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A first-generation college student: Ralph Wheeler

August 13, 2018

“I’m a First-Gen College Student” will bring together first-generation students, faculty, staff and recent alumni with Welcome Events from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 4 and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

To help launch the program, we’re telling just some of the many first-generation stories here at NIU.

Ralph Wheeler

Ralph Wheeler

Ralph Wheeler knows what it’s like to rewash plastic forks and spoons, to starve on the weekends and flip burgers in the summer.

He’s been where many find themselves, wondering how they’ll pay for college.

He knows the pain of poverty, the power of persistence.

He’s proud of where he came from, how he got where he is today. But he struggles a bit as he tries to talk about the woman who made it possible.

“My mom was a saint,” he said, fighting back tears.

Wheeler, a professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at NIU, grew up as the second youngest of four boys in Tucson, Ariz. His late mother, Mildred, raised the boys alone on about $12,000 a year after their father died of throat cancer when Wheeler was 9 years old.

“Looking back on it, I don’t know how she managed it,” he said.

Wheeler knew back then he’d go to college one day, but he also knew he’d have to pay for it by himself.

His mother had dropped out of high school to help take care of her seven brothers and sisters. She told her boys her lack of education held her back. His father worked a variety of jobs. He ran a service station, later bought a mobile home park in Tucson because he wanted to work with his boys.

They’d all keep the park up, cut grass, help with the electrical and plumbing, paint–a little bit of everything.

“I’ve been working for as long as I can remember,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler’s two older brothers tried to go to college, but didn’t make it. Wheeler’s not quite sure how, but he ended up at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, where he earned a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry from Cornell University in 1988.

“I guess in high school, I somehow found my way to taking the right test and putting in applications for financial aid,” he said. “Going to a small college, I had faculty members looking out for me. I blundered my way through. I blundered my way through the bureaucracy, through the system. …

“That’s why it’s important to find a mentor, particularly at a large school like NIU. I see the difficulties the students here have just navigating the system, knowing how to apply for scholarships, knowing what’s available.”

Financial aid, scholarships, some loans and hard work helped Wheeler finish college. He was on a university meal plan during the week one summer. On Fridays, he’d eat as much as he could, take a few things back to his room. On the weekends, he wouldn’t eat much. He’d eat cereal out of an old margarine container so he didn’t have to buy any dishes.

“For decades, I would work 60- to 80-hour weeks,” he said. “I know what it means to be dirt poor and stressed about not knowing whether you’ll go back to school. I tell people all the time education is the only true way I know out of poverty.”

He’d advise today’s students to find jobs related to their majors as soon as possible. Yet, he doesn’t regret the experience he gained in the many jobs he took on growing up and in college, before finding jobs in his field.

“I know I’ll never starve,” he said. “I can always flip burgers.”

He had started out as an engineering major, thinking it’d be the best way to support himself. A chemistry class fascinated him, and he decided then, “I don’t have to be rich to make a living. I can be a chemist.”

His path to professor and chair sort of evolved as he discovered the joy of teaching. His wife, an instructor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at NIU, regularly reminds him of the meaningfulness of the job.

“This is where we can make a difference,” she tells him.

His influence goes beyond his professional life. His younger brother followed in his footsteps, earning a Ph.D. in math. As he gave a speech at his older brother’s wedding, he told Wheeler, “You’re an inspiration to me.”

“It was something I never knew,” Wheeler said.

He points to a favorite book, “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller, as a motivation.

“The message to me was there’s always a way over or around a bureaucratic obstacle. There’s always a way if you’re clever enough to find it,” he said. “Don’t take no for an answer. Find a plan. Be persistent. Be flexible in your plan.”

Challenges surface. Goals change. But the drive must remain.

“I would say it was always my plan to be here, but there are lot of obstacles and chances to get derailed along the way. I always hoped to be here and planned to be financially secure and professionally successful. But was I always certain I’d get here? Absolutely not,” Wheeler said.

“I think, yeah, I’ve come a long way.”

Enjoy food, music and giveaways and hear stories about the personal experiences of those who were the first in their families to attend four-year colleges at Welcome Events on Sept. 4 and 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

Learn about the resources available here, including the Breaking Barriers bi-weekly support group for first-generation college students, the Mentoring Valuable Peers program, future career events, supportive and accessible NIU policies, financial aid and scholarship information and more.

Are you a first-generation faculty or staff member? Drop in to a Welcome Event and take home a laminated “I am a first gen college graduate” door decoration to put in your office. Let first-generation college students know they’re not alone and support is available.