The Power Within: Milligan Overcomes Personal Doubts to Become First-Generation College Graduate

The Power Within: Milligan Overcomes Personal Doubts to Become First-Generation College Graduate

September 1, 2011. Richard Milligan walks into his first
Rutgers­–Camden class – and nearly walks out. As Milligan waits for the class
to begin, he feels as if his heart is going to pound out of his chest. “I was
so nervous,” recalls Milligan, a lifelong resident of Salem. “It was always
drummed into my head that I wasn’t education material.”

Richard Milligan

As Milligan tells it, he had always thought the deck was
stacked against him. Hailing from working-class roots, he didn’t even know
anyone who had a college degree. Education, he thought, well, that’s a dream
for someone else. “I just always had this idea that it was a lofty goal that I
could never reach,” he says.

But rather than walk out that day, Milligan would take the
first steps on a monumental academic journey. He is now poised to reach the
summit on May 23, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the B.A./M.A. in English
program, with a minor in media studies. He will then embark on the master’s
portion of his degree, with the ultimate goal of earning his Ph.D. and working
as a professor of media studies.

Milligan notes that he is especially excited about the
opportunity to work in a field with other literature and pop-culture
enthusiasts, who are – so to speak – on the same page. “I like being able to
reference an old book or movie without people looking at me like I’m crazy,” he
says with a laugh. “I really enjoy the class discussions and making that
connection with people. It’s fun, and it really opens up the thought

For as long as he can remember, Milligan has had a voracious
appetite for books. As he tells it, he was only two years old when he learned
to read, courtesy of a Ghostbusters coloring book. As a preschooler, he passed
a reading comprehension test and was admitted to the first grade. He was then
fortunate to have a teacher who encouraged his love of reading. Milligan forged
a strong bond with the teacher, a theme that has continued to play prominently
through the course of his education.

It wasn’t long before Milligan was gaining a reputation
amongst his classmates as a master storyteller. He never let on that he had
read the stories he shared – of course, not without putting his own personal
stamp on them. “I was afraid that they would pick on me if they found out,” he
says. “So I’d change a few details around and they thought the stories were the
best things ever. Beginning at that age, books made me who I am more than

Over the years, Milligan would continue to surround himself
with books, often as a source of comfort, or as a means of making sense of the
world. As he explains, growing up in Salem held many challenges for him. Drugs
and violence were a part of his everyday life. “It felt like there was always
an element of danger,” he recalls.

After graduating from high school, Milligan enrolled at The
Art Institute of Philadelphia. But after a semester of lacking focus, he was
back home in Salem. Over the next 10 years, Milligan jumped from job to job,
running an industrial lathe in a machine shop, pumping gas, and working in
various positions for McLane, a food service distribution company.

But even while Milligan was on the job, books were always nearby.
A self-professed anarchist, he often engrossed himself in the writings of
individualist philosophers, such as Benjamin Tucker and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Needing focus, Milligan decided to pick up a few classes at
nearby Salem Community College in 2009. While there, he was mentored by an
English professor, who advised Milligan to pursue English and media studies at
Rutgers–Camden. “If it wasn’t for someone pushing me in the right direction, I
probably would have never pursued it,” he says.

Now at Rutgers–Camden, not only did Milligan realize that he
could succeed, he found that he has quite a knack for his chosen discipline. “I
have all of these creative interests, and now I can finally do something with
them,” he says. “It’s amazing that I can do something that I love for the rest
of my life. It really makes me believe that education is the bottom line for
solving most problems that people have.”

As a scholar, Milligan plans to examine counterculture
throughout history. He notes that even Euripidean tragedies can be considered
counterculture. He also enjoys critiquing film adaptations, noting that the
medium can make centuries-old stories, such as The Canterbury Tales, more accessible to modern audiences. He and
his professor, Holly Blackford, recently authored a paper on The Nightmare Before Christmas, which he
hopes to get published.

As an educator, Milligan hopes to have a similar effect on
students as his professors have had on him. “I can find someone in the future
and tell him or her, ‘Hey, how would you like to get paid to watch cartoons?”
he says, adding that he would also like to make education more accessible to
working-class individuals. “I think that a lot of working-class people have
discussions and ideas like the ones we have in college, but they don’t have the
forum to share them,” he says.

On a personal level, Milligan admits that he has stopped
inviting confrontation. He has likewise stopped worrying about others’
perceptions of him and starting worrying more about his own. “And my own
perception is that I can do something more with my life,” he says. “I realized
that I can make a better change for myself and affect my own destiny.”

Media Contact: Tom McLaughlin