In 1972, sociology lecturer Dwight Lang became the first in his family to graduate from college.
Today, as part of the First Gen College Students @ Michigan group, he advises students who are the first to do so in theirs.
“I call first-gens risk takers and boundary crossers,” Lang declares. “They’ve been willing to take risks to move into a new world.”
Lang’s father left school in the 10th grade, later serving in the Army and working as a coal miner and a plumber. His mother finished high school. Though he was the first in his family to do so, his parents always supported the idea of Lang earning a college education.
Although he experienced first-generation challenges adjusting to college, like feeling out of place, Lang succeeded and enjoyed it so much he continued on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, and to work in academia.
Unfortunately there were no groups like First Gen College Students @ Michigan when he was a student, and there was little institutional recognition of being the first in one’s family to go to college.
Lang is professor emeritus at Madonna University and a sociologist who focuses on social stratification and social class inequalities.
He came to U-M in 2006 as a sociology lecturer, teaching a course on the experience of social class in college and the community, which looks at social class inequalities and how class is experienced. His students explore how others have grown up in classes similar or different from their own.
In 2007, Lang began meeting with university staff members and first-generation students to begin discussing what a first-generation group could look like. They hoped to create a support group where first-gen students could find comfortable peer interactions with those who have similar backgrounds.
“My role as an adviser has been as a witness,” Lang says. “A witness to what the students are experiencing here as first gens.”
Thirteen percent of undergraduates are first-generation students, and college can be an alien culture. They face many challenges, including prejudice and financial strain. Other stresses extend back to the family. While many students have support from their families, some parents are ambivalent or even suspicious. There can be a certain fear of losing a child to another world or not having anything to relate to anymore.
“I could see some of the struggles that many of them were having. And really all they need is a sense of community.”
Lang observes what motivates students’ desires to be upwardly mobile, while encouraging them to be open and proud of where they come from.
The university has launched a new website, firstgen.studentlife.umich.edu, that identifies resources alongside stories and testimonies of first-gen students.
Having become the first in his family to graduate from college, Lang watches each year as new first-gens graduate at the First Gen College Students @ Michigan-hosted graduation ceremony.
Writing continues to be a passion of Lang’s. His autobiographical works reflect on his past and how he ended up in the world of academia, far from where he grew up.
“Maybe it’s therapeutic, but maybe it’s useful for people who are younger to read about it,” he says. “I would hope that first-gens might read what I have written and think, he experienced it. It makes you feel less isolated. I can do it, too.”
Q & A
What moment on the job stands out as the most memorable?
To witness first-gen students adjust to campus/departmental settings, succeed socially/academically, and move on to careers of their choice.
What can’t you live without?
The love and companionship of my wife, daughter and son.
What is your favorite spot near campus?
Nickels Arcade and Espresso Royale Cafe on State Street.
What inspires you?
Risk taking and boundary crossing.
What are you currently reading?
“Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
An undergraduate and graduate professor who listened to and understood my experiences as a first-generation college student.