Faculty and Teaching Staff Stories

Scott Hughes

Scott Hughes PhotoProfessor of Physics

I grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a small town close to where Philadelphia suburbs end and rural countryside begins. Both of my parents were brought up in working-class families; college was not an option for them. My dad went into the Navy; my mom was told "Girls don't go to college." After the Navy, dad became a heating repairman. When I wasn't in school, I spent a lot of time with him on service calls; convinced he could fix anything mechanical, I developed a fascination for understanding how things work. Mom stayed at home for my first eight or nine years before returning to work, eventually ending up as a teaching aide in the local elementary schools.

Although neither of my parents went beyond high school (my mom was later certified for her work as a teaching aide), both were voracious readers and made sure I got a library card as soon as I could. My dad was fascinated by history, especially the Civil War; that became another thing we talked about out on service calls. Both parents were happy for me to dive into whatever interested me at the moment. Whether I was fixated on dinosaurs, Tolkienian linguistics, or World War II airplanes, I never heard "What's the point of that?" from them.

Money was tight, though it wasn't until I was older that I understood just how tight. The first time I felt like we were poor was when one of my sister's elementary school friends was told she couldn't come over to our home after school: her parents didn't want their kid in the house of someone who did manual labor. This is the only time in my life I remember seeing my dad really upset.

There was no question I would go to college. My mom thought Penn State was the only place we could afford, and didn't believe we would get financial aid: I remember her insisting at one point, "Places like that don't help people like us." I ended up at Cornell, which turned out to be significantly cheaper than Penn State with financial aid. To pay the bills, I worked full time every summer (first as a custodian in Doylestown, then doing research at Cornell) and part time the rest of the year. The work ethic I learned from my mom and the curiosity I got from my dad blossomed at Cornell: despite all the hours I put into paying the bills, I finished at the top of my class, and knew that I wanted a career in science.

It's interesting being where I am now as a First Generation person. One of the things I do for the Physics Department is meet with prospective students and their families. My background gives me a lot of understanding for what they are going through, and helps me to connect. I hope I can do the same thing with MIT's First Generation students.