It all started with high SAT scores. I chose UNC-Chapel Hill for college because everyone told me “don’t go there, you will just be a number.” I was tired of being under the microscope as the stand-out smart kid in my big low-education family and my small low-education home town. I wanted to be swimming in a veritable sea of smart kids. My mom’s advice about college was, “Major in elementary education, because you can get a job teaching first grade anywhere your future husband decides to live.” My dad’s advice was, “Don’t waste your tuition money taking a religion class, because you already have a religion and don’t need to know about the others, which are inferior.”
I did not have a scholarship, and my parents did not send money. I worked in the booth in Chapel Hill’s Rosemary Street parking garage from 6pm till midnight five nights a week, took a full load of five classes, slept four hours a night, and did homework the rest of the time. I didn’t have any high-school science background, so I was afraid to take college science courses lest they bring down my GPA. I didn’t know how to study. I didn’t know how to write. I didn’t know how to handle the college alcohol culture. Somehow I found friends, and they helped me learn all these college survival skills. Those friendships have lasted, and my college friends are still close 40 years later. If I have regrets about my education, it was that other, more savvy, students did exotic things like a junior year abroad, or played extracurricular sports, or student-government politics, or reporting for the student newspaper. I didn’t, and I felt embarrassed because I couldn’t.
Slowly, I came to the attention of some truly inspirational and generous professors. These kind professors invited me to practice remedial writing skills, to do independent studies, to join research teams in their labs, to register for their graduate-level seminars. A professor found me a job as a lab technician at the Research Triangle Park, which allowed me to get out of the city parking lot and get some relevant work experience on my resume. Professors told me I ought to think about graduate school. They wrote me reference letters. If I have any advice for first-generation low-income students, it is get beyond your embarrassment. Don’t major in elementary education (unless you love first graders), do take a religion class, take hard pre-med science courses, but always, always, march into your professor’s offices and tell them who you are. We professors want to meet you.
AND, excerpted from the Duke Chronicle story “Professors Share Their Stories as Low-income, First-gen Students” 12/9/19 by William He.
Professor Terrie Moffitt grew up in rural North Carolina in a dairy-farming family. A LIFE student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Moffitt studied psychology as an undergraduate.
To help finance her education, Moffitt worked at the parking lot for the city every night from 6 p.m. to midnight. Moffitt’s strict schedule of work and study held her back from a lot of activities that many of her classmates were participating in.
“I wasn’t able to do things like intramural sports or take junior year abroad,” Moffitt said.
Moffitt also said that being a LIFE student limited her decision-making, often out of lack of confidence.
As a young college applicant, Moffitt felt restricted to applying to UNC because she thought that was the only way she would afford college. Then, as a student, she felt limited to studying elementary education because that would allow her future husband to have freedom to work wherever he wanted, since there are elementary schools everywhere, said Moffitt.
“I should have gone pre-med,” Moffitt said of her third mistake, “but I thought that because I came from a poor rural high school in North Carolina that I did not have the background to take the pre-med courses.”
Moffitt is now a professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience, and focuses on mental health disorders and crime. In addition, she advises undergraduates. This aspect of her work is strongly shaped by her experience.
“When I meet my advisees, I always want to ask them, ‘What’s your background?’” Moffitt said. “It makes me a better advisor.”