my boss and friend and mentor and role model, I was a first generation college student who knew so little about academia that I didn’t even know it had rules of its own, a language and a pecking order I could not see, and a hidden system navigable only with a password and secret map in a foreign language. Claudia taught me how to detect the code of that language and how to live in it with grace and spunk, even when you wish it did not exist at all. Basically, she is the first mentor-teacher-friend of my academic life. And in case you are wondering, she was the assistant to the Dean of Students.
Why am I giving you this very personal start to a post on a very impersonal and issue-oriented blog? Because I was then what so many of our students are today: first generation, unsure, afraid of the code we do not know. Claudia was someone who helped me decode in the midst of this struggle, and when I heard about her much quicker than expected death, I was planning to write here about the responsibilities inherent in a first-generation Ph.D., but then I realized that the issue is not the Ph.D. and who does what. The issue is the struggle our students face when they cannot decode the system, just like me. Who helps them? It can and should be every person in a classroom who was a first generation college student, but it must also be the folks who are “front line” for students in other ways–as professional academic advisors, advising student organizations, working in residential life, working in Student Affairs wherever student interaction happens. And, yes, in as many classrooms as possible, giving personal contact and interaction.
Basically, Claudia was someone who understood the struggle and helped so many students through it. I needed it; many others needed it. Many more will need it. The trith is that we must be the Claudias of the world offering a safe space, a friendly ear, and a roadmap of the way forward.
My own way forward finds me in China for the fourth time in 15 months working on educational development for my college, now successfully holding a 2+3 agreement in my hand. Writing this, I think of how Claudia would have viewed my worldliness and my years today. Lordy, she would have been proud–and had cause to–as without her, there would not be this version of me. And now that she is gone, who will the Claudias be?