Dr. Aaron Wootton

Aaron WoottonCurrent Position: Professor, Mathematics

Alma Mater: University of Southampton

Major/Undergraduate field of study: Mathematics and Philosophy

What was it like being among the first in your family to go to college?

Growing up both as members of poor families in post World War 2 England, my parents left school in their early teens to help support their families. Without even the prospect of finishing High School, the thought of college never crossed their minds. Fortunately, though they never had a formal education themselves, they were very supportive of their own children, encouraging us to succeed where they never had the opportunity, and providing us with the support we needed whenever they could. Perhaps the hardest thing for me as a first generation student, really from High School onward, was not being able to share the experiences with members of my own family - not being able to turn to them to ask questions either about the material we were studying, or the challenges that pursuing an education presented. My parents tried their best to help. For example, though he worked 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week as a security guard, my father attended night school to gain a High School level of Mathematics so he could help me with my homework. And my mother cleaned neighbors houses so she could pay for a tutor to help me when I really starting struggling at High School (around 17 years old). Ultimately though, especially when it came to college, my parents own lack of an education meant I had no one to turn to in my family, and this, on multiple occasions, almost led to me quitting. At the time (in the mid 90's), neither in High School, nor in College were there resources for first generation students. Indeed, in many respects I feel the cards were quite heavily stacked against us. For example, my High School career counselor tried to dissuade me from attending college telling me that I would not succeed there - she instead wanted me to go to technical school to learn a trade. As another example, in the first year I applied for college, I was rejected from nearly all the schools I applied to. At first, this did not bother me - as first generation student I didn't know any different. However, later I found that friends of mine who were attending private and well respected High Schools who had almost identical resumes as me had been accepted at these same colleges (at the time, my High School had a terrible reputation!). It took a second year of applying for me to get accepted to college (note: in England, you apply for college before you take High School standardized tests, so admission to college is based on predicted outcomes, not actual outcomes; the second year I applied I had exam results in hand and my scores pre-qualified me for nearly all the schools that had rejected me). So, given the adversity I experienced, what ultimately helped me succeed? I guess two things: First and foremost, the many different people, such as family, friends, teachers and neighbors, who stepped in helped me in some way during this journey. At every level of my education, and every stage of my life, there have been many different people who have helped me conquer my fears and ultimately succeed and I attribute my success to the dedication and devotion of all these people. Secondly, I have a tremendous sense of dogged determination, especially when told I can't do something. This I can fully attribute to my parents: they may not have gotten a formal education, but given the circumstances in which they grew up, you would not survive without this sense of determination, and it is something they instilled in me at a very young age.

Are there any unique challenges you faced as a First Generation student?

As previously mentioned, perhaps the biggest challenge for me was having no one to turn to in my family in times of need. It meant, for example, for simple everyday tasks in academia, such as writing a resume, I could not turn to the very people who I had until that point always turned to for help. It was very difficult for me to overcome, and it was only through the generous support of others that I managed to. This was not the only challenge however. Another huge challenge, once I arrived at college, was simply fitting in with peers with staggeringly different backgrounds to my own. Most of my peers at college were from fairly affluent and educated families: they had attended private high schools, had private tutors and had been coached by their parents on how to succeed at college. And just as I could not fathom their backgrounds, they too could not understand mine. For example, it baffled my room mates how I did not know how to register for classes my first semester. Overcoming this challenge was difficult, and ultimately it really came down to communication - talking with people about our differences. In some circumstances, this led to losing friends, the stigma of being from a poor, uneducated background was too much for some people. For most people however, this nurtured our friendships, and was mutually beneficial to us all - for me, these peers helped me understand how college works, and for them, they got to expand their horizons beyond what they had grown up with.

Do you have any advice for FGEN students at UP that are facing challenges?

Perhaps the best piece of advice I can offer is the following: speak to people. Different people have tremendously different experiences, and more often than not I find people are willing to share those experiences in ways from which you can learn. That might be asking your college room mate on how to get help with your math homework, or your RA how to register for classes, or maybe even your professor on how they succeeded at college. My success lies mainly in how different people helped me along the way, but without communicating with them first, I would not be where I am today. Your background as a first generation student does not mean you are the only one who might need help along the way - I can guarantee students who are not first generation are asking for help too, they are just more likely getting it from their family or other contacts who are familiar with the system.

How do you feel your experience prepared you, both professionally and personally?

My experiences helped shape who I am today. I still have that grim determination that helped me through some of my most difficult times, but I am also willing to reach out to people for help when I need it. Despite these experiences however, there are some things that I think will never change. For example, most of the faculty and student body at the University of Portland are from highly educated backgrounds, so despite my academic credentials I still feel a little out of place. Experience however has taught me that this is okay - we all have our differences and insecurities based on our background, the important thing is that we treat those around us with the respect they deserve.

Did a mentor play a role in your experience?  How so?

There was no single mentor in my education - different people helped me in different ways at different points of my education. For example, my mother taught me to read and do basic math before elementary school; my next door neighbor, who was an engineer, helped me with my physics homework while I was in high school; my high school math teacher met with me regularly outside of class when he realized I was struggling; my University professor organized numerous appointments outside of office hours to explain and re-explain a fundamental concept I just could not understand; my course mates at college helped me formally apply for my degree (I had no idea you had to fill out a bunch of paperwork - I thought they just gave it to you after you finished your last class!!!), and my PhD advisor spent hours reading a dissertation in a research area completely unrelated to his own. This is just a sampling of the many different people who played a role in my success.

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