First-Generation Success Story: Dr. Sandra Jamieson

Dr. Sandra Jamieson, Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Drew University

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  • Open the door to good luck.

 “The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” – Joseph Campbell

I sat down with the brilliant and generous Dr. Jamieson to discuss her life and learn how her journey to success was informed by being the first in her family to pursue higher education.  She believes that when you are willing to take chances, put yourself out there, and sometimes take non-traditional paths, wonderful and unexpected opportunities can come along. She recommends you say yes to those opportunities (as long as they’re not illegal or unethical). She has had great mentors who believed in and encouraged her along the way and what she describes as “a lot of good luck,” but it is ultimately her sense of curiosity that paved her road to success. To Dr. Jamieson, curiosity does not “kill the cat” as the old adage goes, but instead it broadens our world, creates a new perspective, and provides answers to questions we did not even know we had. Looking back, she said it was her willingness to try new things that led to the luck to which she ascribes to her success. She recommends that students find mentors, take chances on new experiences, and be ready to pay it forward. Then, she says, they will create opportunities to discover the type of life, that in retrospect, will look as if it was planned exactly as it happened. As J.K. Rowling said, “Luck can only get you so far.” The rest is up to you.

 Here is my interview with Dr. Sandra Jamieson:

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in an old millhouse near Haslemere, in England. When I was four we were evicted, and I spent the next 14 years living in a housing project (called a housing estate in England) near the village of Lynchmere, half way between London and Portsmouth. The estate has 84 houses, so there were enough kids to organize our own sports teams. There was a police station with two officers just for us (which seems a bit excessive in retrospect), and a store and post office nearby. Many of the People who lived there worked for wealthy families in Lynchmere as gardeners, cleaners, housekeepers, nannies, etc. I started work on a local horse farm when I was 13, but I also babysat for some of the rich families in Lynchmere and got to see how they lived. It was a good childhood.

Where were your parents born and raised?

My mom was born in the city of Aldershot but grew up in Hindhead, near Haslemere, where her family moved after World War II. As kids we spent many happy days with my grandparents in Hindhead, which is beautiful (as you can see in this picture). My dad comes from Blackburn, in northern England, and met my mom when his army unit was posted to Aldershot. They separated when I was 18 and my dad remarried.

If your parents were not born in the U.S, when and where did they emigrate to America?

They never emigrated to the U.S. I came here on my own to attend Grad school in 1984 to the State University of New York at Binghamton. I got my green card after I started working at Drew.

Do you have siblings and what are they doing today?

I have a younger brother and sister. My brother worked as a youth coach for British Cycling, and now has his own coaching company. He is currently organizing off-road bicycle rides from London to Paris. He lives near where we grew up. My sister worked in social services in Scotland and then lived in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, and worked in the finance industry. She now lives near Dublin in Ireland.

 Did you parents encourage you to go to college? If so, how did they encourage you?

My mother always encouraged us to do what made us happy, whatever that was. She valued education but it was my grandfather (her father) who really pushed me to get an education. He was the oldest of ten children and passed the exam every year to get a scholarship to Grammar school, but his parents could not afford the mandatory school uniform, so he couldn’t go. My mom also passed that exam (called the Eleven-Plus because you took it at age eleven and it determined whether your high school would be a grammar school that would prepare you for college or a secondary school that would prepare you for a trade). She did attend grammar school, but left when she was 14 and became a telephone operator. She could spell anything, but as a child when I asked her for spelling she would give me a dictionary so I learned to look things up—and that way I remembered them. She also loved to read. My mom, my aunts, and my grandmother would pass books around between them and when they all got together it was like a bookclub. When I got older I joined in too. We mostly read historical romances, but it created my love of reading – and talking about it.

The Eleven-Plus exam was eliminated when I was ten, and the two kinds of schools were combined, giving everyone the opportunity to get college-prep and stay at school beyond the age of 16 if they wanted to do so. My school was still called Midhurst Grammar School. It had some excellent teachers with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge universities. I got a very good education there. I was a good student, but also the class clown. I was smart, so I got very bored in school.

Did you always know that higher education was in your future?

No, I did not. I was only the third person on the estate where I grew up to stay at school beyond the age of 16, and I had never met anyone who went to college aside from my teachers. Neither I nor those teachers imagined it as an option for me. I liked English but geography and geology were my passions. I loved drawing maps and at the age of 16 (the school leaving age), I applied for a job drawing ordinance survey maps, which were hand-drawn back then and very beautiful. They told me I was over-qualified and would get bored, so they didn’t hire me. Lucky break. I stayed at school until I was 18 and took the A-Level exams that were necessary for college although that was still not my intention—I just like taking exams.

When did you know you wanted to go to college?

