Role Model: Katja Koch Experiences as a First Generation Academic
The project Role Models: First Generation Academics at TU Braunschweig makes social diversity at our university visible within the framework of Focus 2022, makes it possible to get to know different educational biographies and creates academic role models for First Generation Students. Through short interviews, various members of TU Braunschweig who were the first in their family to study, introduce themselves. This time: Katja Koch, Vice President for Teacher Training and Knowledge Transfer.
When did you decide to study and what influenced that decision?
I can’t remember exactly. When I was a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist, and for that you needed a degree. After I had made it to secondary school and was actually doing well there, it seemed only logical to me to study. Shortly before my Abitur (A-levels), however, I wasn’t quite sure which subject I wanted to study. I could still imagine archaeology, but also sociology or political science. We then took part in an open day at the University of Würzburg in the upper stage of school and the experience there was sobering: the lecture in sociology that I attended was extremely boring (the lecturer actually read aloud from his book!). The staff member who offered a subject introduction for history, political science and sociology made it clear to us that you don’t have good job opportunities if you study these subjects, and there was no offer for archaeology. So I just went into a random lecture and found it quite exciting. It was about art history and after talking to a student, I had my subjects: art history, ethnology and Italian. I now knew what I wanted to study, but not where. I definitely didn’t want to go to Würzburg or Bamberg – those would have been the two closest universities – but actually further away. I ended up in Marburg because the university sent me well-prepared information material about studying and living in the city and I quickly got a room in a student hall of residence. In the first semester, however, it turned out that my chosen subjects didn’t suit me – and I simply couldn’t imagine exactly where it would lead in the end. I then spent three months looking at different subjects at university and then did what children from first generation academic families very often do – they choose classic professions: Law, medicine or teaching. Via the teaching profession, I came to educational science and empirical research and finally to the professorship.
In what situations did you realise that you were a first generation academic?
For a long time, I was not even aware of this, because it felt completely normal to me to study and my student friends were also first generation academics. From today’s perspective, that was no coincidence. I realised that it was something special when I finished my studies. My parents and grandparents were quite proud that I was “the first in the family to study” and emphasised this to me and others several times. Praisingly, they always added that I had actually remained quite normal “while doing so”. From this sentence, one notices the distance to the academic world – despite all the pride. I suspect that children from academic families have not heard this sentence.
For me, it expresses the dilemma that with increasing education and the path into the academic world, there is also a certain distance from the family of origin. In my studies, I had access to academic knowledge that was not naturally available at home, but also to discourses that had not been held in my family until then. I answered the question of how I want to live and what is important to me differently from my parents, for example, and and as a result I naturally became different and tried out other models of life. At the same time, this is also an opportunity for the family of origin to come to terms with new ideas, e.g. with regard to gender roles.
What hurdles have there been on your career path so far? What helped you to overcome them?
I had few hurdles on my career path, apart from the fact that empirical research always has surprises in store and you have to learn to deal with uncertainties. The fact that I I managed to do that quite well had to do with the fact that I always had a plan B in case my academic career didn’t work out. I could have gone to school and worked as a teacher at any time. That took a lot of pressure off me, especially during my doctorate. In addition, at crucial points in my career, I met people with whom I could exchange ideas and who encouraged and supported me to continue.
However, the critical time was when I was about to complete my habilitation, my children were small, my contract at the University of Göttingen was expiring and I had to finish in order to be able to apply for professorships. At that point, I would have found it difficult to return to school. Without my husband, who then cut back in his career, I wouldn’t have made it so quickly. So I am not only the “first one to study in the family”, but also the “one whose husband takes care of the children” (which, in retrospect, was exactly right for everyone). It also helped that the University of Göttingen had a day-care centre for employees and I knew that the children were very well looked after there.
What personal resources can you rely on?
I was very lucky that my family always encouraged me in what I wanted to do. They basically trusted me to “make it” without defining what “it” should actually be. If I had done an apprenticeship, that would have been perfectly fine too. So I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone (except maybe myself). That gave me the necessary freedom to do what I found exciting. At the same time, I’m determined, like to finish things and can also get through dry spells, which is important both in my studies and generally for a university career. I am curious, interested in people and get along quite well with different perspectives, but I can also set myself apart. It’s also easy for me to think things together that don’t have much to do with each other at first glance, so I usually see opportunities and less risks and tend to go through life optimistically.
What ideas do you have to improve equal opportunities for first generation students?
For me, the feeling of being welcome is important. That is something that a university should convey to prospective and first-year students. Onboarding is crucial for the success of a student’s career, and every educational institution should think about how to organise the initial phase well. This includes making expectations transparent, seeing different needs and preconditions and then offering targeted support and advice, but also pushing for self-initiative.
However, it has to be said that educational careers are decided long before that and access to university is already granted or denied in primary school. Our education system is extremely selective, even if it has become much better compared to my school days. For children from non-academic homes, however, the path to university is still disproportionately more difficult and associated with greater uncertainties than for children from academic homes – and this regardless of their actual performance. Actually, children from non-academic homes make it to university not because of but in spite of the education system. For me, this speaks against the efficiency of the system and for the potential of the First Generation Students.
What message do you give to your student self?
The others are not smarter than you, they are just as insecure. Find like-minded people, be open to new experiences and enjoy what you do. The rest will work itself out, especially if you have a plan B.