Graduate Hannah McLaughlin wrote the letter from which this essay is excerpted to President Bill Chace in February.
It is difficult for me to talk about the experiences that were essential in shaping me, because I always fear that they will be considered before my accomplishments and somehow diminish the results of my work. But as I prepare to graduate from this institution, I have come to realize that my record does not say enough to the administrators and professors I leave behind about the importance of what they are doing here every day. And so, as a small legacy of my own, I would like to pass along just how much their combined efforts have meant to me.
I have had few of the advantages of many Emory students. My family has always struggled economically, although both of my parents have jobs-my father often works 60 to 80 hours a week as a truck driver and mechanic. At various times in my life, I have been a patient at low-cost health clinics for the uninsured and the recipient of free school lunches and donated clothes for the poor. During my adolescence, my parents struggled through a bankruptcy and tried to hide their uncertainties from my brothers and me when they were not sure that we would still a have a place to live in a month's time.
But my mother and father were proud and determined people. They believed that our hardships were temporary and our success certain. Nothing happens in this world without hard work, they said, and everybody has a chance.
I took their words to heart, and at fourteen I took a job waiting tables in the summer and kept it for six years, paying for braces, car, computer and what the University requested to supplement the scholarships and grants it awarded me.
But I do not want to dwell on my past or imply that I wish it could have been different. On the contrary, I view my experience with pride, and I would not change it if I could. My upbringing taught me the merit of hard work and, more importantly, the value of my education. I knew early on that getting an education was the only way I would ever do better than my parents had done, and I also knew that learning meant power. I love my parents, and I have long understood that no one would care what they suffered and nothing would change for people like us unless we received the education and developed the public voice to make it happen.
When Emory awarded me the financial aid that made it possible for me to come to Atlanta, my first thought was that I would have to prove myself worthy of the faith the University had shown me. I was too naive to be afraid, and I already knew what it meant to start with very little and make good anyway. I came here for an education, and whatever the University had given me, I meant to pay back in terms of achievement.
My Emory education is already opening doors of opportunity for me. I am rapidly entering a larger world in which I feel that I have a voice and the power to make changes. Last year I received the Beinecke Scholarship, which will help finance my first two years of graduate school in the study of English, and this year I received a Rotary Club Ambassadorial Scholarship, which will fund a year of study overseas.
In the future, my goals are to write and teach at the university level. I hope my academic writing will stand as a testament to the intellectual distances a person of my background can travel. I also hope that as a professor I will be of special help to students from backgrounds similar to my own, who may have trouble adjusting to the college environment.
My nonacademic writing deals with issues of class and struggle indirectly and, I hope, powerfully, but I would like to be a proponent for change in other ways as well. I firmly agree with William Julius Wilson's analysis of the curious misconception that the fate of our poor is not directly related to the fate of the nation. I intend to work in the capacity I know best, as a writer and essayist, informing and shaping public opinion. I also want to help low-income students in their efforts to apply to college and offer them the guidance and experience to which I never had access. Most importantly, I hope to be in a position to share a portion of my income with my parents to thank them for all their sacrifices on my behalf with the only gift they could never give me.
I am fortunate to have received my education, but I know that I could not have come so far without the help of Emory's phenomenal faculty. Here I found a supportive environment in which my professors took a personal interest in my progress and were always willing to talk with me and help with any difficulty. In particular, my advisors in both majors-Lynn Williams and John Bugge-have acted as mentors, giving me invaluable advice and insight.
Many times I have felt that I was playing catch-up at Emory and that the students here, with their private school educations and obvious advantages, were far ahead of me culturally and educationally. But I worked hard and made every effort to take advantage of the many opportunities available to me at this institution, and I feel that I have succeeded in doing what I set out to do. I have a working class background, but a world class education. On behalf of all the other Emory students who have crossed that platform with just such a dual victory in mind, I say, "thank you."
Hannah McLaughlin was also the Class of 1997's McMullan Award winner.
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