English professor to first-generation students: ‘Open those doors’

A Western Carolina University English professor who took a hazardous route to get to his current position told a gathering of WCU’s first-generation students that they have “keys to a lot of doors” in their hands – just by being on campus.

Brian Railsback, who was himself a first-generation student during his college days, spoke to current WCU students who identify themselves as first-generation as part of the university’s First-Generation College Celebration held Thursday, Nov. 8. Railsback’s remarks to the students came during a gathering at the Central Plaza and was part of a full day of activities that were focused around one theme – the stories and successes of first-generation students.

English professor Brian Railsback speaks to the gathering of first-generation students during the First-Generation College Celebration.

The university considers a student to be first generation if neither parent/guardian has completed a four-year degree, even if at least one parent has earned a two-year degree or some college credit.

Railsback, who has formerly served as chair of WCU’s Faculty Senate and head of the English Department, and who also was founding dean of the university’s Honors College, told the students listening to his comments that the odds were against him being there, speaking to them.

“The only reason I went to college was because my father was a Marine Corps sergeant, serving in the Pacific in World War II, and for some reason he said I had to go to college,” Railsback said. “My dad gave orders and I learned to obey him. Some of you might know what that’s like.”

Railsback said he made several obvious mistakes in college. “I went to a lot of toga parties,” he said. “If you’ve seen that old movie ‘Animal House,’ you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t know – good.”

Another misstep Railsback was involved in with friends resulted in him almost being expelled from the California State College System. “It took me five years and three colleges to get a degree in journalism, a subject I hated when I finally graduated,” he said. “Despite myself, I managed to make it, and here I am today. I have no doubt that you will do much better than I did.”

Railsback told the students that their story differs from his in three ways: they have the full support of their university, they know how to seek help from an adviser or professor when they need it, and they are aware of the fact that a college degree results in more than $1 million in additional income during a graduate’s life.

WCU first-generation students (from left) Bria Lindsay, Alex Bass and Ariel Phillips take the lead during a responsive reading, part of activities during the noon gathering of the First-Generation College Celebration. On the far right is Brian Gorman, director of the MAPS office.

WCU’s first-generation students are “economic pioneers” for their families and for any children they might have in the future, he said. “As a first-generation student, you are on a path that will make your life better, your children’s lives better, and indeed, you will have a lot to say and do in making our society better,” he said.

“If a first-generation student as poorly informed and equipped as myself can make it, imagine how much better you will do, given your drive, your dreams and all the resources available here at WCU. Just by being here now, you’ve got the keys to a lot of doors in your hand. So, open those doors. I can’t wait to see what a difference you make after you leave Western Carolina University.”

WCU’s Mentoring and Persistence to Success office, also known as MAPS, hosted First-Generation College Celebration activities along with the First-Generation Advisory Board and First-Generation Club. The day also included a panel discussion to allow first-generation students, faculty and staff to talk about their experiences.

The First-Generation College Celebration served as the official launch for WCU’s new First-Generation Advocate Program, which will provide a more comprehensive support system for first-generation students on campus, including a network of faculty and staff advocates.

For more information about first-generation activities at WCU, contact MAPS at 828-227-7172 or maps@wcu.edu. Students interested in connecting with an advocate can find an online directory at firstgen.wcu.edu, a newly revamped website that contains links to a variety of resources as well as tips for successfully navigating the college experience.