I asked Dianne Cutillo, a BART Trustee and former Chair of the BART Board, to share her thoughts about being a first-generation college student – knowing they would be informed and insightful. Here they are – thank you, Dianne!
It was Barbara Connolly, guidance counselor extraordinaire at Falmouth High School in the ’70s, who was the first adult to push me to aspire to go away to a competitive college. I was the oldest of six. Dad worked two jobs and mom part time. No one in my family had been to college.
It was Morrie Schwartz, sociology professor and leader of my Social Class, Freedom, and Equality freshman seminar at Brandeis University, who made me realize the significance of becoming a first-generation college graduate.
My parents told me — and firmly believed — that I could do anything, including college. But they didn’t know how. Nor how we would pay for it. Enter Miss Connolly, who walked me through the application process, beginning with adding competitive private schools to the list and ending with helping me decide between the two universities who offered adequate financial aid along with their acceptances.
I did it. Followed by a brother. Two sisters completed their degrees as adults, not long before my brother and I earned master’s degrees as working professionals.
I am a trustee of Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School because it is filled with Barbara Connollys and Morrie Schwartzes, adults who believe that all children not only can succeed, but will succeed. And that any student who wants to can graduate from college.
Those passionate adults at BART back up their belief with a rigorous college prep program that has produced nationally recognized academic growth and a 100 percent college acceptance rate among its graduates. At least one of BART’s graduating classes was made up completely of students who will become first-generation college graduates if they go on to get their degrees.
I recognize that college is not for everyone, despite that a four-year degree is increasingly the prerequisite for employment in this digital, knowledge-based, global economy. Still, I am struck that so many parents in Berkshire County don’t firmly believe, as mine did, that college is important and can be achieved.
Perhaps I should not be so surprised. On average, only 17 percent of residents of the three largest communities where BART students live attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, well below the national rate of 24 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Do they figure if they could make it without a degree, their kids can, too?
Schools like BART know the economic argument for college. The income gap between people with college degrees and those with only a high-school diploma has exploded. Men with a college degree earned 42 percent more than those with high school diplomas in 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics The gap was only 16 percent in 1980. For women, the difference of 26 percent in 1980 grew to 44 percent in 2008.
There are bigger reasons why college is important. There, we expand our knowledge and improve our ability to think critically. These are important skills not only for landing jobs, but to be a better informed citizen. We get stronger at expressing our thoughts well in writing and in speech. We appreciate art and music more. We increase our understanding of the world, our community, and ourselves.
Intuitively, my parents knew this and wanted it for me. Barbara Connolly lived it and could add passion to the argument for college, and for trying it as a residential student rather than the commuter I’d envisioned I’d be.
Not all of my siblings had Barbara Connolly as a guidance counselor and not all went on to attempt college. I believe that would have been different if that whole school of Barbara Connollys — BART — had been there for them.