First in Family

Allen Harrison

James Wells

Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics

James Wells
James Wells

At Beloit College no one exactly had to call me Pell-Grant Boy for me to feel like an outsider — and an outsider in my hometown. I attended a small liberal arts college nestled on the crest of a hill in the middle of blue-collar Beloit, Wis., and my single-parent mother and four siblings lived in a two-bedroom trailer across the state line in South Beloit, Ill. My parents' families are from southern Missouri and Arkansas. My mother and maternal grandmother graduated from high school, but my paternal grandfather completed eighth grade and my father dropped out of high school, eventually earning a GED in his 20s. I am a first-generation college graduate, and on my father's side of the family, the first to earn a high school diploma. My parents divorced when I was 11, and my mother raised five children on an income barely above the poverty threshold — a heroic achievement, but what I thought of as a normal life was not normative in the context of a highly select private liberal arts college.

I muddled through the process of selecting a college and completing application and financial aid forms. The fact that I attended Beloit College was a happy accident — entirely a by-product of the fact that I wanted to play football, but was too small and too slow to play Division I or II. I only applied to colleges that waived their application fee to recruit me, either for football or because of my performance on standardized tests. It was hard enough to keep the refrigerator stocked, so to ask for help to cover multiple application fees seemed out of the question. Staying close to home was also an important college-choice consideration. Where would the money for even a bus ticket come from? I ended up at Beloit College for three reasons that had little relevance to long-term goals: it was Division III, so I could play football (but then I didn't — another story); I received an academic scholarship; I could borrow my mom's car to move to campus.

My high school education was pitched to a low common denominator, and I performed well without really ever doing homework, taking notes, or studying. I struggled to adjust to college. After the first year my GPA was .2 away from academic probation. I lost my merit scholarship. It took a third semester in the school of academic hard knocks to learn two basic rules for success that have worked for me at every stage of my education: attend every class meeting and do every reading assignment for every class. Maybe obvious, but it took me a while to get it down. When I did, I made Dean's List four out of my five remaining semesters at Beloit.

In addition to adjusting academically to college, I adjusted socially. Not that I no longer felt marginalized because of my socioeconomic background, but my relationships with students and faculty were transformative. Super-talented and highly creative, committed to causes, possessed of a mind-boggling diversity of personal experience and ambitions, the lived example of Beloit College students exploded my limited horizon of personal possibilities. My friends motivated and enabled me to parse an undifferentiated mass of impetuses and influences, so that I could distinguish between life-possibilities given by circumstances and those that I really wanted to own, in particular the gradually coalescing sense that my vocations were (are) writing and teaching. My professors helped me through the process of discovering how my college education fit into a bigger-picture perspective of such callings. When I was still struggling on the steep side of the learning-how-to-be-a-college-student learning curve, Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a professor of government (my undergraduate major), flatly informed me that I would never be happy working in any context other than a college or university. Her advice was so matter-of-fact that it was beyond the scrutiny of my insecurities about whether I could transition from the trailer park to Philosophiae Doctor. Then I met John Wyatt, teacher of, among things, classics, from whom I learned that an authentic life of creative endeavor must be grounded deeply in a commitment capacious enough to become at home with the paradox that art rarely acts enduringly for good in the world (humility thesis), but that any real art must aspire to do so (devotion thesis).

My debt to Beloit College is total. John Wyatt inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in classical studies. Georgia Duerst-Lahti taught me to embrace the backward and forward trajectories of my path — that the personal is political, you might say, and a resource, intellectual and creative. And whatever has made it possible to teach myself ancient Greek, for example, or to sustain a creative writing practice alongside research and a teaching career — whatever that is, I got it from Beloit College students.

—September 2009