An example for her siblings

History prof's experience as a first-generation college student shapes her approach to teaching

Like most students who move to a different part of the country for college, Myisha Eatmon experienced her share of culture shock when she left North Carolina for South Bend, Indiana, as a freshman at Notre Dame.

“Growing up in the South, most people were happy and they spoke when they saw each other, and that definitely was not the culture I encountered when I got to Notre Dame,” says Eatmon, now an assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina. “I remember calling my mom and I was like, ‘Mom, everybody here seems so sad.’”

But while she wasn’t prepared for the gray winter days and the cold indifference, Eatmon was ready for the academic rigor of the private university, which had offered her a scholarship based on the strength of her high school GPA and SAT score.

“I viewed going to Notre Dame as an opportunity to pull my family out of a poor, working class situation,” says Eatmon, who graduated with a double major in political science and history at age 21. “I felt like, as a first-gen student, I was setting an example for my siblings, who have since both gone on to college.”

Eatmon had mapped out a career trajectory that would have taken her on to law school and a career in politics, but a semester in Washington, D.C. — and a mentor’s counsel — changed her mind.

“I thought about all the thankless hours I would have to spend working in a corporate firm to pay off law school debt. And a mentor had encouraged me to consider academia where I could impact more lives,” she says.

She started a Ph.D. program in history at Northwestern, but midway through had to take a year off when her mother died so that she could move back to North Carolina and assume legal guardianship of her then 14-year-old brother. It was a lot for a 24-year-old to take on, but she persevered and finished the doctoral degree.

I felt like, as a first-gen student, I was setting an example for my siblings, who have since both gone on to college.

Myisha Eatmon, assistant professor of history

As an assistant professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, Eatmon is teaching African American history survey courses and a course on Jim Crow laws as part of the college’s justice-themed semester.

“What I want my students to do is teach themselves through the documents I provide, the words of people who lived through an era,” Eatmon says. “It’s a way of uncovering forgotten history, and it also allows students to make judgments for themselves.

“College is a time where you get to figure out who you are and what you want out of your life and decide what you want out of community. And even though we've forgotten this as a country, there is a social compact. But without knowing our history and without reading that history for ourselves, we can't make educated and informed decisions. So I'm trying to empower my students to read the sources for themselves and not allow other people to dictate for them what happened in the past.”

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