In September of 1955, Gertrude Mary Long, better known as Gigi, started her freshman year of college at Lowell Technical Institute in Lowell, Massachusetts. (That’s UMass Lowell to you.) Not only was she a first-generation college student, she was one of 20 women among thousands of men. Her major? Textile chemistry.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so strange,” Gigi says. “I think that was when I felt most out of place. You hit campus and there was a swarm of blue uniforms,” due to all the male students in mandatory ROTC classes.
College administrators didn’t pull their punches when talking with the freshmen about what to expect. “The retention rate was terrible,” Gigi recalls. “We were told by the dean of students, look to the right and look to the left, one of you won’t be here by the end of the year.”
Though most of her professors treated the women no differently, she remembers some exceptions. In an engineering drawing class, the professor said, “You know I don’t expect you girls to spend Saturday reading ‘Popular Mechanics.’” His attitude likely drove out at least one talented woman. “There was a woman in the class who dropped out and got a job as a draftsman.”
“Engineering drawing was where I learned to smoke,” Gigi recalls. “It was not one of my
better subjects.” Nevertheless, she persisted.
In high school, Gigi graduated second in her class and won a scholarship to Lowell Tech. But like many first-generation college students today, she was shocked to find herself ill-prepared. “We had pretty low-level classes [in high school] but I didn’t know that. At the time,
I was perfectly happy.” But she saw her grades slip sophomore year, in part because her high school counselors hadn’t stopped her from making a mistake—skipping important higher-level math classes. However, she quickly rebounded and made Dean’s List as a junior.
Gigi relished campus social life and activities. The things she joined: Phi Sigma Rho, “a social sorority for women in engineering and engineering technology.” Newman Club, part of a network of campus societies that began in the 1800s to help Catholic students, who faced discrimination in secular colleges, find support and live their faith. Tech Players, the college theatrical society. Gigi didn’t take the stage, but she made sure the goat never missed a cue in the production of Mr. Roberts.
Making Strides in Women’s Sports, Pre-Title IX
And there was basketball. Women for team sports were in high demand. “Anything that required a certain number of players, they were desperate for bodies,” Gigi says. Basketball then was very different from today’s WNBA. “We played half court. If you wanted to play, you played. I don’t remember having many practices. Most of us were in labs all afternoon anyway.” She doesn’t like to brag, but her yearbook will tell you she was team captain her junior and senior year.
The guys who lived on campus came out to cheer them on, and slowly, their persistence won incremental changes to support women’s sports. “Someone wanted showers,” she says. “The athletic department got it: a circular shower stall in the sorority room next to the gym.”
When women’s basketball had finally established itself enough to be considered a varsity sport, the athletic department asked the senior women how they wanted to be honored. Gigi remembers them asking the team: “Would you like jewelry?” Their answer: “No, we want letter sweaters, just like all the other teams.” And that’s what they got.
Senior year, industry representatives looking for chemists, chemical engineers and the like came for campus interviews. Gigi went to an interview with a company where the industry reps looked at her funny and said, “We don’t hire women.”
“You should have said so,” Gigi told them. “We wouldn’t have signed up.” It was the way things were. “A few years later, things changed dramatically.”
But at the time, Gigi moved 300 miles away from her family, to Delaware and the only company who offered her a job, Joseph Bancroft and Sons, which ran textile mills. Eventually, she became my mother. “I’ve always been glad I got a degree,” she says.
Giving Back to the Next Generation of First-Gen Students
So have I. Without it, she might never have spent 19 years at Delaware Technical Community College, prepping labs for more first-gen college students like herself, who aspire to enter nursing or STEM fields. (Not to mention working down the hall from Jill Biden.)
My mom hates to cook, but baking reminds her of her lab days. She’s now in her 70s, and in our family, mom’s apple pie is still a thing.
Over the last decade, I’ve been involved in supporting first-generation college students in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Many, like Mom, are children of immigrants. One night, after a group of young people from my church shared their struggles and triumphs, I looked at them and said, “Someday, your children will look up to you the way I look up to my mother.”