The first MacDonald

James Madison University senior Meaghan MacDonald has only a handful of days left on campus. For her, it’s been a long and sometimes stressful journey. But with hard work, grit, smarts and some wise words from her father, she’ll earn her diploma and soon “walk” with newfound strengths and perspectives.

“You do you!”

by Meaghan MacDonald (’13)

Meaghan MacDonald ('13) and her dad

Meaghan MacDonald (’13) and her dad

When I was growing up and my parents would talk to me about college, they would always say when I go, not if I go. Both understand and value the vital need of a degree today, especially if I want to achieve my dream of becoming a sports journalist. Neither of them went to college, so I will have the pleasure and honor of wearing the title of first generation graduate. Before I came to JMU, I thought nothing of being a first generation student or that it makes me a minority. But once I got here, as I worked my own way through, my opinions and feeling about myself drastically changed.

In 2007 my family was caught in the economic downturn. My dad lost his job with Affinity One Federal Credit Union, where he was vice president of operations for 12 years. After a year of unemployment, he had a quick stint as vice president of operations with Zurich Insurance North American in Chicago, eventually losing that job in 2009 right before I started my freshman year. Dad was out of work for almost my entire college career but finally found a job this past October.

Dad never went to college because it wasn’t as much of a necessity as it is today. He worked his way from being a bank teller at age 18 up to the senior vice president of the company during a career that spanned 30 years. The importance of a college degree was never instilled in Dad or his brother by their parents and both were told to just work after high school. My dad is a hard worker and understands the importance of it, but he also came to realize the crucial need for that piece of paper. My brother, sister and I were never given an option. My parents wanted to better my life and arm me with the knowledge I need to become someone exceptional.  

Since freshman year college has been a difficult transition for me. I was thrown into a completely new life and had to change my routine and priorities and also quickly become self-sufficient. I never had the luxury of my parents helping me out financially and because of that I had to find a job and help pay my way through college. Freshman year was one of the most difficult years for me because it’s all about first impressions and maintaining social circles. When people would ask me about my family and what my parents did for a living — or where they went to college — I would quietly respond that they never went to school and that my father was out of work. People were sympathetic, but most of them could never really connect to the stress and anxieties that I felt. Being able to afford groceries or books was constantly on my mind as were the terrifying thoughts that my federal aid would not come through and I wouldn’t be able to come back to college.

As I moved along in my college career, each year felt the same: I was still working hard to pay my way through JMU, Dad was still out of work and the feelings of estrangement were getting worse. I was under a lot of pressure from myself to over-perform with my grades and to set a standard for my brother and sister. I couldn’t slip up. I had to ration my money and sit out on spring break trips to Cancun, Saturday nights at the Blue Nile, day trips to Washington, D.C., or anything else that can be defined as the “college experience.” I was also worried that my friends would start to think I was making up excuses for not joining them or that I just didn’t want to hang out. But when my feelings of being alone and the burden of first generation grad became too much, I would call my parents to vent.

“You do you,” my dad would tell me. And he is right. Everyone has a unique life situation and a unique college experience, and I can’t compare myself to others or try and define what is normal. After the realization that I am my own person, I started treating myself like an individual, not a run-of-the-mill college student.

As my senior year comes to a close and after almost four years of stressing about the label of first generation grad and all the financial pains that came along with it, I have come to terms with them and no longer allow them to rule my college experience and memories. No adversity that I have faced ever held me back; if anything it has made me a stronger student and person. I have taken my academics seriously, affirmed a strong work ethic, and when I walk across that stage in 11 days, I will have earned a degree that is mine and mine alone. I am pleased to say I am the first MacDonald to ever graduate college and happy to make my family proud.

With the stresses of college and classes fading and the worries of job hunting and the unknown state of my future beginning to rise, I always think back on the wise words of my dad to calm me down. “You do you.” Whenever I feel down on myself or that I am not capable of accomplishing my dreams, I will always carry these words in the back of my mind and remember that I am exceptional and capable of achieving great things.

About grahammb
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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