Steve Zylius / UCI
Davin Phoenix felt the weight of family expectations early on. As the only child of an African American mom on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, it was drilled into him that he would go to college and become an engineer.
“I was raised with the explicit understanding that there was no other option,” he says with a smile. For a shy, self-described nerd who enjoyed school and earned good grades, going to college made sense, though he’d be the first in his family to do it. But he wasn’t sure about engineering.
Phoenix was in the second week of his freshman year at Christopher Newport University when two planes hit the World Trade Center’s twin towers. He’d already grown interested in politics as a high school senior, witnessing the fierce 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“That was an eye-opening precursor, seeing the outcome of the election and realizing our political system is not running smoothly,” says Phoenix, now an assistant professor of political science at UCI. “After 9/11, there was a new world order, driven further by the Iraq intervention.”
His small liberal arts college in Newport News, Va., gave him four years of freedom to study what he liked. Engineering faded, and his interest in the intersection of race and politics grew. Phoenix wasn’t sure how to make a living in political science, but he applied to graduate school and was accepted at the vaunted University of Michigan.
“It was easy to sink or swim, and oftentimes I felt like I was sinking. But I was able to make it,” he says.
Phoenix earned a doctorate in public policy and political science and is now beginning his third year of teaching and conducting research at UCI.
He remembers his own experiences when he interacts with bright, young students on campus who are the first in their families to attend college. As co-director of the First Generation First Quarter Challenge, he’s helping train student leaders to ensure they have the skills they need to offer incoming freshmen insights and support.
Both the student leaders and the freshmen they will mentor are remaking the image of the American working-class household, Phoenix says.
“Many have very strong family ties and responsibilities, so they’re not just making their decisions on their own,” he says. “They’re carrying on their backs the desires and expectations of their parents and siblings too. It’s very meaningful to them how they approach school.”
He has received his own support, as both a student and an instructor. Last year, his mother came to visit him at UCI and sat in on a couple classes. “It was incredibly gratifying for me,” Phoenix says. “She was moved by seeing me in front of all these students who could engage with me. She could trust and see that I’m doing good work of a different kind.”