Gutierrez: My parents didn’t finish college, but they knew I would

Pallas Gutierrez, Columnist

My mother was accepted to University at Albany as a pre-med student in the early 1980s. She attended for two years, hated the program environment and didn’t go back. She started working in theatres in upstate New York running spotlights. Now, she’s the head electrician at a major Broadway theatre. In fact, she was the first woman head electrician at any theatres owned by her company, Jujamcyn.

My father went to Cuyahoga Community College, but did not complete a degree. He got a job working at a theatre in Cleveland, and worked on the set crew for a few movies. Now, he works at a scene shop building sets for everything from Broadway musicals to cruise ship laser tag arenas.

Despite not finishing college, my parents are book smart. My mom watches The Great Courses and reads biographies of historical figures (right now she’s super interested in Lincoln). Both my parents can discuss my classes with me, even when I talk about niche subjects like Latinx adaptations of Classical Greek plays. This can only reflect my experience, but the assumption that non-college educated people are unintelligent is baseless.

They both also have incredible technical intelligence. My dad can look at a piece of wood or metal and tell you its approximate dimensions, usually within 2 inches. My mom can replace any iPhone screen better than some repair shops.

At my high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, many kids’ parents were highly educated and had “normal” careers, like being lawyers or running restaurants. While no one at that school ever said anything explicit to me about my parents’ lack of college degrees, there was always a moment of pause when it came up for the first time. During the college application process, having to explain multiple times that I had no legacy anywhere was exhausting in the face of peers who had dual legacies at Yale. By no means did everyone at my high school have highly educated parents, but there was definitely an aura of judgement around people who lacked those connections.

While neither of my parents finished four years of college, my decision to do so wasn’t a dramatic one to them. According to Northwestern, I am a first-generation college student, but in a more real-world interpretation, I am not. Student Enrichment Services provides incredible, important resources for students determined to be first-gen and low income, but I don’t feel like I need or even deserve those resources. My dad’s father has an engineering degree and worked for NASA, and my grandfather on my mother’s side has a Ph.D. in psychology and taught statistics at Adelphi University for many years. My older brother just finished his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Connecticut, and most of my older cousins have college degrees. It was not a surprise to anybody in my family that I planned to go to college.

People make assumptions when my last name is combined with the statement that neither of my parents have four year degrees. They assume that my parents immigrated here, that they have low paying jobs, that I grew up in a low-income house. My parents were both born in New York State, my dad in Schenectady and my mom on Long Island. And while my life has been impacted by the financial crises over the past twenty years, I have still never lacked something that I needed.

My parents have weird jobs that create weird hours. As Broadway stagehands, they usually started working at 5 p.m. and wouldn’t get home until 11 p.m. or midnight. Growing up around Broadway people definitely shaped my view on higher education; most chorus dancers and singers I’ve met don’t have college degrees, but a lot of stars do. Many stagehands started working right out of high school, but designers often have MFAs. There was a period in my life when I thought about not going to college and instead getting a job or going on tour as a stagehand. Ultimately, I decided that college was the path for me: I’m an academic person, and I want to learn more about the world before I go out into it.

I’m glad for my parents’ backgrounds. They are supportive of and excited about me going to college; they understand that it’s the path that makes sense for me. But if I had decided not to go to college, they would have supported that too. Unlike some other “first-generation” college students, I was never pressured to either go or not go to college; I was allowed to choose the path that made the most sense for me. My parents encourage me to pursue my academic dreams, like an MFA in dramaturgy, and my other goals, like creating great theatre, becoming a better fencer and crocheting blankets for my friends. I never wish that my parents’ paths were different, because I wouldn’t be the person I am if my parents had traditional educations or jobs.

As is true with many other groups of people, there is no one first-generation experience that can be extrapolated to represent all others. Some first-generation students are first-generation Americans, are immigrants themselves and/or are low income, but by no means are first-generation students a homogenous group; it is only one word to describe a multiplicity of experiences.

A. Pallas Gutierrez is a Communication freshman. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.