Faces of the Firsts: Educators draw on own 1st-generation background
June 15, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Maybe if they were graduating from high school today, going to college for Steamboat Springs High School teachers Sandy Conlon, Pat Slowey and Steve Moos wouldn't have been such a groundbreaking achievement.
For the three first-generation American college students, the road to a bachelor's degree was a sign of a different era in academia.
While 21st-century America is convinced enrolling in college is the standard route to success, seemingly more important things were on the agenda for high school graduates decades earlier.
Take Conlon, for example. The 40-year mainstay teacher in Steamboat Springs grew up as the daughter and sibling of farmers and military personnel, where the expectation was marriage and children after high school, not college.
Conlon said her parents were furious when she opted to attend Gettysburg College in lieu of heeding their advice to settle down and start a family. She would be the first college-bound student in her family.
"I hadn't even planned to go to college, but a friend of ours had graduated from Gettysburg, and I had quite good athletic ability, so he arranged for me to get a work-study scholarship to play field hockey and basketball," Conlon said. "The work-study was cleaning the locker room after every practice, though."
And when her parents cut off funding following her freshman year, she took on odd jobs, flipping burgers, serving as a resident adviser in the dorms and even crashing on a few Gettysburg professors' basement couches in exchange for baby-sitting services. She took out student loans to fill in the funding gaps.
The financial and emotional support may have not come from home, Conlon said, but the college offered enough opportunities for her to independently maneuver her way through.
"It is cool," Conlon said about being a first-generation student. "But my family always kind of ridiculed that. I didn't follow expectations."
Both Slowey and Moos describe their roads to earning degrees from Colorado State University as "blind luck."
Higher education wasn't as foreign in their time. They had friends going to college, and military service or marriage wasn't as prevalent as it was in Conlon's day.
The opportunities were there, but Slowey and Moos admit that taking advantage of those opportunities didn't flow from their family trees.
Moos was born into a family of civil servants. His dad worked as a heavy equipment operator for the city of Arvada, and his mom served as a secretary for the Bureau of Reclamation in Lakewood.
Moos said his dad pushed for Army service at a time when military popularity wasn't exactly strong. Without giving it a ton of thought, Moos chose CSU for college.
"Not a phone call away like Boulder," Moos said. "Just far enough away to get out and be on my own."
Moos mowed lawns and worked the desk at CSU's campus bowling alley to scratch his way through college, becoming the first in his family to do so.
"I just mowed lawns every summer for the parks department," Moos said. "I could pay my whole tuition making $5 an hour. That's how I kind of sold my parents."
Slowey, on the other hand, calls his journey through college as an example of living the American dream.
The son of an Irish immigrant father and an Austrian immigrant mother — who each lived lives of labor as a shopkeeper and textile worker, respectively — Slowey remembers his moment of clarity when it came to being the first in his family to pursue higher education.
"They had no clue about what college was," Slowey said. "But I have a very vivid memory of my dad. We were cleaning out the basement once, he looked at me and said, 'I want you to go to college.'"
Slowey toured the CSU campus once, took his college-prep exams months later than he should have and enrolled in the college, eventually graduating with a degree in history.
"I went to CSU out of blind luck," Slowey said. "My story getting there is what I tell my students not to do, because it was just based on one visit."
Today is different, the three first-generation teachers said.
There are counselors solely dedicated to pushing college readiness on high school campuses. And there are now scholarships dedicated to supporting first-generation college students.
Being a first-generation student is a challenge, Slowey said, but it's also a badge of honor these days. One of change, and one of opportunity.
"I still believe in the American dream, because I'm living it," he said. "Don't sell yourself short, and don't be afraid to step out."