I interviewed for a job in a county library, but they said I wasn’t a good fit. Then, the next day I received a telegram (we didn’t have a phone) saying there was a position at Sussex University in Brighton and I should contact them. I got the job and moved to Brighton. As a staff person, I got a really good lesson in how a university works—and who makes it work. I loved the job, but Tehmtan Framroze, my supervisor and first mentor (and really cool person), said that I should go to college. He told me to get a Bachelor’s degree in whatever subject I was interested in and then get a Master’s degree in library science if I still wanted to pursue it later on. He is the reason I had the confidence to apply to college. There it is: luck, mentorship, and willingness to take opportunities.

Where did you go to college, and why there?

I applied to, and was accepted at, the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England, a school quite similar to Sussex. My being first generation played a role in my selecting it, although I couldn’t have told you that then. My A-level scores would have got me into Oxford of Cambridge Universities, but I didn’t even apply to them. The degree at UEA was determined by 50 percent course work, whereas most colleges depended entirely on 15 hours of examinations at the end of the three- or four-year degree program. If you did poorly on those exams, you didn’t get the degree. So, having course work also count seemed a safer bet. UEA also didn’t require a foreign language, although that is ironic because my husband’s family is from France, so now I wish I had been forced to learn a language in college! At that time, college tuition in the UK was need-based, so 100 percent of my tuition was paid for and I also got a living stipend. But I still worked all three years as a bar-tender; I couldn’t imagine not working. As is the case with many first-generation students, I continued to send as much money as I could back home. I now know this is common for FirstGen college students, who are often asked to help their families out financially and in other ways. UEA was radically Marxist, but also very elitist and I was not always comfortable there so working was a good outlet, and at work I was around people more like me.

 What was your major, when did you graduate college and what did you do after college?

I started out in philosophy and linguistics but there were only two female students in the philosophy program and no female professors, and I clashed with my professors’ ideology and approach. I ended up graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in English and American studies in 1981. I worked in retail management and as a bartender in a theatre until I decided to go to grad school.

 What were your greatest challenges as an undergrad?

Academically I did fine. I chose a university that attracted first generation students and leftists and most of my friends were also FirstGen. We shared a socio-economic background that did not include riding horses or vacationing in the Mediterranean. There was a lot we didn’t know or had never done but that was okay. We had an inverse snobbery about rich people; we felt we were better than them and did not envy them for their lives. But I also didn’t feel part of their world a lot of the time. It could be quite lonely, and when I didn’t know how to do something or made a mistake I was very hard on myself.

What surprised you the most about college?

Not much because I had worked at Sussex for a year. I was surprised that not all of the students took it very seriously. They seemed to take being in college for granted whereas it felt to me like a privilege.

 Were you conscious that you were a First Generation student and how did that manifest itself in the way you handled college?

I didn’t hear the term phrase First Generation student until I had been teaching for a while, although at Colgate and at Drew I always ended up talking to advisees who were first generation about the specific challenges they faced and that I recognized. I didn’t see being FirstGen as having had any impact on me and probably would not have admitted to being so. In college and in grad school it mattered a great deal that I seemed as if I belonged and knew what I was doing (which is, of course, very FirstGen—that and not wanting to ask for help!). I never talked about my background but, interestingly, my dissertation explored the role of literacy education in college success and I talked about Richard Hogarth’s “Scholarship Boy” and Richard Rodriguez’ “The achievement of desire” both about first generation students. I never saw myself as having had any problems because I was the first in my family to attend university. I identified with being working class and wore that as a badge of pride. I still do.

Did you have a mentor(s) as an undergrad? What could have made your college experience better?

No, I did not. I didn’t feel I needed mentoring, although I knew that my advisor would have taken that role if I had let him. He was a wonderful mentor to some of my friends, but thinking back there is really nothing that could have made my experience better. I learned a lot and had a good peer support group.

When did you know you wanted to go to grad school?

Not until I arrived at Binghamton University and took my first class. Then I knew it was the right decision. I had worked at a summer camp in NY state as an undergrad through an exchange program. Several of the other counsellors were undergrads at Binghamton and they told me if I went there for an MA I’d be paid to teach while I studied so school would be free.  They persuaded me to meet with the chair of the English department, I took the GREs (remember, I love taking exams), and went back to England. I didn’t apply to any other schools and when Binghamton accepted me I deferred the offer. I liked my job and wasn’t ready to leave, but each year the graduate director at Binghamton wrote to me telling me the offer was still open. After four years, I decided to accept it, less because I wanted to get a degree and more because I wanted to leave England, my job, and a pretty bleak financial situation (one young person in nine was unemployed and future prospects were not good). But I also had some mentoring. I had developed a friendship with a journalist who was a customer in the bar where I worked, and he was the person who pushed me to consider graduate school as an option and convinced me I could do it.

 How was your experience in grad school?

