It’s been more than 40 years since my folks dropped me off at Cavanaugh Hall with just two suitcases. I didn’t think much about being a first-generation college student that day. I was just thrilled to be at Notre Dame—for the first time ever. No college tours for this kid from East Liverpool, Ohio.
Now, I’m president of Hiram College—a small, liberal arts school nestled in the country near Cleveland. We’re proud to say that 40 percent of our students are “first-generation.” That’s been part of Hiram’s mission for more than 150 years, and one that will continue.
I hate to admit how often I flash back to my Notre Dame days, especially when my phone rings. Call me naïve, but after leaving the world of business and law for Hiram, I didn’t expect that one of my thorniest problems as a college president would involve phone calls from upset parents running interference for their kids. I’ve been shocked to find that a fairly large number of our well-prepared and academically sophisticated students can’t get along with each other and solve their own problems. When things don’t go quite their way—or they get their first dose of criticism—their solution is to call home and have Mom handle it.
Shortly before classes ended last spring, I picked up my phone to hear a mother tell me about her daughter’s “problems” with her roommate—a laundry list that clearly had been festering all year. Differences in music (both volume and type), complaints over late night visits from friends and even objections to the ringer tone on roomie’s cell phone had culminated in an argument over a boyfriend. Fortunately, I didn’t learn any more details!
My parents would never have dreamed of calling Father Hesburgh. In fact, I don’t remember that they ever called me. My mother sent letters every week, and I was expected to reply. Today, almost every student on campus—including ours—is connected via their cell. That’s not all that has changed. Statistics show that 90 percent of first-year students now arrive on campus having never shared a bedroom. These kids are used to having all their own “stuff” and are much less skilled in sharing their possessions or negotiating conflicts over TV channels, music choices or when to shut off the lights.
Complain about my dorm room? TV channels? It makes me laugh simply to think about it. When I got to campus, I was just happy to get away from my annoying little brothers, see my first college football game and maybe meet some girls from Chicago.
It wasn’t that my folks weren’t thrilled about me being at Notre Dame. No one from our little steel town had ever gone there before, and it was as big an adventure for them as it was for me. My mother was passionate about education for all four of her children. I think she gained her college degree by osmosis, constantly questioning us about our courses as she turned us into her teachers and read the books we had studied in class. My dad spent 34 years making steel in the blast furnaces and is largely responsible for my work ethic, passion for sports and my understanding that all of us in this country have an obligation to give back.
I know that these are similar stories shared by many first- and even second-generation” college students. I believe in the value of a liberal arts education that teaches students to care deeply, to act fairly, to think critically, to analyze problems from multiple perspectives and to become socially responsible, ethical citizens of the world. I got that kind of an education at Notre Dame, and I’m working hard to ensure that our students at Hiram College are prepared in the same way.
But I have to admit I’m a bit taken aback that many college kids are lacking in some of the social skills needed to navigate everyday life. Although today’s parents certainly have their child’s best interests at heart, I don’t think micromanaging their kids’ lives is the answer. The job of one generation has always been to help the next one grow up—not always an easy call.