In my small town community, it’s tradition to find a job as soon as you are able to drive. Nearly everyone goes directly into the workforce following high school, working as electricians, landscapers, mechanics, or some other form of skilled labor. This trend made it difficult for me to justify attending college, and ultimately a large, four-year university as a Psychology major. My sense is the decision to attend college carries an implicit stigma within my community for reasons to be discussed. This might come as a surprise to others who know higher education as one of the most reliable pathways towards upward mobility in America. In future posts, I hope to explore the topic of Higher Education VS. “Alternative” Education. Alternative education meaning the career training for skilled jobs that typically do not require a four-year degree. This debate is one that runs close to home as many people feel that “alternative” education should be promoted more than higher education. I hope you find the topic interesting, engaging, and provoking. In order to understand why this topic is relevant to me, it will make the most sense to begin the series by examining my family’s history of work.
As I mentioned in my first blog post, I am a first generation college student. This means neither of my parents attended or received education beyond high school. To my parents and many in my community, I was a 21st century pioneer, radical and risk-taking. I had departed from the traditional ways of my family, and decided to explore a new dimension of opportunity. In a way, this led me to live the past few years balanced between two vastly different cultures – College/White-collar VS. Workforce/Blue-collar. Here are a two examples of the cultural standards set for my life (very summarized).
Tough Acts to Follow – My Opa
Following their marriage in the Netherlands, my Oma and Opa (Dutch Grandma and Grandpa) immigrated across the Atlantic to Canada. With little to survive on, my Opa took responsibility for the love of his life and took on whatever jobs he could in order to keep food on the table. The history between then and their arrival in Grand Rapids, MI remains unknown to me (Side note: Recently, my grandparents untold history strikes me as sad. There is too much value in one’s family history for it not to be told, saved, and treasured). He spent the rest of his working life as a painter, mastering his craft until the arthritis in his joints slowed him down to a halt. He found pleasure, self-worth, and dignity in his work. Today, it is clear from his slanted fingers he spent countless hours stroking back and forth while gripping a paintbrush. His history of honest, hard work in a skilled trade (not to mention his immense compassion, curiosity, and sense of adventure) created opportunities for future generations such as mine in a completely new country. That was fulfillment for him.
Tough Acts to Follow – My Dad
Since he was old enough to work, my Dad has been employed. One weekend, I was able to escape my studies in Ann Arbor, and enjoy a home-cooked meal with my parents on a Saturday evening. Nearly every Saturday we ate grilled pork loin, golden potatoes, and a fresh salad from out home garden; it was a welcome interruption to my chicken and rice routine. We began talking about his childhood. He told me how his first job was selling newspapers on the street corner to passerbys, then he worked at his Grandpa’s grocery store. He and my great grandpa would go to the farmer’s market early in the mornings to select their produce for the day. After the grocery store, he worked at a bakery, creating pastries, rolls, bagels, and bread for restaurant owners. Eventually, he moved onto his current career as a heavy machinery fabricator. For the past 25+ years he has worked on industrial balers, compactors, and large over-head doors. Today, at 56 years old, he spends most of his time managing the shop rather than running around on service calls. He brings home the occasional story of an obnoxious coworker or a poorly designed system, but I have never once heard him complain that the work is too difficult, too dirty, or beyond his pay grade. He knows what must be done to support his family and has dedicated his life towards this cause.
When I decided I wanted to study Psychology, transfer to the University of Michigan, and now attend graduate school, I placed these blue collar beginnings and traditions in jeopardy. That’s what it felt like at least. Why were they being placed at risk? My entire family history and the similar histories of those I have grown up around, have shaped my perception of what work is. For many of those in my community, school is not work, especially for something like Psychology. Work is sweaty faces, grimy pants, greasy rags, and cut hands. It’s shovels, hammers, levels, ladders, wrenches, ratchets, drills, and heavy machinery. People who define work as such believe in the meritocracy of our society, that if you work hard enough, you can earn your part of the American Dream. They believe handouts deprive individuals of the dignity to be self-sustaining, so they will work extra hours to avoid it. They have watched as college students, a group I belong to, have whined and complained about menial setbacks that pale in comparison to the reality awaiting them after college. Additionally, college costs A LOT of money and time and does not always produce immediate results, or more importantly, a paycheck. I have talked to a few people who never want to return to these communities after being “enlightened” at institutions of “higher learning”. They are tired of their community members’ “narrow-minded” ways. I would like to think I do not give up that easily on people, of any kind, let alone people that have something incredibly valuable to contribute to society. Either way, this legacy, tradition, and subculture was now being put at risk by me because I established a presence in a new community. With regards to student life, I was unable to relate to my friends and family. As a man in my community, the area of work stood out especially to me as one that I would not be able to relate to anyone on. I would not longer be contributing tot he manual labor force as much as my Dad and the rest of my community was. I perceived they felt that I had turned my back on them. My language of distrust is intentional, because there is a certain level of wariness to the white collar community in my circles. A modern manifestation circulated several years ago in a Facebook Photo that read, “Men in denim built this country… Men in suits will destroy it.”
How was I supposed to cope with living as a white collar future bound student from a blue collar community?
This was only one side to the dissonance I felt by attending college. The other side was that my life experiences and values were vastly different from those who I met in class or on campus. Today’s college campuses are an almost direct contrast to this working-class, blue collar tradition I had grown up with. After three years of living on the University of Michigan’s campus, I still ask, “How am I going to cope with the differences between my home culture and college culture?” I hope to address this dilemma in this series. Specifically, I hope to narrow down my understanding of how I, as a prospective future educator, can attend college, advocate for higher education, and help those in college find success in whatever major they choose to pursue, AND advocate for skilled labor and amplify the voices of my blue-collar, working-class community. In short, I think I am trying to find the logical consistency of my current position as a university student. I hope that in promoting these skilled job options that lead to fulfilling lives, I can help bring working-class voices back into the national spotlight and conversation.
Questions to consider:
Have you ever gone against status quo and had to tiptoe between two (sub)cultures? If so, what strategies did you use to maintain relationships? Do you ever feel like running away from your situation altogether? Of these two groups I have described, who do you think has the loudest voice in our society today and why? What specific examples can you think of? How can we bridge this experience and knowledge gap that seems to divide us? Does one need to relate to people to fit in? Can we embrace differences in how we were raised, learn from each other, and still enjoy each other’s company?
If at any point, you would like to comment, critique, or share your story, please feel free to reach out. I am eager to hear your voice.