As a first-generation and low-income student, Associate Professor of Modern Languages Robin Ragan strived to squeeze out every bit of education she could. From primary school to getting her Ph.D., Ragan fought her financial instability to get what she always wanted; an education.
“I did have a strong desire to make a living off of my mind, I didn’t want to make a living for manual labor or even anything like waitressing,” Ragan said. “I wanted to do something where I could get paid for thinking and analyzing and that kind of thing, I was really enamored with that [goal],”
Ragan graduated from the University of Illinois-Urbana with a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic Literature and continued at the same university to obtain a Ph.D. However, it wasn’t until her first year of grad school that she realized she wanted to become a professor.
“I don’t think there was a moment where I was like, ‘I wanna be a professor,’ it was much more naive than that. It was more, I want to get a Ph.D., I didn’t know what that would lead to, I just thought I want to get a Ph.D. because that was the maximum amount of schooling you could have,” Ragan said. “I have always loved school from the time I was a little girl, and I wanted to have that feeling of accomplishing the maximum amount I could.”
Just like many first-generation students, Ragan struggled to connect with her family when it came to sharing her knowledge. She never wanted to seem like she knew more than her family members, but she had wanted to be able to speak about her new academic interests.
“When you go to college and you get filled [with] ideas, you get inspired and you want to change the world. Then you’re sitting over the dinner table and topics come up that are kind of difficult, and you are full of ‘well I learned in this class and that’s not actually the case.” Ragan said. “Then you can kind of rub your family the wrong way, because you are full of all this new knowledge and it comes off as superiority.”
As a young girl, Ragan was forced to grow up quickly to assist her single mother and take care of her siblings. This kind of responsibility helped her understand the kind of power money can have on a person’s life. Her spending habits reflect the way she saw money as a child. She continues to be spontaneous while spending, rather than saving the money she earns. When she was young, she failed to plan ahead when it came to paychecks.
“It was more like ‘live the moment, live the day.’ Sometimes it’s like if you can do that it creates a lot more spontaneity in life and you can have more fun,” Ragan said. “My husband grew up with more of a saving mentality and he’s always trying to curb me back from being too much of a ‘spend what you have [type.]’”
As for sticking with school, she believes she owes much of her success to her teachers throughout her years of schooling. As a child, her family moved often, placing her in new school systems year to year. Ragan struggled to adjust to the new learning systems but is grateful for so many different teachers taking her under their wing.
“School often gave me a safe place when things at home didn’t feel as safe. The school was where I felt really comfortable and relaxed and it wasn’t as tense as home,” Ragan said. “So being at school was just a place that I could flourish, and the teachers recognized that in me and gave me that space where I could do that. Thank god for teachers.”
Ragan strives to give the same kind of comfort to students when she advises them. Ragan has devoted herself into the SPARK Summer Bridge Program, which is an opportunity for first-generation and/or low-income students to be introduced to college with more guidance and assistance from the college.
Ragan makes sure to keep in touch with students that come from a low-income background in case they need support from someone who has been in their position before.
Ragan has also been reconstructing the study abroad programs so that the engagement is largely focused on the community rather than looking at the sites.
As a professor, she wants to use her place of power to question the systems and encourage students to get out into the world.
“Sometimes I will be so excited that someone sends me an email that things aren’t going well and they reply back, that little exchange back and forth is very fulfilling to me,” Ragan said. “To know that I’ve made a difference in that person’s life and that they’re not in such a bad place anymore,”
This spring break, Ragan will be going on a trip to a detention center where she and two other students will be interpreting for women who are incarcerated and asking for asylum in the United States. Since this is a pilot run of this program, she is hoping to soon offer it to more students in the future.
“I’m excited because the students want to use their language skills in this way,” Ragan said. “That’s like the Knox ethos, to help other people in the world who don’t have the same privileges that we do.”