My father was a carpenter and my mother a secretary. Neither had any experience of university other than they believed in higher education and encouraged me to grab the opportunity. And so, I did, starting in 1974 upon entering University College Dublin where I spent five rewarding years earning two degrees, an undergraduate one in history, and a graduate one in political science.
But when navigating the experience, I was on my own.
For a working-class student like me in a more middle-class environment, that meant a lot of trial and error. In addition, back then, student services were, to put it mildly, modest.
And, in fairness, I wouldn’t have had the sense to think in those asking for help terms. On many occasions, I stumbled and missed chances. Connecting the dots proved challenging, and I wasn’t a genius.
That said, I loved my subjects – history, political science and economics – and the professors who taught them. Immersing myself in my studies spurred me on and helped me grow in confidence. The grounding they gave me has been life lasting.
However, there was an external factor that made a huge difference in my ability to persist at university and not get frustrated or lose hope. I had four uncles who were relatively young and smart but without any university education.
Working class themselves, they were, however, interested in books, ideas, music, the meaning of life, and were good, informed conversationalists. A week rarely went by when I did not connect with one or the other of them. They inevitably asked about my courses, exams, assignments, grades, and projects.
Those conversations, many of which took place over Friday night pints in local pubs, kept me on track and pushed me to apply myself even more.
My uncles never set foot on the grounds of University College Dublin, yet they were integral to me completing university successfully and on time. I was fortunate—what the university did not provide, or I couldn’t access, my extended family did.
Without training or formal education, Uncles Mick, Johnny, Leo, and Kiernie had my back. I will always be grateful to them for their encouragement, mentorship, and great good humor.
I now will date myself by quoting the following lyrics, but they capture the essence of my first-generation college experience: “You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.”
Martin McGovern lives in Mashpee and is the director of Communications and Media Relations at Stonehill College.