Collage of portraits of first generation students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

I am First-Generation: Alexes Harris

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In the College of Arts & Sciences, we are proud to celebrate our first-generation community through a collection of stories! We honor our students, alumni, faculty, and staff, and their many contributions to our university community and beyond. 

Throwback College photo of Dr. Alexes Harris
Throwback college photo of Alexes Harris (left) with friends. Harris, a College of Arts & Sciences faculty member, shares what it means to be a first-generation graduate.

Alexes Harris

University of Washington Presidential Term Professor
Professor of Sociology
Faculty Regent to the University of Washington Board of Regents
Director of the Faculty Development Program
Faculty Athletics Representative
College of Arts & Sciences Alum (B.A., Sociology)

Can you share a little bit about your experiences as a UW student?

I was a sociology major as an undergraduate here at the UW (BA 1997). I was in a FIG [Freshman Interest Group] my first year as a freshman and led a FIG my senior year, and while not an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) designated student, I took advantage of the wonderful support EOP and the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMA&D) provided students of color and first-gen students.

How did your experience as a first-generation college student, and now faculty member inspire/impact your teaching, research, and connection to students?   

Thirty years after entering college as a first year student at the UW, and now twenty as a professor, I still remember how I felt entering this university. I remember the feeling that I did not belong and that I was way out of my comfort zone. I had no clue about how higher education worked or where I would fit in. These memories are infused within my teaching — meaning I always want to make sure all of my students know that they are exactly where they are supposed to be and belong. I want them to feel comfortable with my curriculum, engaging with their classmates and sharing their perspectives and ideas, and develop their own interests and passions. The UW helped me to find my passions, but also to find a path where I could cultivate a career. I want all of our students to have similar experiences. So, my experience as a first-gen shapes how I teach, why I teach, and fuels my excitement to be a spark in some way for all of my students.   

Dr. Alexes Harris graduating.
Alexes Harris at graduation.

As a faculty member, the Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR), Director of the Faculty Development Program (FDP), and UW Regent, what does it mean to you to be a part of the first-generation community? 

I still pinch myself and smile at all of the amazing opportunities I get to engage in on our campus for our students, staff, faculty, and broader community.  I could never have imagined in my first year as an undergraduate student that I would be a professor, much less a Faculty Regent. I am proud. My family is proud. My father had a GED and my mom, a high school diploma. I often say we went from a GED to a PhD.  While proud, I also recognize the responsibility to make sure my experience and opportunities are available to everyone. My work as the FAR is in part to ensure that people like me, first gen, are able to balance their athletic pursuits with their academic careers. That in between these two roles they find who they are and their passions. I get to do the same with our incoming faculty. With the FDP I have the amazing opportunity to welcome our new faculty, help them create and find communities of support, and learn much of the "hidden curriculum" that they might not know regarding how to be a successful faculty member. And, then as the Faculty Regent, this opportunity is one of continual learning — learning about our amazing institution, the breadth and depth of the work that is done every day for our state and nation, and even the world. But I also get to learn about all of our amazing staff, students, faculty, and administrators. Within this context, I, along with my fellow regents, have the opportunity to ensure our University remains open to all students, and is also welcoming, supportive and gives space for all of us to pursue our passions in a healthy and productive way.   

What insights would you share with current and future first-gen students?    

Have faith in yourself. Guide the decisions you make with YOUR passions, YOUR insight, and YOUR questions, what feels good to YOU! Do not let others or your fear force you in a certain direction or limit your potential. I always said, and continue to say to myself, that the only person I am competing with in life is myself.  Do not let anyone hold you back. Ask tons of questions, do not be afraid to ask for support or help when you need it. The smartest people stop and ask for help or clarity when they are unsure. Listen to advice, but seek it from many people and use what resonates with you the most. Do not be afraid to fail or stumble. Everyone does! Also, have fun. Find people you resonate with, people who smile when you are succeeding and support you when you need it. Center and protect your mental, physical, and spiritual health. These are things that will always sustain you.

Alexes Harris' Faculty Profile

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