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Giants among Us

First-Generation College Graduates Who Lead Activist Lives

Sandria Rodriguez

Publication Year: 2001

How do children from undereducated and impoverished backgrounds get to college? What are the influences that lead them to overcome their socioeconomic disadvantages and sometimes the disapproval of families and friends to succeed in college? These are the basic questions Sandria Rodriguez posed to seventeen first-generation college graduates, and their compelling life stories make important contributions to what little is known about this phenomenon. The daughter of parents who didn't finish elementary school, Rodriguez uses many examples from her own life in the course of examining the participants' experiences before, during, and after college that directed them toward social or educational activism. Together, the seventeen represent a wide range of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, age, geographical area of childhood, and profession. Twelve of the seventeen hold advanced degrees, all are working professionals, and all come from families who were poor. Jerry, the son of German immigrants, owns an engineering company in Chicago; Chang, a native of China, is the first from his village to go to college; Grant, a sharecropper's son, is a lawyer with a nationally prominent law firm in Washington, D.C., and patron of fine arts; Arlene, a Mohawk Indian, is a storyteller and social activist; Alex, from Spanish Harlem, is an elementary school principal. The book is divided into four parts. In the first two chapters, we meet the participants. In the three chapters that follow, Rodriguez examines how the participants as children perceived themselves within their families, schools, and communities. Chapters four and five focus on the campus life and the participants' activist experiences. Finally, chapter six offers recommendations for mentoring disadvantaged children, so that they can successfully "switch the track" and aim for something better. Giants among Us is an essential resource for college administrators, faculty, counselors, and student support-services staff--as well as K-12 educators--concerned with preparing, retaining and mentoring first-generation students. "If I believe in you, I'm going to do everything in my power to convince that committee to give you that loan. I can offer that comfort, and I really, really like what I do because I'm giving back something to the community. The clients don't go through anything alone. Whatever that business goes through, I go through, too. They need somebody to believe in them."--Maria, business advisor for a nonprofit organization

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page

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pp. iii

Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

In my youth I suspected that if I thought too much about the plight of the poor, uneducated, and powerless, I would become dangerously militant, a young Angela Davis probably facing jail time. I was wary of committing, like Rosa Parks, so stunningly simple an act of civil disobedience in so decisiveand irrevocable a manner as to take the nation’s breath away, bringing...

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pp. xiii

The number of people who gave me invaluable help with this book is staggering. Friends, colleagues, family, acquaintances, strangers–their contributions made the development and completion of my work possible. I thank them all...

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Part 1. Freedom’s Genesis

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pp. 1-2

Sometime after midnight on a starlit evening in the autumn of 1931, my mother and her siblings were awakened by loud knocks on the front door of their house, the snorting of horses, and the shouts of white men demanding that my grandfather come out...

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Chapter 1. Motivation, Means, and Method: Studying Educational Attainment

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pp. 3-13

While growing up black, female, poor, southern, without strong family support, and during the Great Depression effectively ensured that my mother would not become college educated, those conditions did not prevent her from enhancing the educational levels and lifestyle of her children...

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Part 2. The Economics of Oppression

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pp. 15-18

The role of godly power in the lives of the oppressed, I believe, is absolutely necessary. Under the Jim Crow laws of the south during my childhood, religion certainly was the most important connective element in our community...

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Chapter 2. In Their Words: Stories of First-Generation College-Graduate Activists

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pp. 19-88

In the following narratives, I recount the experiences of five of the participants in this study. I have chosen the narrative approach in order to provide a vivid, contextualized account of the complexity of the participants’ lives and the many obstacles and issues they negotiated as first-generation college graduates...

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Part 3. Building a Rock Foundation

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pp. 89-93

I fell gravely ill when I was a little over a year old. From an energetic toddler, I became listless, refused food, and cried often. The doctor recommended a diet of saltines and Coca-Cola, which proved ineffective, and my parents grew certain that I was dying....

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Chapter 3. Family, School, Community: Vehicles to Realized Potential

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pp. 95-128

Using many of my own family, school, and community experiences as a bridge to understanding the participants in this study, I considered the manner of individual from a low SES background who becomes the first in his or her family to attend college, to earn a college degree, and to choose social or educational...

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Part 4. One Heart, One Love

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pp. 129-134

Of my father’s three sisters who lived to adulthood, none married well. When the eldest of the children, Lucille, left secondary school, she went to teach in a little town near Wilson, North Carolina, where she met and married a good-looking, no-good man, effectively ending her teaching career...

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Chapter 4. Access, Success, Egress: The Collegiate Experience

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pp. 135-165

Many of the first-generation college students in this study could not depend on their high schools to help them with the process of getting to college. Instead, they depended on their own resources or on their communities since their parents often knew less about the subject than they did...

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Part 5. My Job Description

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pp. 167-170

As a seventh-grade language arts teacher in the integrated public schools of a working-class city in Illinois, I began observing every day the fruits of the district’s tracking system. Most black students could be found in the lowest level classes, including special education, while most whites were in the higher level ones...

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Chapter 5. Paying Back: A Sampler

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pp. 171-202

Since one of the questions that guided my research concerned the impact of the participants’ previous experiences on their roles as social or educational activists, I expected to find information on the participants’ lives before college graduation that might relate directly to their activist lives after college...

Part 6. Eyes Ahead of Us and Eyes Behind

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pp. 203

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Chapter 6. In Pursuit of Happiness

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pp. 205-251

Let us briefly consider the costs and benefits to society of the education received by the seventeen men and women in this study. The interviews illustrate that society contributed far less to the participants’ academic successes than to the education of students whom schools have traditionally valued...


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pp. 253-264


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pp. 265-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780826591500
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826513915
Print-ISBN-10: 0826513913

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2001

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • People with social disabilities -- Education (Higher) -- United States -- Case studies.
  • College graduates -- United States -- Interviews.
  • Academic achievement -- Social aspects -- United States -- Case studies.
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