Profile: a FGCS Professor

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly, Professor of Political Science describes his journey in education, from an extremely difficult high school experience to finding the career he loves in college and graduate school. “When I meet former friends on Facebook from back in the olden days, I’m the last person they expect to be a college professor.”

Dr. Sean Kelly, Professor of Political Science


Q: What degrees do you have, where did you get them and how did all of that unfold for you?


Sean: To sort of understand, I think you need to know the context. So I grew up in Seattle, which was at the time a very working class town. We cut down trees, we built airplanes, and we drank coffee. But mostly not from Starbucks. It was a very different city than it is now. And my parents, my mother and my stepfather, were not college-educated people. They went to high school but worked in advertising. This was at a time when you could do that, if you just had enough gumption and enough talent. So I would describe my upbringing as being very middle class.


So, I went to the neighborhood elementary school. Everything was great. I went to the neighborhood junior high school, and it was great. When #%!* really hit the fan was high school. I went to four high schools in four years. And I didn’t do well in any of them. And, so, given all of these things, you really don’t think, “Okay, this guy is going to gonna to college.” In fact, when, when I meet former friends on Facebook from back in the olden days, I’m the last person they expect to be a college professor. I was the stoner. Remember those people in in high school? I was one of them. I mostly just didn’t go to high school. I found other things that were more interesting to do. I managed in the fourth year to graduate from an alternative school. What I did during that final year, however, was go to cooking school. I thought I was going to be a chef, before it was cool to be a chef. And so I did a year of cooking school, which really helped me to understand what I didn’t want to do. I mean, it is really hard work.


Before high school, I was a really great student. But in high school, I was not. They were constantly trying to sell us college in high school, which I almost resented. You know, because that’s at the bottom of who I am — I’m very much a contrarian, and if you tell me I have to do something, then really, nothing pisses me off more. But I had to take these classes as part of that program. I took the first three in the summer of that year, which would be for most people the summer after high school graduation. And I thought, this is so different from high school. Everything that I hated about high school, most everything, was gone. What I found in college was, jeez, I could express myself. I could question things. I could say, “I don’t believe that. Here’s the way that I think the world works.” So I really enjoyed that. And I said, “I want to do more of this.”


And so I quit the cooking program, which was at a local community college, by the way, and I transferred to a different community college that had a slightly better reputation for college instruction. And I did my next however-many credits there because I could not have said, “Oh, I want to go college! Let me apply to the University of Washington.” Because they’re going to say “Uh-uh. You’re a 2.0 grade point average. You know, go to a community college.” So I had to prove myself, and it was at the North Seattle Community College where I proved that I could do work at that level and then transfer to Seattle University.


That’s how I finished my degree. I finished my degree in political science there, and did quite well. After taking a year off, I went to graduate school at the University of Colorado. That’s where I did my masters and Ph.D. But I really think those earlier things are important.


I very clearly remember before, I was probably about seventeen years old when I first asked my mother, “What’s a grad student?” I had no idea what that was. I’d heard the term, but I didn’t know what that was. So she explained it to me. She basically just said, “You go to college and then after college you get a higher degree like a master’s degree.” I heard somebody mention this. What is this? Why – why would you graduate and then be a student? That didn’t make any sense. I think back now, and I’m like, I was seventeen. You know, our daughter probably has heard about graduate school from the time that she knew how to speak.


Q: What was it like for you in college? How did you navigate your way through? Did you feel like you belonged?


Sean: I have never felt like I belonged. To this day, I don’t feel like I belong. I have a very deep-seated sense of inferiority to everybody around me because I didn’t go the traditional route. You know, I wasn’t a 4.0 student. I didn’t go to, you know, the University of Washington, much less an Ivy League university. I went to the University of Colorado for my Ph.D., which is not considered in the top 10 or 20 places to go. So I always felt inferior to those around me because even many of the people I worked with everyday followed a more traditional route, went to more prestigious places. So, yeah. I always – always felt and still do feel inferior.


