The second-wildest journalism teacher in the West
I’m First Gen Too: An MSU Denver professor shares his own first-generation college experience.
Story by Kenn Bisio | Photos by Jessica Taves
Kenn Bisio, professor of photojournalism and social documentary, is a world-renowned photojournalist celebrating more than 40 years as a working pro. His photographs have been published in the world’s most popular and prestigious newspapers and magazines including Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Die Zeit, Le Monde, New York Times, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and Time International. His photographs have earned him numerous awards and have been displayed in exhibits in America, Europe, Russia and the Far East and are purchased by individual, corporate, museum and gallery collectors. He is represented by the Geraint Smith Gallery in Taos, New Mexico.
Though I had two older sisters who had graduated from high school and had forgone college to get married and go to work, I came close to not completing high school.
My college career started in the Dean of Boys office at Terra Nova High School. That was 1967, my sophomore year, and the dean was about to expel me from the California state high school system. Apparently I punched and knocked out my mechanical drawing teacher. All I remember is that teacher throwing my classmate over a desk. I thought that teacher got what was coming to him.
Le Pacini, an English teacher and the advisor of “Tiger Tales,” my high school’s magazine, was in the office and heard the dean yelling at me, came into his office and asked me to go sit in the hall.
A few minutes later, Pacini came out of the office and told me to follow him. He told me in the most direct fashion that he convinced the school to reduce the charge of expulsion to suspension for the rest of the semester, about three weeks. He told me I would have to go to summer school to finish my sophomore year, and if I agreed to do that, he would be my personal advisor during my junior year. As I hesitated just a bit, he told me that if I fouled up one more time, his position at the school would be at risk because he convinced the principal that I was worth a try just to see what I had in me.
I hated school from the first day of kindergarten. Despised it. Thought it was stupid. So this summer school thing was a tough act to get through. But for the first time in my life, I had a man tell me he thought I was worth the groceries I ate. So I did it. I passed my summer school courses, and in the fall of 1967 I began my junior year at Terra Nova. If it were not for Pacini, I would have been on my way to the University of San Quentin (a prison in the San Francisco Bay Area).
Pacini never gave up on me. My senior year, 1969, I applied to the University of California, Berkeley. Because my GPA was the bare minimum of get out of high school, Cal politely declined my offer to attend. My home life wasn’t much better than my life in high school. When my dad found out Cal rejected me he was bent-over laughing. When I asked him what he thought was so funny, he said, “Are you crazy? You’re so stupid you would’ve flunked out the first semester.”
When I told Pacini I was turned down by Cal, he convinced me that I needed to go to Skyline College, a brand new junior college in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco. He said he knew a professor there, Sam Goldman, and would let Goldman know I was on my way to that campus. Back then, all junior colleges in California offered free tuition, so why not?
Goldman took over where Pacini left off. He was the advisor of The Skyline Press, the college’s newspaper. One day I wandered into his office to keep my promise that I would look up Sam Goldman. His office was where the paper was put together. I came in with my Mamiya C330 6x6 camera on my shoulder, and he yelled across the newsroom, “Hey, you with the camera. You’re the paper’s photographer.” He handed me an assignment, I took it and I became a photojournalist.
It took me three years to graduate from a two-year college. I only took six hours my first two semesters because I knew I was too stupid to succeed. Goldman, the second man to ever tell me “yes you can,” entered my photos in all kinds of competitions. I won every one of those contests.
It was Goldman who told me he knew a guy at San Jose State University and that I needed to apply there. So I applied. No one was more surprised than me when I got accepted to the School of Journalism at San Jose State. On the first day of the semester, the guy Goldman knew, Roger Budrow, called out across the newsroom, “Where’s the Bisio guy I’ve been hearing so much about?”
Budrow made me the features editor my first semester on The Spartan Daily, a 30,000-circulation daily newspaper. I hated San Jose State, but I did like writing. I was on track to earn a Bachelor of Arts in reporting when I saw I had to fulfill a photojournalism class requirement for that degree. I took the class, and to my surprise, I was just as good as the photojournalism majors. I decided to double major and graduated in May 1974.
Right before I graduated, in February, I got a staff position at The Associated Press in San Francisco. My professors allowed the photographs I made on assignment for the AP to count for my class work, and that got me graduated. When I asked Budrow why he would do such a thing – allow my professional assignments to count for class work – he told me that if our situation was reversed, I would do that for him. At graduation, Budrow saw me standing in line about to enter the football stadium to grab my diploma.
“Bisio,” he said. “One day you will make a great journalism teacher. Never, ever forget that.” As much as I hated school, I thought he needed a checkup from the neck up.
In 2015, I was awarded “Journalism Educator of the Year” by the Society of Professional Journalists for my teaching tenure at MSU Denver. In 2016, I was awarded “Distinguished Professor of the Year” by former MSU Denver President Stephen Jordan. Those awards, and other awards I’ve received from the National Press Photographers Association, I sent to Pacini, Goldman and Budrow. Three men who told me, “Yes you can.”
My sisters, who didn’t want to be outdone by their little brother, earned degrees in education and accounting after I finished grad school. My oldest sister, Nancy, is recently retired from teaching elementary school in California, and my sister Patty worked as an accountant until her death a decade ago.
So know this, fellow first gen’ers … When you start something, you really do start something.
Editor’s note: Nearly one-in-three students at MSU Denver are first-generation college students, and more than half of MSU Denver faculty and staff identified as first-generation graduates in a 2017-18 survey. The University is connecting these groups through a new First-Generation Student Success program and an awareness campaign called “I’m First Gen Too.”