I recently found myself in a conversation with a fellow faculty member about the idea of “comparative advantage.” This is an economic idea that says that people, and countries, should do what they are best at doing. If a person is best at doing math, they should do that. And if a country is best at raising sheep, they should raise sheep. If everyone does what they are best at, the “Classical Economists” tell us, we can then trade with each other and everyone will be better off.
I thought of this concept when I read with interest an article  in IHE this past week. In it, the author discussed the dislocation between growing up as a first generation college student and trying to use some of the survival skills they learned growing up upon entering the world of academia.
I am part of the first generation of people to earn a four year degree in an Italian immigrant family. Growing up, ties with my extended family were strong, and we would gather every day at my grandparents’ home for dinner, having one of the last multi-generational meals found in that small town. I am proud of my grandparents, who, with limited education and with only a basic knowledge of English, started and ran a business of their own selling ice, coal and heating oil. Their own style of running a business, focusing on relationships with customers, is reported by a cousin  who also grew up around them. I remember people coming to my grandparents’ home to pay a bill, only to be offered some of the food from our dinner table.
I spent my childhood surrounded by the day to day workings of their business. When I received coal for Christmas as a joke, it was coal taken from “the yard,” where a conveyer (that I always thought looked like a dinosaur) helped load it onto a dump trucks for delivery. And slivers of ice were always available on hot summer days, “externalities” from the process of cutting large blocks into cubes for sale to restaurants and vacationers. They were living the American Dream of free enterprise, and it is not surprising that I eventually became excited about economics.
However, with the exception of one uncle who was a teacher and my own parents who saw to it that their children received the best education possible, education was not something that was always valued in that culture; it was much more important that the men be able to lift heavy things and that the women be able to cook (a skill I never really got the hang of.) When I went away to college, some members of my extended family saw it as a waste of time and money. And then, when I arrived at college, I was greeted by people my age that might easily have been from a different planet. I had never traveled outside of the U.S., and was severely lacking in much of the sophistication that was expected of an educated young woman of the time. I remember once asking for American bread in the cafeteria, only to be greeted by a confused cafeteria worker who apparently did not know that bread came in two types at dinner- American and Italian. Upon graduation, I went immediately to graduate school, hoping to win the race between tenure and the biological clock. Again, relatives disapproved.
I now teach a collection of students of diverse backgrounds, many of whom are themselves on the way to earning the first Bachelor’s degree in their own families. I teach women who were teenage mothers and those who grew up as children from the poorest sections of town. They sit side by side with children of privilege, and will perhaps sit side by side with my own daughter some day. I teach young people who have serious gaps in their educational history, as well as students who see us as a stepping stone to medical, graduate or law school. Indeed, they are often one and the same. I become angry when I hear of students whose high school teachers did not nurture their special skills, all the while realizing that they are depending on me to pick up where those teachers left off. As I do this, I recall the shame I felt the time I mispronounced “Elie Wiesel”, an author whose work I had read but never discussed with anyone, as if his last name rhymed with “weasel”. I have to believe that my own history brings some special skills into my classroom where my students come to learn. In fact, one might even say that teaching students who share some aspects of my first generation history is my “comparative advantage.”