Professors passionate about first-generation students
Knowing whereof they speak, they seek to open the ‘magic door’ of higher ed for others
By Wendy Meyer
Professor Fred Anderson directs the University of Colorado Boulder’s Honors Program, received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1981 and has taught in CU’s History Department since 1983. He’s held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, to name a few.
He was also the first in his family to attend college.
So Anderson knows firsthand how intimidating an institution like CU-Boulder can be. In fact, growing up just outside of Boulder, in Broomfield, Colo., Anderson said CU seemed “too big, too sophisticated, too rich, too snooty.” So he went to CSU, where a professor took him under his wing and fostered his interest in academics and love for history.
Because of Anderson’s own experience, and because of his work with hundreds of bright first-generation students in the Honors Program, he is passionate about the need to attract first-generation students to CU-Boulder.
“It keeps the institution from becoming ingrown. We talk all the time about diversity, but the nature of these institutions is to decrease diversity,” Anderson says. “Once you are though the magic door, you benefit. But the door is pretty hard to get through if you don’t understand the system.”
That’s why Anderson established the Claudia and Dennis Van Gerven First Generation Merit Scholarships in honor of two of his colleagues at CU who were also first-generation students: Anthropology Professor Dennis Van Gerven and his wife Claudia who taught in the College of Arts and Sciences for many years. The scholarships focus on first-generation students, from Harrison High School in Colorado Springs, who are likely to benefit from the Honors Program.
“When I started at the University of Utah, not a single member of my family—mother father uncles and aunts—had graduated even from high school,” says Dennis Van Gerven. “When I told my high-school counselor that I intended to enroll in college, he laughed me out of his office and said, ‘You’re kidding me. You’re going to become a truck driver just like your old man.’”
After his freshman year, Van Gerven did almost drop out. He credits his wife for getting him through the college experience.
For the past 37 years, Dennis Van Gerven has been a mainstay in the Anthropology Department, winning numerous teaching awards. During 10 of those years, he directed the Honors Program and says he is exceedingly proud of increasing the diversity of the program.
“First-generation students bring the university its life blood because the university is a place where people are free to express different ideas and values,” Van Gerven says. “What ideas are going to be expressed if all of our students are the same? We need to be continuously recharging that idea.”
Both Anderson and the Van Gervens are donors to the scholarship themselves. Anderson is also a passionate fundraiser.
“I go around and make a pitch [to peers at CU] and suggest they might deduct something from their paychecks each month,” says Anderson. “I tell people that anything helps. If I could get on average 100 profs to donate $10 per month each, that would produce $12,000 a year for the fund.”
There are currently about 40 contributors to the scholarships. Anderson is trying to visit all of the departments in Arts and Sciences.
This spring will be Van Gerven’s last in the classroom as he prepares to retire. Reflecting on the importance of attracting and providing financial support for first-generation students, he says, “I’m not sure I have stronger feelings about anything as I finish up here. You can’t have stronger feelings about that topic if you love to teach.
“I have taught just over 25,0000 students. And then occasionally I taught an honors class of 15 where people talk and exchange ideas and help each other grow. There is nothing more important to that class than having different voices.”
Wendy Meyer is senior communications manager for the CU Foundation. To support the Van Gerven fund, see http://www.cufund.org/giving-opportunities/fund-description/?id=9893