First-Gen College Faculty: Amy Foerster
Dyson College professor Amy Foerster earned her PhD in Sociology from Cornell University, an esteemed Ivy League institution. At Cornell, her work focused on labor organizations. The committee for her dissertation, “Transformation of a Social Movement Organization: The Case of the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute,” was chaired by the renowned scholar, Henry A. Walker. In 2008, she was the recipient of a Fulbright grant, and she has published and presented widely on the subjects of organizations, popular culture, immigration, race and ethnicity and social movements. It is difficult to imagine, but as a young woman growing up in Boerne, Texas, Foerster, a high-achieving student and a self-described bookworm, was not considered by her local public school system to be college material.
Today, Boerne is a quaint and sunny suburb of the state’s second-largest city, San Antonio. When Foerster grew up in Boerne, it was less a bedroom community and more a small town. where everyone knew your name. Foerster’s father was a bricklayer and neither parent earned college degrees . The options for children of working-class parents were circumscribed, but Foerster overcame the odds and became the first of her family to graduate from college.
New ideas often open up new expectations. For Foerster, a young female high school teacher would be the one to challenge how she imagined her future. This teacher gave an assignment asking students to write an essay answering the question ‘What do you want to do in college?’ “I remember so vividly that I wrote I wasn’t sure I was going to college. I wrote this snotty essay saying that ‘I don’t want to hang around with a bunch of people from sororities and fraternities,’" said Foerster. Foerster had the misconception that college life and Greek life were synonymous. Her parents couldn’t describe the magical moments that make up the college experience – seeing your dorm room for the first time, becoming closest friends with complete strangers, and feeling overwhelmingly that the world is your oyster. “The teacher returned the essay, and wrote ‘there’s a whole other world out there other than sororities and fraternities, so you should think about what you can get out of it.’ In my memory of it, she encouraged me to think twice before saying I was not going to go to college,” explained Foerster. A seed was planted and Foerster began to see her future differently.
It takes a city
By her junior year in high school, the idea of furthering her education beyond high school had taken hold for Foerster. Her father had started work in Riverside, California, and she took a chance and joined him. Riverside was a city, one with greater ethnic and class diversity.and Foerster found opportunities and educational support there. Her new classmates were the children of professors and the children of factory workers alike. “When I moved to California, there was discussion at the high school about putting me in the gifted and talented program. It shifted my opportunities and the context in which I saw myself as well. It was more normal to go to college,” reflected Foerster. “Most of my friends were applying to college. I think my dad was starting to assume that I should apply.”
Figuring it out on her own
Foerster applied to five colleges and was accepted to all. She made her parents proud. Like most first-generation college students, she navigated the process on her own. She enrolled at the University of California at Riverside, and a scholarship from her father’s company covered most of the tuition, in addition to books. Her father also helped her financially, and she had a work-study position in the library.
“It was gratifying and meaningful for my parents to see me in college, but we never discussed it beyond ‘How are classes going?’ because college wasn’t an experience they had. They never asked what I was choosing as my major, and they never questioned my choices. They never said, ‘You’re not going to get a job with a sociology degree!’,” said Foerster.
Foerster is an associate professor of Sociology and Anthropology and the department’s former chair. She teaches a new generation of students, many of them first-generation as well, to investigate the structure of groups, organizations, and societies, and to generate new ideas about some of the most pressing social issues of our time.
Her advice to first generation college students: “Being first-generation college means you don’t have the same experience as someone whose parents or grandparents went to college, where there is a family tradition of college attendance. It’s not necessarily a limitation. It just means you have different experiences coming in to college upon which to draw. Use these experiences.”