Last semester I was sitting in the second row of my media, power and culture class while professor Chance York, Ph.D. taught on that week’s chapter: portrayals of economic class in media. And I learned something.
Professor York and I have more in common than I thought.
I began taking notes.
He lectured from chapter seven: poor and working-class stereotypes depicted in family sitcoms. The descriptions were less than appealing: incompetent, redneck and white trash. Professor York shared about his upbringing living in a low-income and single-parent household. He talked about being a first-generation college student.
I sat down with professor York a few weeks ago through Zoom and talked about his childhood, educational background and where he is today.
As a child of the '80s and early '90s, professor York and I both watched the original "Ghostbusters" movie dozens of times. "MacGyver" was on TV in the background while my brothers and I tried to figure out the mechanics of rigging a lock on our bedroom door. If MacGyver can create magic with the few tools he had, why couldn’t we?
Eating pizza while watching Steve Urkel, the Tanners and the favorite siblings of "Step by Step" on TGIF Friday night was the best part of the week.
Professor York and I grew up during the same era.
But his story begins in Wamego, Kansas.
Job opportunities were rare in the flat, open prairie landscape of Wamego. York’s mother cleaned houses and worked as a custodian at various places during the week. On the weekends, she grew vegetables to sell at a local farmer’s market. And she figured out other ways to make money during the off season.
“I remember several times getting in the car and we would get on the interstate with a few valuable possessions we had going off to sell them so that we could pay a monthly bill,” professor York said. “And my mom was crying the whole time."
York went to bed many nights not knowing if the power would be on the next morning, he said. But after long days and working multiple jobs, his mother read him a story every night. Classic novels, like those by Mark Twain, were her specialty.
He went off to college many years later to study film and English literature at the University of Kansas. He had goals to pursue screenwriting and directing, but he changed his major to anthropology alongside English literature.
College wasn’t the same experience for York than it was for his peers. “I was sending cash and some of my tuition check back home and working a lot while in school. It was brutal,” he said. He described his experience as if he were walking on a tightrope with no safety net.
While in his senior year, some of his classes focused on mass media. The textbook readings were interesting and engaging to him in a way he never saw before, he said. “Media is so fundamentally intertwined with culture, and media is so critical to how cultures operate; that was fascinating to me.”
He went on to study mass communications in graduate school at the University of Kansas and received his doctorate at Louisiana State University, also in mass communications.
Now a professor at Kent State University, he teaches courses on media and culture in the journalism department. He also conducts research on biological factors and how they affect communication traits and media behaviors.
Many of his colleagues were raised in middle-class households while their parents were college professors. And a lot of his students have parents who attended college. Their parents helped prepare the way for them as a college student.
But professor York is not alone.
Nov. 8 is National First-Generation College Student Day and approximately 34% make up college students whose parents did not attend college, according to the United States Department of Education.
Both of my parents were first-generation college students as well. They helped prepare the way for me many years ago when I moved to Pittsburgh to attend college at The Art Institute, but they didn’t have the same luxury as I did when they were in school. Just like professor York, my parents had no safety net.
As a child, my life started out similar to professor York’s. I’ve heard my mom say for years, “we didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” Until my dad finished his master’s degree in social work and my mom got a full-time teaching job, both of my parents began working in their desired field, using their degrees.
My family eventually moved out of our townhouse and into a house.
An article written by Alex Casillas, another first-generation college student, for Center for Equity in Learning’s says “first-generation college students are more likely to come from an underrepresented ethnic group, be working learners (often working for pay 20+ hours a week), to be financially on their own, to have dependents and to come from low-income families.”
Professor York is one of many first-generation college students across the country who grow up in low-income households.
His past does not reflect his future.
Toward the end of our time together, I asked him one last question. I will sum it up like this: “Are your two worlds colliding?”
Low-income, single-parent household to college professor in a middle class environment.
“I’m the odd man out,” he said. “There’s no overlap. There’s this world and then there’s this past world that I lived and they’re very different.”
When I sat in his class last semester, my first semester back to college after 13 years, I felt like the odd one out, too. Stuck somewhere in between.
I was living my adult life while managing a house, paying bills and investing in family, and then I took one major step that changed the course of my career: college.
Working woman to college student.
Just like professor York, it’s hard to find the overlap. He changed the course of his life when he entered college as a freshman. Now, many years later, he is paving the way for others like him. Just like my parents paved the way for me.
Kelly Krabill is an opinion writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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