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Class never dismissed: First-generation Penn alumni still feel like impostors

Reading about working-class freshmen's unease among campus elites conjures unwelcome memories

Madeleine McHugh Pierucci, 77,  in her Center City co-op. She says that being a first-generation college student at the University of Pennsylvania “created a disconnect between me and my family.”
Madeleine McHugh Pierucci, 77, in her Center City co-op. She says that being a first-generation college student at the University of Pennsylvania “created a disconnect between me and my family.”Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

One in an occasional series that follows a group of first-generation college students through their freshman year at the elite University of Pennsylvania.

The days you think you're done with are never done with you.

Some University of Pennsylvania alumni still recall the travails of being the first in their families to graduate from college.

After reading the first story in a series by the Inquirer and Daily News earlier this month that showed how first-generation Penn students feel both uneasy among their privileged peers, and distanced from their families as they begin their college careers, several alumni wrote to say the article resonated with them.

"Unfortunately," David Benglian, one of the alumni, said, "it reminded me of memories long ago put to bed."

Though they've gone on to lives of accomplishment — thanks in no small part to the prestige and knowledge conferred by Penn itself — the alumni remain ambivalent about the bumpy rocket ride of class mobility, which made them first feel like impostors at Penn, and then uncomfortable with their families afterward.

"Our alums tell our first-generation students the fish-out-of-water feeling doesn't end after they graduate Penn," said Valerie De Cruz, who oversees Penn's First Generation, Low Income Program, a student organization that works to create a sense of belonging within the university. "It has to do with entering cultures that are not yours to begin with."

Three readers agreed to share their first-gen stories.

Becoming an actor

Stephen Loughin, Penn class of 1977, was a code switcher.

He could don a tuxedo for campus receptions and hold forth in his self-described "high-society accent." Then he'd go home to Downingtown and speak comfortably in the local vernacular.

"But I always felt like an impostor at Penn," said Loughin, 62, despite earning three degrees from the university, including a Ph.D. in material science, a blend of physics and chemistry. "And after a while, I felt like an impostor at home, too.

"In the end, you don't feel you belong in either of the two worlds anymore. And you never lose that impostor feeling."

That Loughin joined the Mask and Wig Club theatrical troupe at Penn was apt. "When you're working class at Penn, it's like putting on a costume and becoming an actor," he said.

Loughin attended classes with students who were receiving $5,000 monthly allowances.

The campus was awash in money — not something that's ever changed. "The predominant culture at places like Penn and Georgetown [University] comes from the affluence of people who can afford $75,000 a year [in total costs]," said Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown.

Loughin would smile wanly as well-to-do students at the Mask and Wig sang a song from a show about Penn entitled "Tuition": It's not Penn State, just check the price/ You could go to Penn State twice. (As it happens, these days, Penn's $47,000 annual tuition is more than twice Penn State University's $18,000 price tag.)

"The preppie kids called themselves 'full-freight students,' meaning their parents paid full fees, distinguishing from scholarship kids like me getting a 'free ride,' " said Loughin, now a married father of three living in Bala Cynwyd and working for a financial software company in Horsham.

"You're sitting there and you're one of these kids they're putting down, but no one wants to identify himself as a free-ride student.

"So you don't speak up."

Regardless of era, first-generation students endure "micro-aggressions" — such as being designated free-riders — "that chip away at you over time," said Sandra Goldrick-Rab, sociologist and first-generation expert at Temple University. "The experiences teach you one thing:

"You don't belong."

How not to be a local yokel

The parents of one of David Benglian's Penn classmates bought their son a Society Hill townhouse to live in during the school year.

"They paid $25,000 for the house in our freshman year in 1966, then sold it for $35,000 in 1970 at graduation," said Benglian, 69, now living in Wynnewood. "The rich got richer."

Benglian never wanted to go to Penn, but his mother was a secretary at the university and Benglian was offered free tuition.

"I'd lived near campus and it didn't seem exotic enough," Benglian said.

It became exotic pretty quickly.

One night during freshmen orientation, some classmates decided to fly to Las Vegas.

"I didn't even have train fare to New York City," said Benglian, whose family moved from West Philadelphia — where they'd lived over his father's carpet store — to Havertown.

"You got the sense there were people different than you."

One night, a rich classmate asked Benglian to go to an Italian restaurant with his mother. Benglian had never eaten Italian food before.

At the restaurant, his classmate's mother asked Benglian to pick out the wine.

"Why put an 18-year-old in a situation like that?" Benglian asked. "She was disappointed about who her kid was bringing around."

Benglian asked the waiter for a recommendation, then experienced a bright-light insight:

"When you don't feel like you're part of the game, become observant and watch what's going on," he said.

Benglian, who went on to a career in insurance, said he drew on what he learned from the rich to elevate himself:

"If you hang around with worldly people and still graduate as a local yokel," he said, "shame on you."

‘There’s a brutality to education’

It was unheard of for a working-class woman from Kensington to attend Penn in 1956.

But Madeleine McHugh Pierucci, 77, was driving outside her lane, fueled by ambition.

"I wouldn't say there was family support," said Pierucci, who lives in Center City. Neither her father, a roofer, nor her mother, who owned a beauty salon, had finished high school.

But here was their scholarship daughter, on her way to who knew where.

"School created a disconnect between me and my immediate family," Pierucci said, a common occurrence among first-generation students. "And there was jealousy from the extended family, a sense I was leaving them behind."

Pierucci lived at home while at Penn, but for a student to succeed academically, "she must learn to distance herself from the warm family circle to isolate herself with books," said San Francisco writer and mobility expert Richard Rodriguez. "In that way, you slowly lose your family. There's a brutality to education."

Pierucci's demanding academic schedule compelled her to bail on family dinners. "They were tough to lose," said Pierucci.

At Penn, she felt adrift in a world of "sharp elbows and money," where people would rush out the door, then literally "let it hit you in the face."

But at home, there was no one to talk to about the rough day among the alien elite.

"I felt quite alone," Pierucci said. "You leave the comfortable known and go into the less welcoming unknown, and feel like you no longer belong in either world."

Pierucci became a teacher, and taught for 39 years in Mississippi, Italy, and Philadelphia.

What she got from Penn, she said, was the understanding that she could survive anywhere.

"Getting along in non-welcoming circumstances has always been a female thing," she said. "Maybe it's a class thing, too."