Challenges as a First-Generation Graduate Student

The following list is non-exhaustive and speaks to my own experience as a first-generation graduate student in mathematics. After participating in the Math SWAGGER program last summer, I realized that many of these experiences are actually shared by other first-generation graduate students from underrepresented communities.

Math SWAGGER, the Mathematics Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness, was a virtual month-long workshop created by underrepresented mathematicians for underrepresented graduate students in mathematics. It consisted of both larger group discussions and smaller breakout sessions covering a broad range of topics such as community, mentoring relationships, and self-care.

1. Guilt

I used to feel guilty about not doing more outside of my program to positively impact the Latinx community. Even as a first year student, I sometimes felt undeserving of my new opportunity and thought I needed to find a way give back. One of the most valuable things I learned from Math SWAGGER, however, is that the best way you can help your community as a PhD student is by finishing your degree. The mentors emphasized that you have more credibility and resources after you have completed the PhD. Your time as a graduate student is better spent focusing on doing well in your courses and research than on outreach.

2. Diversity & Inclusion 

Navigating diversity and inclusion as an underrepresented graduate student can be awkward. You don’t want to be totally ignored, but you don’t want to be singled out by your department either. Being from an underrepresented community does not make me an expert on D & I and I certainly can’t represent all diverse students. There are so many aspects to diversity and we have to be careful not to over-generalize what it means. I have found that one way to avoid these awkward interactions is by having diverse faculty in the department. It is less intimidating to approach a faculty member that you feel you can relate to in some way than to be approached by someone you think might want to use your picture for marketing.

3. Family Support

Getting support from your family can be challenging if you have immigrant parents or family members who don’t really understand what a PhD is. They may not see the value in you spending so many years to get a degree they aren’t familiar with and may even suggest you consider other options. They may assume you want to be a teacher and wonder why you are spending so many years in school instead of getting a “regular” job. It is much easier to justify being in medical school or law school because they are familiar with what doctors and lawyers do and know that these professions are generally well-paying. 

4. Extra Pressure

While I was still taking courses and studying for exams, I felt extra pressure to succeed. I was worried that if I performed poorly, it would reflect negatively on my community, or my peers would think I was just a diversity admit. I didn’t want to ruin any opportunities for future students from my community to be accepted into my department. I realize that this implies that we are somehow grouped together, but that was my experience during a qualifying course my first year. My classmate and I were always mixed by the professor and he referred to “the other one” on more than one occasion.

5. Catching Up

I still feel like I need to catch up to some of my peers for a lack of prior exposure to academia. My undergraduate institution didn’t have graduate programs in mathematics and didn’t place an emphasis on research. Even as a third year PhD student, the process of writing a thesis and graduating still feels like a bit of a black box. I just recently learned what a minisymposium is and what arXiv is really used for.  

I found it validating to discuss these challenges with a group of peers and mentors who could relate to my experience and I would encourage other students to develop their own community within math that can help them navigate graduate school while still maintaining the identities they bring from outside academia.

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About Victoria Uribe

Victoria Uribe is a Mexican-American PhD student in Applied Mathematics at Arizona State University. Her current research interests include inverse problems, numerical linear algebra, and machine learning.
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