When La Jolla resident Susan Lieberman started writing books three decades ago, she did so because they contained positive messages she needed to hear or lessons she needed to learn.
But her latest, “Crack the Code: A Guide to College Success for First Gens,” is intended for people who are the first in their family to go to college, and it provides mentorship advice when a mentor is not readily available.
“In addition to writing [since 1991], I’ve been mentoring for 40 years, including first-generation high school graduates looking to get to college,” Lieberman said. “It’s a deep joy. I have seen what a difference mentoring can make in the lives of young people. It’s not always successful, but when the mentor and student click, it saves lives.”
Reflecting on her time as a mentor and those she worked with who are now college grads, she decided to interview 60 first-generation college students and graduates and use their stories to write the book, providing a resource for those who are currently going through the process and may find themselves challenged by it.
“The [people I interviewed] were resilient and hopeful and sobering,” Lieberman said. “They said it was tough and there was a steep learning curve. They discussed wanting to give up and drop out and the mental challenges they experienced.
“So while these students [currently in college] can’t have a mentor standing behind them with a hand on their shoulder encouraging them to keep going at all times, I thought this could be the next best thing.”
The book contains chapters on “rolling with the punches”; anecdotes from former first-generation students; the “Who am I” challenge; breakdowns of different challenges students face, such as family, race, impostor syndrome [doubting one’s own ability and fearing being exposed as a “fraud”], money and emotional well-being; and the importance of asking for help, among others.
“I think the most important word in the book is ‘ask.’ You have to ask for what you need, because people in college cannot read your mind,” she said. “None of us do this alone; we all build our futures with others. People are not supposed to do this on their own.”
“My interest is not to sell it, it’s to put it in the hands of people who need it for free,” she said. “I want them to know they belong in college and they can do it. Millions of people graduate from college every year; they are not all smarter than you.”
Though Lieberman doesn’t describe her work as self-help, she said it often contains messages to help lift oneself.
She started with herself. Lieberman started writing when her family moved from Pittsburgh to St. Louis and she wanted to find a way to keep her family traditions in a new community and in the modern era.
“My first book was called ‘New Traditions’ because … I wanted my children to have Technicolor memories and a family life when we moved to a new home and a new area,” she said. “I asked people what they did, and they said they unweave old traditions and use the thread to reweave new traditions. I spoke to a Swedish woman that said her family would make different kinds of cookies for Christmas Eve … but there she was with a full-time job with kids and she was not going to make all those cookies. So she decided to change her family tradition to order ice cream pie every Christmas Eve.”
Lieberman compiled and wrote such stories because “I needed to read them,” she said. “Then I just kept writing because I love doing it.”
Lieberman had been visiting La Jolla since she was a teenager, but made the move a year ago.
“I had a cousin who had a house in The Village and her husband worked at UCSD. My husband said it would be a good place for a vacation house, so when my cousin’s husband didn’t get tenure and they decided to sell her house, we bought it and used it for vacations. Then when my husband retired, he talked me into moving here,” she said.
When she settled into her Village home, Lieberman decided to write “Crack the Code.”
“What I really care about is helping people grow into their fullest capacities,” she said. “That’s what I seem to have some aptitude for. I can’t garden and I’m not great at cooking, but I seem to have a knack for this.” ◆