A Different Path

By Erwin Chemerinsky | Dean, UCI School of Law

Neither of my parents went to college. My dad worked in a home improvement store on the South Side of Chicago, and my mom always worked in the home. My brother is an electrician in Chicago, not far from where we grew up. I obviously took a different path, attending Northwestern University and Harvard Law School before becoming a lawyer, a law professor and now a dean. I have spent an enormous amount of time thinking about how I came to take such a different path.

Perhaps some of it can be attributed to my grandmother. Around the time I was born, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her mobility was greatly limited, but I spent a good deal of time with her in the first years of my life. She constantly read to me, and by the time I started school, I could read on my own. I wasn’t much older when I taught myself how to multiply and divide – long before this was taught in school – in order to calculate batting and earned run averages. As a result, I was labeled a “smart child” and was treated that way by teachers.

Unquestionably, my parents, especially my father, played a huge role in the path I have taken. No parent could have been more encouraging. In middle school, my passion flared for the science fairs, and he made sure I had everything I needed to create a project that took first place in my grade at school, my district and Chicago. He arranged for me to take the test for admission to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, then and now one of the most prestigious schools in the country. Although it was a huge stretch, he found the money needed to pay the tuition that wasn’t covered by a partial scholarship.

“Because of my own experience … I realize the challenges faced by those who are the first in their family to go to college.”

I was the only person in my neighborhood to go to the Lab School, and it was a 30- to 45-minute ride each way on the Chicago city buses. But I quickly discovered that it was worlds away from anything I had ever experienced.

I remember that first day of high school, sitting at a table in the cafeteria and listening to my classmates discussing their summer trips to Europe. The farthest I had ever been was to my aunt’s house in Gary, Indiana. Their life experiences and sophistication were vastly different from mine. I felt painfully out of place.

But I stumbled onto the debate team my freshman year of high school, and an incredible man, the debate coach, Earl Bell, had a significant impact on my life. He worked with the debaters every day after school and took us to tournaments every weekend. He and I spent about an hour every night on the phone, talking about the details of our team and strategies for upcoming debates. Now I realize that he also was teaching me countless life lessons, including how to thrive in a place that was so foreign to me.

In my junior year, my dad developed a serious illness and needed surgery and was out of work for a long time. There was no family income, and so there were no funds for me to continue at the Lab School. I already was receiving the maximum scholarship allowed under the rules. Bell, though, told school administrators he would quit unless they provided the funds to let me stay. They did. He paid the costs for me to attend the debate tournaments until my dad got back to work.

By this time, I had begun to feel comfortable at the Lab School and had finally made friends there. My senior year, I was chosen to be president of the student government and was very much a part of the school.

Because I had attended the Lab School, my transition to college was easy. I had already gone through many of the things that first generation college students experience.

I have four children and often think about how their experiences differ from mine. Both of their parents are not only college and law school graduates but also law professors. They have been around academics and college campuses their whole lives. Their parents are far more involved in their schools and schoolwork than my parents were. I don’t remember my parents ever helping with my homework.

Because of my own experience, I am acutely conscious of the powerful role of social class in our society. I realize the challenges faced by those who are the first in their family to go to college. I worry about whether our colleges do enough to help these students. I never forget how incredibly fortunate I am for the wonderful opportunities I have had and how much I was helped by others. I hope that colleges and universities will be more attentive and do more for students who are the first in their family to pursue higher education.