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Steven Yao

Edmund A. LaFerve Professor of English

Looking back, I think being first-generation affected me in many ways, but two in particular stand out. Most basically, it shaped my choice of which institution of higher learning to attend. In high school, I never thought seriously about attending a liberal arts college. In fact, it never really even occurred to me to consider such a possibility. Not only was this educational tradition less present in Texas where I grew up, but this path just didn't register with my parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. from China in the early 1960s. They never questioned the importance of obtaining a college degree, but they weren't aware of the full range of options. And this situation in turn shaped my own thinking about where I could and wanted to go, which ended up being a big state university.

Once I got to college, being first generation made everything a discovery that I had to make on my own: how to study, how to relate to faculty, how to negotiate the complexities of the institution. Among other things, I had to develop a new approach to learning. Up to that point, I'd held a pretty instrumental view of education. Even though I never questioned whether I'd go to college, I'd only really thought about it in terms of job training. In part, my limited view stemmed from the experience of my parents: because of the uncertainty they themselves had faced in arriving in this country as foreigners, they stressed the importance of education as an avenue for upward mobility and full integration into American society. For them, that meant a good and steady job that would provide material security. Consequently, I initially viewed education simply as an effort to gain marketable skills. The notion of "job satisfaction" or "learning for life" never really even arose as a question, at least at first.

In addition, being the first to attend a four-year college distanced me from my family, most especially my parents. I was having an experience for which they sacrificed to make possible for me, yet which they themselves did not have access to. This situation created a gulf between us, one that took a lot of conversations to bridge and which in some ways remains in place to this day. Consequently, when I began to pursue courses in the humanities and English literature, my choices puzzled and worried my parents. I remember telling my mother that I was interested in attending graduate school in English literature. She responded by declaring, "James Joyce ruined my son!" Consequently, part of what I had to learn in college was a new way to relate to my family, since I was changing in ways that my parents didn't — indeed couldn't — understand.

But probably the biggest thing that I confronted as a first-generation college student was the need to change my relationship to my own ignorance. At its simplest, I had to learn to view my own lack of knowledge not as something to be hidden, but rather as something to be relentlessly exposed as a necessary step toward overcoming it. I had been accustomed to concealing it through bluster and a mastery of basic facts and operations. But in college, I learned to approach education as a lifelong project. I had to learn to enjoy asking questions that someone didn't already know the answers to. And the key to that change was to learn how to ask for help, to understand that the best learning occurs through engagement with others. At the big state university that I attended as an undergraduate, that meant mainly other students, though certainly many faculty went out of their ways to help me. Here at Hamilton, students have the added benefit of a talented, willing and available faculty with and through whom they can learn, in addition to their fellow students. Being first generation confronted me with many challenges that others didn't necessarily face, even though I also know that I enjoyed advantages that others didn't have. But in taking on those challenges, in learning a new way to learn, in learning that asking for help and then using that assistance as a springboard to my own intellectual advancement, I was able to change myself, to fulfill my own dreams, as well as those of my parents, even if my mother still jokes around about the deleterious effects that the words of an Irish writer had on her eldest son.

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