For the last few months I’ve been interviewing first-generation college students about their experiences with reading and writing in college. I’m also a first-generation college student myself, and at the end of a long day of interviewing I can usually be found standing at my kitchen sink doing dishes and thinking about what I’ve heard and learned that day. As I think about students’ interviews I often wonder, how would I answer these questions if someone asked me?
Towards the end of our first meetings together, I ask students, “How did you know that you wanted to go to college or how did you decide that you would be a person who goes to college?” A lot of times, students talk with me about TV shows or movies they saw or books they read that showed them what college was like and made them believe that they wanted to go to college.
This matters to me. It matters to me that watching TV or seeing a movie or reading a book could be the thing that gives you a window into the world outside your immediate life, outside your immediate family or community. It matters to me that these pop culture artifacts might show you that you could go to college, or have a fulfilling career, or make contact with a new and different community.
In my own life, countless TV shows and movies have shown me a world outside myself and helped me learn about a different community, a different experience outside my own. Being a first-generation college student, and coming from a working class community, a lot of these shows and movies and books showed me examples of middle class people, of going to college, of having a white-collar professional job; examples that I otherwise might not get to see everyday. Even if I didn’t necessarily choose to pursue these things myself, I saw them and knew they were viable options.
Here are some things I learned from TV: (disclaimer, my TV tastes are super mainstream).
One of my favorite shows, Gilmore Girls, takes on class difference directly as the show’s driving conflict. Lorelai comes from a wealthy Connecticut family whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower—old money. But she chooses to leave that community and raise her daughter Rory in a good ole’ small town, middle class community. In the first episode of the show, Rory decides to leave the local public school and commute to a private college preparatory high school in order to better her chances of fulfilling her dream to attend an Ivy League university. I was obsessed with Gilmore Girls as a high schooler and watched reruns everyday after school with my bff while we made microwave quesadillas and pretended to do our calculus homework. When Rory went away to college, I got to see what living in a dorm might be like, what eating at a dining hall might look like, what attending a college lecture or seminar or discussion section might look like. Even if I didn’t have Rory’s exact family or financial situation, even if I didn’t want to attend an Ivy League school myself, I got to imagine what going to college would be like and that I could a person who did that.
We were also obsessed with Sex and the City and binge-watched my friend’s mom’s SATC DVDs. Though I didn’t learn much about college from SATC, SATC was the first time I heard a woman say: maybe I don’t want to get married or have kids. SATC was the first time I saw a woman have a real discussion about that possibility with people who took her seriously. Even if I didn’t want to live in New York, wasn’t obsessed with expensive shoes, or couldn’t relate to the thirty-something dating scene, I got to see examples of women who worked challenging, fulfilling careers and valued their friendships with other women.
I also love Friends. I feel like Friends taught me a lot, A LOT, about how to behave like a middle class person. The characters on Friends probably represent a range of social classes, but by and large I think their interactions showcase a solidly middle class (maybe upper middle class?) lifestyle. Chandler Bing taught me how to talk like what I thought a middle class person should talk like. He’s clever, quippy, sarcastic. He works a hugely unfulfilling white collar job in a huge office building and jokes “I’ve got to get to work. If I don’t input those numbers… it doesn’t make much of a difference.” Ross Gellar is a college professor, a job which I knew nothing about until I watched him teach a lecture in rollerblades. My point is not that I can quote a specific episode of Friends that taught me that I could be a person who goes to college; instead the collective influence of all these shows was that I had plenty of examples of people who went to college, worked middle class jobs, delayed getting married or starting a family, left home and moved around for college and for their careers.
Finally, I love Roseanne. I remember my family gathering around the TV on Tuesday nights at 9pm to watch Roseanne. When I was too young to stay up and watch, I’d sit on my bedroom floor with my ear to the door trying to listen in on the show and on my family’s conversations about it. Roseanne is about working class people, and seeing those people depicted on TV also mattered to me. Roseanne taught me that working class people’s successes and their problems matter, they’re real, lots of people experience them. Seeing people on TV whose lives looked like ours and whose voices sounded like ours mattered. In short, Roseanne taught me that the lives of working class people are valuable and important, just as valuable and important as anybody else’s.