How did I negotiate College? I had to read a lot, and I mean that in two different ways. One was I had to pick up a course catalog and read it, find out what the rules were. What courses I had to take to fulfill my requirements. What I needed to do to graduate. I did rely to some degree on advisors, but I much preferred to learn it myself and figure it out. And then go to them and say, “This is how I understand it. This is my plan. Tell me if I’m wrong.” And rarely ever was I wrong, because I made sure to read everything.


And then the reading also was a necessity for me because high school was a disaster. I didn’t have the same level of preparation as everybody else did. And so I really felt — and this is coming out of my inferiority complex — I have to go back and read and read and read everything I can. I have to have read more than the people around me, because I didn’t do that in high school. So I spent a lot – lot – lot of time reading, always reading all of my class readings regardless of whether the professor was talking about it. You know, because I felt that was my responsibility. That’s part of the deal. It doesn’t matter if this person has assigned these readings to me. They’ve done it for a reason. So I’m going to read these things.


This is the way you do well. In fact it was in that political science class, the third one, with the guy who was good. He was in the middle of giving a talk and he said he wanted to quote something out of the book. And he said, “Does anybody remember what that said?” I raised my hand, and I gave him the quote right back. And it was at that moment that he recognized me. I wouldn’t say he took a special interest in me but he certainly took an interest in me, all because I did the reading and I was able to say, “Here’s the quote you’re looking for.”


When I get in certain parts of my family, some of my cousins – this is going to come out the wrong way, but – I sense a certain reverence from them that I did this big thing. This Ph.D thing. Which is weird, and slightly uncomfortable because I’m just a normal person. I happen to know a little bit more about politics than you do, but other than that I’m the same person that I’ve always been in a lot of ways. So that’s really weird. And then there’s the part where you can’t really talk about your job – not because you don’t want to but because other people have no point of reference for understanding this. So that’s always tough. So, yeah, there is very much a sense of feeling different from everybody else in my family. At least it’s in a good way.


Q: What do you think of this term, “First Generation College Student”? Do you find it useful and/or limiting? Does it help you make sense of your own life?


Sean: It really does. It really helps me. I mean, it’s not terminology that’s been around… I first heard it, I guess, when I showed up to my last job. Maybe I did start to hear it when I came into academics, after grad school. But I had never thought of myself that way.


It does help me to understand myself and helps me to try to understand my students better. Let me put it differently: to get them to understand me. I think that’s the bigger barrier. You know, them and me. We’re not that different in most any way. So actually, at the beginning of every class, especially in the intro classes, not so much in the other classes, I kind of go through this biography and say, there’s no reason you can’t do what I’ve done because I’m nothing special. I’m just like you in a lot of ways. I didn’t grow up poor but I didn’t grow up rich. All things considered, we’re not that different. You probably have parents who are actually putting more pressure on you to go to college than mine ever did.


There is nothing that I can point to that is specifically special about me. I just worked really hard. To me, a lot of it just comes from hard work, persistence. These two things. Hard work and persistence. I’m not particularly smart, but you know what? I persisted through five years of graduate school, working really hard and putting out the effort that I needed to in the end. To this day, I work really hard. I’m not the brightest guy in the room but I get the job done. It’s not that different than being in any other line of work.


Q: What advice can you offer for current First-Gen students?


99 percent of life is just showing up. It’s really true. That’s one of my pearls of wisdom that my students get at the beginning of every semester. I have my keys to being successful in college. Number one: go to class. That’s all it is! It’s about showing up. Go to class. Do the readings. Study for the exams. Show up for the exams. It’s not really that hard. I mean, I found college to be quite easy, as long as I followed these very simple rules. And showing up to class is number one.


But there are expectations put on students that this is the time you need to go to college. You’re eighteen? Check the box. And that may not be the right way to approach this. The right way might be for them to go get some life experience, kind of like I did, and learn what they don’t want to do. You know, what I learned was I don’t want to be a cook. It’s hard work. I need to find a comfier job. Let me go to college and see if I can make that happen. And then in my second quarter of college going, you know, this teaching thing. I like the look of this. I think I would like to do this. I would be able to learn things all the time through the rest of my life and I would be able to help people, which I like doing as well. So its hits some people. It doesn’t hit other people. And, you know what? There are lots of good ways to make a living. And if you get tired of that college is always there, and we’re always happy to have them back.