Many of the students had worked or done something else between undergrad and grad school, so that became more significant than family background. That said, most of the friends I made in grad school were FirstGens or other International students. I stared out tutoring writing and a turning point for me was the day I taught a student called Rosie Rodriguez to use commas. She was still learning English but she was working hard. When we got to the bottom of the page and all the commas were right, I said, “You did it!” She jumped up, hugged me, and told me that now she was going to make her younger sister attend college too because she’d be able to help her and she knew she’d succeed. How could you not want to be a teacher after that? I was invited to teach my own writing class as a TA and I switched to writing studies so I could understand more about theory. Writing studies attracts a disproportionate number of FirstGens, perhaps because we believe in paying it forward. In 1989, I began teaching at Colgate University while I finished my dissertation, and then four years later I came to Drew. I had six other job offers, but I very wisely chose Drew because I liked the faculty and students, and the location.

 What is your area of research?

Writing studies, which includes authorship studies, rhetoric, social media writing, communication, and nonfiction writing—all of which I study and teach. My current research is in plagiarism and authorship studies. My research team wants to understand how student create conversations with texts and what happens when they don’t (when they patchwrite or plagiarize). We have studied student papers from sixteen US colleges and I’m about to start a project looking at papers from colleges in New Zealand. Our goal is to help students become better writers. We want to change plagiarism policies as well.

 What do you believe is the secret or recipe for your success?

I work really hard, take advantage of opportunities, and stay open to change. And as I said, I’ve also been very lucky and had great mentors at the right moment. Things have worked out for me because I took advantage of opportunities that came my way and also learned when not to jump at an opportunity (like turning down offers that would mean I left Drew for example). My innate curiosity has served me well. I hate being bored and I am always open to new experiences, which is how I started teaching writing for social media and studying the impact of blogs, twitter, and Facebook.

How did you learn resiliency?

I don’t believe you can learn resiliency. I’m uncomfortable with the narrative that says if you have enough resilience or “grit” you will succeed because it suggests that people who don’t succeed just didn’t have enough resilience; that it is their fault they didn’t succeed. Life is much more complicated than that. We fall down and we pick ourselves up. Or others pick us up. Or we just sit there for a while. We are resilient sometimes. At other times we want to give up and others persuade us to keep going. Perhaps finding those others is a way to strengthen resiliency. I am very stubborn and maybe that’s a kind of resiliency, but I don’t feel resilient. I just feel grateful for those around me who were strong and gave me the courage I needed to make my own path and keep moving forward.

 What advice could you give a First Generation student just starting college?

Work hard. Find a mentor. Be a help seeker. Have the confidence to ask questions — there is no such thing as a stupid question. If you have a concern or problem, know that you can go to someone and plead your case, and that they expect you to do so. Learn who is a “helper” and ask for help when you need it. People like to be helpful, so let them. Build relationships. Learn the system. Talk to financial aid. Talk to your advisor. Talk to everyone! Travel as much as you can. Never miss an opportunity. But, and this is the most important thing, you need to learn to say “no.” You don’t have to help everyone else just because people helped you; you have the right to focus on your education and not always interrupt it to do things for others. Putting yourself first will help you to succeed. And when you succeed you can become a mentor for others.

Some fun questions:

Do you have any hobbies or special interests you would like to share?

I love to garden, cook, and travel.

What do you like the most about teaching?

That moment when someone gets it.

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?

If I didn’t go into English I’d like to have been a Physicist or a geologist.

 If you could travel to anywhere in the world tomorrow where would it be?

Well, aside from going home to England or France, I’d love to go to China, Nepal, or Bhutan

 

Sandra Jamieson is the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Drew University, overseeing the course-embedded undergraduate Writing Fellows Program that anchor’s Drew’s vertical writing program. She teaches in the Writing and Communication Studies emphasis of the English major, including writing for social media, authorship, genres of disciplinary writing, writing theory, pedagogy, and nonfiction. She also teaches study abroad courses, most recently “A Tale of Two Cities: Havana, Cuba & Little Havana, Miami,” leads international service trips with the Drew Honduras Project, and works with Drew’s Civic Scholars program.

Recent publications include Information Literacy: Research and Collaboration across Disciplines (co-edited with Barbara D’Angelo, Barry Maid, & Janice R. Walker); and Points of Departure: Rethinking Student Source Use and Writing Studies Research Methods (co-edited with Tricia Serviss)

She is a principal investigator in the Citation Project–a collaborative, multi-site, data-based study of college students’ use of research sources.

 

Yasmin Acosta coordinates the Arts, Communications, & Languages Career Community and the First Generation Identity/Affinity Community. She also manages the Peer Career Coaching Program, counsels and advises students on career, job, and internship plans, critiques resumes, cover letters, CVs, and personal statements, and presents career development workshops. She also assists with the Student Employment program. Prior to this position Yasmin was the Program Coordinator for Drew University’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Psychology from Rutgers University, a Master’s degree in Arts & Letters (Literary Studies) from Drew University, and is pursuing a Master of Education also at Drew.

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