Believe in yourself

Elizabeth Dickinson


Clinical Assistant Professor of Management and Corporate Communication, Kenan-Flagler Business School




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It wasn’t until her senior year in high school that Elizabeth Dickinson began considering college. It just wasn’t talked about in her house.

Jonathan Hill, however, had always known what was after high school — even though a college education wasn’t the norm in his family.

“My dad spoke of me, and my brother and sister, going to college from a relatively young age,” Hill said. “As long as I can remember, the idea that we would go to college was ingrained in our minds.”

Despite beginning their college careers from two very different points of view, the married professors ultimately reached the same pinnacle: faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dickinson is a communications professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School; Hill is associate professor of economics.

Their beginnings didn’t alter their path.

‘I never questioned how’

The middle child of a family of three in Northglenn, Colorado, Hill’s decision to attend college after high school was “obvious and natural.” His father — a Coors Brewing Company employee for 30 years — made sure of that.

“It was as natural as going to high school,” he said. “ I did not ‘want’ to go to college. I simply was always going to go to college. I never questioned ‘how’ — we didn’t not have much money — nor why.”

Growing up hooked on ‘Cosmos,’ and going to Natural Museums and planetariums, Hill knew a University was where he could unboundedly pursue his interests, which became economics, sociology and anthropology.

But after enrolling at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Hill learned college was an opportunity to learn not just about his academic interests, but himself as well.

“Believe in yourself,” he said. “Find a way to learn about who you are, and have great faith that you are undeniably and as self-evident, a good and worthwhile person, irrespective of family wealth, or lack their of.”

Throughout his college career, which later included a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Hill never thought much about the fact that he would be a first-generation college graduate. He was just doing what was expected.

“We were doing what was next, and it just happened that my parents and their parents never did the thing we were about to go do: go to college,” he said. “We never talked about it that way. Rather, we talked about college.”

‘Better than waiting tables’

College, however, was never on Dickinson’s radar.

Raised with four brothers by her mother and stepfather in San Bernardino, California, the idea of attending college wasn’t discussed at home. It wasn’t until her older brother applied for college that Dickson’s interest was piqued.

She applied to one school: California State University in San Bernardino — the closest to home.

“I remember thinking I should go because that would probably be better than waiting tables,” said Dickinson,

And after a semester of learning the ins-and-outs of college, it was.

“I got a hang of it, got a job and got my own apartment,” she said. “I started meeting people and travelling and spent five very positive years as a college student.”

After earning her communications degree from Cal State, she enrolled at New Mexico State University for a master’s in communication before spending the next seven years working in for corporations and non-profits.

The next generation

Dickinson began teaching in 2001 at the International College of Beijing. There, she met Hill. Both were visiting professors through the University of Colorado Denver’s program at the Chinese university.

“We lived in the same dorm and became friends there,” Dickinson said. “Then, after that program, we both randomly moved to San Diego, and that’s when we started dating. We’ve been together for 15 years.”

The relationship took the couple to the Netherlands, Miami and now Chapel Hill.

“Sometimes I think of how close I was to not going to college,” said Dickinson, who earned her Ph.D. in communications in 2010. “I often think about how different my life may have been. Ultimately, I feel grateful for anything that comes my way professionally, and I try not to take any of it for granted.

The two also have a 4-year-old daughter who has been raised with different experiences and opportunities than her parents.

But for whom they hope they have set an example.

“I personally hope she goes to college because there are some wonderfully unique experiences at small or large colleges or universities,” Hill said. “That said, I really don’t care what she does: we are raising her to be a good, kind, smart, engaged, sympathetic person. Along the way, we’ll encourage her to take meaningful steps in her life.”

By Brandon Bieltz