This essay by Christina Eubanks-Turner is featured in the book Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey.
One piece of advice I would give my younger self is to tell her that she WILL accomplish everything she puts her mind to with patience and time. My time as a graduate student truly validated this for me. As an African-American female and a proud graduate of an HBCU, I was sure that when I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in mathematics, I would also attend an HBCU for graduate studies. I could not have been more wrong. After visiting several schools, my family and I decided on a large predominantly white institution (PWI) in the Midwest with a department that had a high percentage of women but lacked ethnic and cultural diversity. While attending graduate school at a large, Midwestern PWI intimidated me, I had another task that concerned me more.
A year before I was to start graduate school, I had given birth to my first daughter. I had already struggled to complete my senior year as an undergraduate with a child, but now my fiancé and I had to contemplate what would be best for our family. Should we stay close to home and enter the workforce to make money to support our new family? Or should we leave so that I could pursue a graduate degree and accept a lower-paying teaching assistantship while securing a future career? As I weighed my options, the fact that I could potentially be one of the first persons of color to gain a Ph.D. in math from my graduate institution played a role in my decision-making. In the end, I decided to further my education.
After getting married a month before I left for graduate school, I had a lot of anxiety about being a new wife, mother, and graduate student in a city where I had no support from family and friends. I was thankful for the opportunities I had been afforded, but I still felt very nervous about the changes that were taking place in my life. Upon arriving in the small town where I would live for the next several years of my life, I remember saying to myself, “What have I done????” I felt like a fish out of water, and although the faculty, staff, and my peers in the math department were friendly, I remember going into stores where the cashier dropped my change on the counter and did not place it in my hand. I recall my husband telling me of an instance where he was walking down the street and a group of men in a truck passed and called him the N-word. I felt invisibly noticed, that is, I was invisible as no one spoke to me, yet they all stared.
In my department, I soon learned that I was the only graduate student in my cohort with a child. As my husband searched for employment, we found it hard as a family of three to get by on a teaching assistantship paying an annual salary of around $15,000. We tried for government assistance, but they stated that I was not eligible because I was an employed graduate student, no matter how low my income was. During these times, I was full of self-doubt, and I wanted to give up. To top it off, I was struggling to understand the concepts in my courses and falling behind with my work. I also served as a recitation instructor for the first time and specifically remember numerous white males in my courses questioning my mathematical abilities, forcing me to engage in “mathematical showdowns”, to validate that I knew enough mathematics to teach the course. Once I did this and the student essentially “lost,” I was able to gain control of the classroom and earn some kind of trust from my students that I was a capable instructor.
If the stress and pressure from graduate school weren’t enough, the pressures from home at times were just as heavy. With a daughter in her “terrible-twos” and husband who was newly employed, I look back to those times and wonder how we remained sane. I definitely remember having arguments with my husband that stemmed from financial concerns and how much time I was spending at the office. At this point, we did not have a strong support system, and I was too embarrassed to admit that I needed help. Mentally, I was about to crack. Fortunately, at a point when I needed it the most, I had a realization: I was not the typical graduate student, and I should embrace that fact. Instead of trying to fit the mold and lifestyle of a typical graduate student, I should boldly stand out.
Although I needed to study as much as (if not more than) the others in my department and that I gained a lot from studying with my peers, I realized that when I was at home, my role as wife and mother commanded my attention. So, I learned that sometimes I needed to stay home and study by myself. When my daughter was able to play quietly by herself, I also started bringing her study sessions. To my surprise, some of my peers enjoyed having her there, as they liked the intermittent distraction. Also, my husband became more visible in the department as I invited him to more of the department events. Ultimately, I ditched the self-guilt and realized that there is no perfect mom, wife, or student. I am fine with being imperfect and learning along the way.
As my husband and I reminisce on those times, we laugh, cry, and wonder how we made it through. We realize that those times laid the foundation for our beautiful, strong 17-year marriage. I look at my amazing daughters—one of whom is preparing to go to college, and the other, a fourth-grader full of curiosity–and think of how blessed we are. Although I started my family before my career, which was very hard, I look at my colleagues who are starting families in the midst of their careers. Seeing some of the issues they have to deal with (tenure clocks, maternity/paternity leave), I realize there is no perfect time to start a family. I know now that you have to just take things as they come and believe in yourself.
Christina Eubanks-Turner is an Associate Professor of Mathematics and Graduate Director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Mathematics (MAT) program at Loyola Marymount University. She is married to Earl Turner and has two children, Amari, 18, and Sariah, 10.