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Straddling the blue collar and white collar worlds
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Alfred Lubrano, author of "Limbo" (Photo courtesy Linda Carroll)
There's the perception that the United States is a place where a blue collar kid can become part of the upper classes through hard work, determination and a little luck. But many who rise from humble beginnings, like first-generation college graduates, find themselves in a unique position: They straddle both the blue-collar and white-collar worlds while not feeling comfortable in either.

St. Paul, Minn. — Marilyn Phelps wanted more from life than her parents had in Brooklyn Park, where they sold vegetables and worked at the post office. So she applied and was accepted into Blake, a private prep school in Minneapolis. It was there she began to realize how different her homelife was from other students.

"They would talk about going to plays; we never went to plays. They'd talk about gatherings like mingling which we had no experience with mingling. In our family it was just important to make a paycheck and survive," says Phelps.

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Image Dave Andersen

The teachers at Blake helped Phelps catch up academically, to the point she earned a scholarship to Yale. But in that transition she learned she also had to change.

"I was always taught and it was drilled into me, you don't try to make yourself seem better, puff yourself up. But that's how a lot of people got ahead in many classes, sort of dropping names, talking about their own experiences in detail," she says.

To succeed, Phelps accumulated what's known as "cultural capital," a phrase coined by a French sociologist who said class status is about more than money; it's about learning the culture of the educated. Those who are first to attend college in their families quickly learn they lack that capital. They're competing with students who, studies say, have three times the vocabulary as straddlers heard at home and students whose parents prepared them financially and emotionally for college.

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alfred Lubrano would sit in class at Columbia University while his father layed bricks at a nearby campus building. That juxtaposition inspired Lubrano's book, "Limbo". "Limbo" is about the struggle blue collar people face when they strive for the white collar world.

President Jimmy Carter
Attorney Michael Ciresi
President Bill Clinton
Presidential Candidate John Edwards
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice James Gilbert
Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts
Robert McNair, owner of Houston Texans football team and founder of Cogen Technologies
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Helen Meyer
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page
Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Minnesota Tax Court Judge George Perez
Author Richard Rodriguez
Ramsey County Salvador Rosas
Manuel Cervantes, St Paul City Attorney
Former Lt. Gov. Mae Schunk
Chief Judge Minnesota Court of Appeals Edward Toussaint
Ramsey County Judge Ed Wilson

"Class is script, map and guide. (It) tells you how to talk, how to dress, how to eat, who to marry. It's nearly everything about you, it's what you expect out of life and what your future should be," he says.

Lubrano calls those who move above their class, straddlers. They straddle both worlds never feeling comfortable in either. And he says that's especially true in the workplace -- blue-collar people come from a culture where people are upfront and speak their minds. The idea of networking and having the boss over for dinner in a blue-collar family just isn't real. was drilled into me, you don't try to make yourself seem better, puff yourself up. But that's how a lot of people got ahead in many classes, sort of dropping names, talking about their own experiences in detail.
- Marilyn Phelps

"They think you're supposed to make friends with people because you like them not because they can do something for you. But networking is just that," Lubrano says.

According to Lubrano, straddlers often feel they're impostors in the white-collar world, while at the same time they feel alienated from the blue collar world.

Plymouth architect Dave Andersen's mother was a homemaker and his father designed tools. His parents were strong advocates of Andersen becoming the first in his family to go to college. But other family members were not. During a break from school, he realized how little he had in common with some of his own relatives.

"It was interesting going back for me the holidays for family gatherings hearing about one of my cousins is working for one of the local manufacturing plants making a gajillion dollars an hour and here I am; why am I wasting my time going to school," he says.

Andersen says however his experience has helped him. He can better identify with other people's struggles and he's more willing to accept risk.

"I remember very well going to Senegal, Africa by myself. Wow. I'm not sure what to expect. I just did it. More and more I'm going places where I'm not sure what the outcome is going to be. But I'm comfortable with making it up as I go," Andersen says.

Author Alfred Lubrano describes straddlers like Dave Andersen as a new hybrid. They are bi-cultural, living and understanding life in both classes.

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