First-Gen Faculty: Gina Langhout, (Former Provost of Oakes College, Professor of Psychology, and Alumni - transfer student, Kresge, '94)

photo of gina langhout wearing a first gen shirt

I was born in Hawaiian Gardens, CA (near Long Beach), and grew up in  Modesto, CA. Three of my four grandparents did not complete high school due to family obligations (e.g., helping to raise siblings). My parents are both high school graduates. My dad is a mechanic and worked 10 hour days, standing in an open garage, for most of my life. He rarely called in sick and never took vacation time. My mom (now deceased) was a secretary. I have a younger brother 

What motivated me to go to college:  I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of violence, including domestic violence. I knew from an early age that this was not the life that I wanted for myself. Between this, and the encouragement of my mom, aunts, and teachers, I knew that one way or another, I would go to college. Of course, no one in my family knew what this meant, but it was still my and my community’s dream for me.who is also a mechanic and works with my dad now. I was raised in a working-class neighborhood and was told from a very early age, especially by my mom and aunts, that I would go to college. I learned about hard work and to aspire for a college degree from my family.

What the biggest challenge I encountered was as a first-generation student and how I overcame it:  I faced three big challenges: expectations, finances, and lack of preparation. Considering expectations, I had a high school guidance counselor who did not believe in me. When I told her I wanted to go to Stanford and become a lawyer, she told me that kids like me do not go to places like Stanford and become lawyers. Instead, I should go to Stanislaus State University and become a paralegal. I never applied to Stanford. Instead, I applied to four UCs. I got into UCSC and wanted to come here, as it was the only college campus I had ever visited (thanks to a friend’s mom). I was supposed to get financial aid to cover about half of my expenses, but my financial aid was revoked. I never called the campus to find out why. Instead, I joined the Navy reserves and got the GI Bill. After becoming a corpsman (like a medic), starting up at Modesto Junior College, being put on active duty for the first Gulf War, then heading back to Modesto Junior College, I finally transferred to UC Santa Cruz! This took a lot of persistence.

My final big challenge was lack of preparation. Although I learned I was not a good writer after I transferred to UC Santa Cruz, I was too proud to really work on my writing. It was not until I started graduate school that I learned how bad my writing was, and also how ill-prepared I was for that level of work. I dealt with something called “imposter syndrome.” In this context, this was the belief that I didn’t belong in school and that my admission to the university was a mistake. I had to work through these feelings, which came with a lot of tears and talking, and then I had to work very hard on my writing every day. I found classmates and professors who agreed to work with me. They also recommended books I could read to help me with my writing. Over time, I learned that I write so that I can work through an idea, and nothing is ready to be shared with a bigger audience until at least draft three. This shift helped me learn that writing is a process and not just a destination.   

How my background has helped me:  In my working-class household and cultural community, people helped each other. I knew whose door to knock on if I got hurt while out playing, if I wanted to borrow a book, if I needed a ride, if I needed a snack, etc. Children were expected to help out too, be it with a younger child’s homework (one of my jobs), or pulling weeds for a neighbor. Although I often did things myself in college, I also had an expectation that I could ask for help and someone would give it. For example, my roommates read and commented on all of my papers before I turned them in because I asked them to. It was also the case that if someone asked for my help, I would freely give it. In college, I learned I was good at math and that I liked it. I would, therefore, lead tutoring sessions for those who needed help. What I did not realize at the time, but I know now, is that those sessions helped me just as much as they helped those who I was tutoring.

What I would tell my first-year self:  Start working on your writing sooner rather than later, while you have access to tutors and you don’t have to pay someone. Take more classes outside of your major so you can gain a more interdisciplinary foundation, which will make you a better and more creative researcher. Ask questions in class, even if you are afraid you’ll sound dumb. Chances are, someone has a similar question.  

The best thing about my college experience was:  I learned that I, too, could co-create knowledge, through research. The university is not just about learning something, but about contributing to make the university and the world a better place. It was an extremely powerful moment when I learned that I could ask a question that no one knew the answer to and that I could work (usually with others) to figure something out about that question.

How being a first-generation student influences me (and/or my work) now:  My research team and I run an after-school program where we teach fourth and fifth-grade students, most of whom will be first-generation college students, to conduct action research to create change in their school and community. Something special happens when people realize that they can create knowledge. I want children to have this experience, and not have to wait until they get to college. I want children from working-class and working poor communities to know that they and their perspectives matter, that they can change the world and that there are tools that can help them to do just that. Also, as the provost of Oakes College, I do everything in my power to create programming and affect policies and procedures that will change structures so that first-generation college students can be more supported by the university.