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The Photo Project: Framing reflection from hands and feet

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
November 16, 2017 Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. Appalachian State University

Both my grandfathers were farmers.  My PawPaw, my maternal grandfather, tended fields of rice and soybeans.  My PaPa, my paternal grandfather, was a cattleman.  Both of my grandmothers also worked on the homestead, doing both physical and mental labor, including serving as the “bookkeepers” and “cooks” for the farms.  My MaMa, my paternal grandmother, was the only one of my four grandparents to graduate from high school, the very high school I later attended and graduated from. 

My dad was also a high school graduate and my mom obtained her GED.  My parents were blue-collar workers for their entire lives, changing jobs frequently throughout my childhood, but serving longest as a store clerk (my mom) and a local lumber yard assistant manager (my dad).  Neither ever considered college.

I spent the most time with my maternal grandparents, particularly my MawMaw, who lived next door.  She was the one who taught me to love reading and enjoy libraries, despite only her middle grades education.  I credit her for much of my curiosity and academic success.  I did not inherit her joy or skill in cooking though, which is a shame.

I share all this to say that I grew up as a white, working class kid in a rural community, in a somewhat multi-generational family, where I believed my grandparents’ house was as much my own, or even more so, than that of my parents’.  I observed hard work, hardship, utilizing your community, and “making do.”  And, it was impressed upon me, from a very early age, that it was my role to utilize education to obtain a “better life”—which no one defined for me but I understood as different that the one my parents and grandparents had—and that I had to find a way to finance it.

I think I listened too well.  I went from first generation college student to a Ph.D.-holding faculty member at a private university.  I live 1700 miles—and a somewhat philosophically different planet—from my hometown.  I made more money this past summer than my mom used to in a whole year (which resulted in major feelings of guilt).  I get on a plane at least once per month.  Most folks would perceive my current life as solidly middle to upper-middle class.  And yet, I retain many of the forms of capital from my working-class background.  I prefer dives and mom-and-pop places.  I like to eat with my hands.  I look for a sale everywhere I go.  I believe curse words are appropriate and sometimes the only accurate way to convey my emotions.  My car still has manual locks and roll down windows. 

So, I find myself living in the both/and—it is what folks like Alfred Lubrano call class straddling.  I still hold my working-class roots close, yet many parts of my life are middle- to upper-middle class.  I can somewhat still fit in with my home community and family while I can also blend in to middle and upper-class spaces like academia and airports.  Neither completely feels whole to me, so I straddle both spaces and identities, negotiating which parts of me to highlight, if or when it can be managed or controlled (because it cannot always be). 

I notice this straddling in my hands and my feet—which are parts of me where I see my past and my present collide.  What I remember most about my maternal grandparents are those things: my MawMaw’s hands and my PawPaw’s feet.  I saw her hands all the time, as she washed dishes, paid bills, and drove her car.  I saw his feet frequently; he never wore shoes in the house and often sat in a chair where his feet were directly in my line of sight.  I can vividly recall her hands and his feet.  And when I look at my own hands and feet, I see them—my roots—but I also see how my life is different from theirs—my hands softer than hers because she did harder labor, my feet in shoes that don’t need steel-toe, or even closed-toe, for protection from farm equipment. 

I take my grandparents with me as I work in higher education, something they never got to experience even though I believe they both had the aptitude.  And I try to use my hands and feet in the service of others, just as they did, but in a different context.

Author Bio:
Sonja Ardoin is a learner, educator, and facilitator. Currently serving as a higher education faculty member, Sonja is a proud Cajun, first generation college student to PhD, and scholar-practitioner. She authored The Strategic Guide to Shaping Your Student Affairs Career (2014) and College Aspirations and Access in Working-Class Rural Communities (2017) and she studies college access and success, social class identity, student and women’s leadership, and student affairs career.  Sonja also serves with organizations such as NASPA, including the Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community, and LeaderShape.