The grad years
You accepted me into a graduate program having just given birth to my daughter 4 months prior. Offered me a fellowship in which I had reduced teaching responsibilities and when I did teach I was left to my own devices — teaching with no prior training other than the single hour when some professors pretended to be students in a classroom and asked me to “teach.” In this way, I learned by doing and I taught many students. Some of these students saw for the first time someone of their same ethnicity reflected back at them from the front of the room.
Throughout I was often made to feel like I owed a debt.
Is this sense of debt and continued expectation for me to be grateful for the opportunities I was provided due to being let into this program because you thought that no one else would accept me? Even with a near perfect GPA? Was the thought that because I started in community college I was going to be unprepared to succeed in any graduate program and so you’d take a chance on me? Was the default to admit me into a Masters program, even though my experience should have placed me in the PhD program? Was this based on preconceived notions of my mathematical abilities based on my ethnicity? On my gender? And when I was left with no supportive mentors and failed examinations did you feel vindicated because you knew I wasn’t ready?
If so, do I now owe you?
The postdoc years
Moving onto that first academic position, that familiar feeling of owing a debt returns. Being told that I should be grateful to have a job, as if I dug at the bottom of a barrel to find an academic position, when I selected this one among over 10 other great offers. Yet simultaneously getting the clear message that these offers only came because I am a Latina woman. Did you hire me because of these reasons? Maybe this is why I am often mistakenly called by the name of the only other person of color in the department… a Black woman. You can’t even tell us apart. Or how about those hallway conversations where you tell her that you met her husband and she corrects you: “I am not married, you met Pam’s husband.” To which he replied: “No I meant your husband… the Black fellow.” Because in your mind, a Latina woman and a Black man together is an unthinkable concept.
Is this why you ask me to mentor women and underrepresented students and tell me it is my job to fix issues of culture within departments in which I am perceived as a constant problem? The expectation that I fix the problems I point out and played no part in creating leads to my exhaustion. So you tire me out. Is this to make room for others whose faces are more reminiscent of those pictured in departmental images of years past? Pictures in which women didn’t appear until my lifetime, and our contributions are constantly erased. So, I should be grateful for the opportunity to be here now.
I ask again, do I owe you?
The tenure track years
Week one on the job a “colleague” told me I never had a real postdoc because it could not possibly compare to their postdoc at Elite University of the Universe. They kindly offer to help as long as they can list me as a mentee on their annual report. Was this because they saw me as a naive fool who they could manipulate to benefit from my work and sheer existence? I later learned that they continually attempted to sabotage my career behind closed doors. Going as far as harassing and intimidating a vocal and supportive advocate whose only mistake was to announce their plan to nominate me for an award. An award I won and for which they congratulated me to my face. All the while my teaching feedback from colleagues includes feedback gems like “today she held a cup of coffee and it made her appear warmer.” To add insult to injury, when I questioned the validity of this feedback, the response was a warning that people will hold grudges when I go up for promotion and tenure. After all, I should be grateful for their mentoring and help in navigating a tenure process that I was surely going to fail.
After years of being under constant surveillance… err mentoring, their narrative changed. My success became theirs, for they “supported” me and that surely helped me thrive. So now my many successes are diluted by those taking ownership of them — after all, what Latina woman could survive without rescue by people who pretend to support her while they pat themselves on the back for feigned caring. That familiar feeling returns — yet again, I am made to feel like I owe a debt.
The tenure process came and went with a positive result. Yet comparing records, we quickly realize the bar was higher — almost insurmountably higher — and yet I should be thankful that with all of the support I received I made it to the other end. Did I thrive because of their support or in spite of it?
So, do I owe you?
I really liked this, as someone who is going into grad school as a minority student I feel that this gives me more insight and reminds me of my own worth! I enjoyed the audio aspect a lot too.
Dear Alvaro, reach out as you need to. Happy to have chats outside of this public space. Be well!
They owe YOU. You perfectly capture what so many of us who are not familiar with the bizarre culture of academia feel, even after long careers. They don’t get to bask in your success; only you and yours do.
Rhonda your comment means so much to me. Thank you!
Thank you! I appreciate “insurmountably higher bar” that you conquered!
You captured the experience perfectly. Exhausting. Thank you.
Thank you for your support!