Professors pay it forward to fellow first-generation college students

Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett and Steve Fawcett fund scholarship to ease burden on families

My mother was born in Sidney, Montana in the spring of 1911, the second of four daughters. She had an itinerant upbringing, the little girls often piled into the car late at night to outrun the landlord and start over in a new town. The one constant in her childhood was school, at which she excelled. I still have some of her report cards that were replete with the grade of A++.

Her father promised her he would send her to college. She held onto that dream until she turned 18, when the stock market crash of 1929 and her father’s abandonment of his family ended it.  She had to go to work to help support her mother and her younger sisters. Then came a family of her own and that dream was over.3407470516_868636b996_o

She worked her whole life, almost right up to her death at age 86. Most of her career was spent as a secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Minneapolis in a unit she essentially ran but where she couldn’t rise through the ranks because she lacked a degree. She made sure that was not going to happen to her children and it didn’t.

Steve’s father was born in Rhode Island in 1909 to Irish immigrants and had a similar challenging childhood. His family couldn’t afford college and he got his only post-secondary education by sending in money to a “learn how to draw” ad in the back of a comic book.  His $35 tuition eventually paid off when he became the political cartoonist for the Providence Journal World. But he always regretted not having a college education and worked to ensure his sons got one.

Being first-generation college graduates is something Steve and I are both proud of but we wish our parents had attended college too. The education we and our children received at KU transformed our lives in the ways our parents dreamed about.

When my mother died in 1997, there was a small inheritance. Steve and I made the decision to use it to establish an estate gift in our parents’ memory for an endowed scholarship for first-generation students in the College.

With regular payroll deductions the Fawcett-McCluskey First Generation College Fund has grown over the last 17 years and each year we get a letter from a recipient. The one last year touched us the most. The young man is a first-generation student with Vietnamese immigrant parents. He said he often overheard his parents fighting about money and felt terribly for adding stress to their lives. His scholarship lessened their burden and will do so for generations to come.  It’s a legacy we know would make our parents proud.”

-Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett is professor emeritus of psychology and former director of the University Honors Program. Steve Fawcett is Kansas Health Foundation Distinguished Professor of applied behavioral science and director of the KU Work Group for Community Health & Development.