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Colby King '07 Discusses First Generation College Students, Social Capital, and Happiness

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Posted on Monday, May 3, 2021

We asked Colby King '07, Assistant Professor of Sociology at USC Upstate and a Political Science and Sociology (minor) graduate of Westminster College, to provide us with a snippet of his research expertise focused on Social Inequality, Social Class, Working-Class and First-Generation College Students that will be sure to open our eyes throughout the week and months ahead. Here's what he had to say:

When I walked across the steps of Old Main at graduation in 2007, I became the first person in my family to earn a Bachelor’s degree. I am the son of a steel mill worker – my dad worked in combustion at Armco, now AK-Steel, in Butler, Pa. I didn't move far from home for college but coming to Westminster made it possible for me to make friends from new places with whole range of experiences unfamiliar to me and those friendships continue to enrich my life.

As a sociology professor, one of my focuses in teaching and research has been supporting students from working-class and first-generation to college (WCFG) backgrounds. In my work, I have found that, for college students from these backgrounds, a key factor for making the most of their college degree is the development of what we identify in sociology as your social capital. Social capital refers to your social network. Not your presence on social media, but the size and diversity of your network of friends and acquaintances. Having a diverse social network, across many identities and circumstances from race and class to geography and ability, means that you have access to information, opportunities, and perspective you would not otherwise know about. And, research has found that people with more diverse social networks are also healthier and happier.

For many students, college may be the most diverse social setting that you spend substantial time in. You are in classes with students from a whole range of backgrounds, and you study with professors and interact with staff and administrators with a wide range of life experiences. Especially for students from WCFG and other historically marginalized backgrounds, college can mean a unique opportunity to expand your social capital, which I wrote about for the Everyday Sociology Blog. So, while you are on campus, I encourage you to connect with people who come from contexts and circumstances unlike your own. Building a diverse social network creates opportunities for you and your connections and also enlivens campus for all.

About Mr. King: Originally from Slippery Rock, Colby King graduated from Westminster College in 2007 majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. A mentee of Dr. Kristin Park, who also learned a thing or two from Dr. Jim Perkins, and the host of other great professors at Westminster, Colby is now an Assistant Professor of Sociology at USC Upstate. He has published research on post-recession occupational shifts in Detroit and Pittsburgh, and definitions of the working class. He is a co-principal Investigator on the NSF-funded Students Engaging In Science and Mathematics Interdisciplinary Collaborations (SEISMIC) program at Bridgewater State University, where he taught for six years. He is a member of the American Sociological Association’s Task Force on First-Generation and Working-Class Persons in Sociology and is a regular contributor at the Everyday Sociology Blog.