Academics on Academia: A Little Help From My Friends (Third Installment)

One of the things that Janni pointed out in her last post was the importance of support from faculty in helping students succeed at the graduate level, particularly as mentors. It made me think about how I had yet to touch upon the things that made a difference for me as a graduate student, especially after my rough start in the Comparative Literature department of my school.
In my last two entries I talked about the feeling of anxiety and frustration that has ebbed and flowed throughout my grad school career. This feeling is very real. However, I noticed this recently. You see, being a long-distance dissertator, away from my committee (many of my grad school friends were gone before I left Upstate New York for Kansas City), has made me reflect upon what happened the last six years. I felt so unprepared to work on the dissertation, my first chapter was a fluke, and I had no grad school peers to talk to face-to-face. (I probably could have called someone, but I didn’t. I felt like my failures were my own.) The year and a half that I have been away from New York have made me think long and hard about my experience as a graduate student and about the requirements and obstacles students encounter throughout their graduate careers. This colors my view of higher ed.

However, my grad school experience consists of more than frustration, obstacles, and questions. Even though there were classes that frustrated me to no end (like some classes that were required of new grad students), there were also classes that made a difference in how I think about the world. The professors I remember from my college career made me think about subjects in different ways. They introduced me to new authors and asked difficult questions about my paper topics. Some of them even told me that they believed I had something interesting to say, or that my approach was an innovative one. (This could also be because I wanted to talk to these professors. I interacted with them in office hours or in the hallways or at department parties.) These classes reminded me why I went to graduate school in the first place.

The support I received throughout graduate school, in the shape of peers and faculty mentors, has been invaluable. They are the reason why I haven’t given up on higher ed. Having friends who I could talk to and who understood the excitement of coming across a source that changes where your paper is headed helped me make it through finals week again and again. Later, finding people who had toiled through chapter revision after chapter revision, with babies in tow or sick parents or flooded apartments, reminds me that the myth of the grad student who sits in a study carrel all day and thinks deep thoughts is just that: a myth. In reality, we all struggle to find time to work. We all have our own balancing act.

Finding mentors to talk to and be honest about the work that being an academic entails has been the best education I could have received. I don’t think there’s a workshop for the kind of advice and support that my mentor in my department back in Upstate New York, for example, has given me over the years. More importantly, she is a living example of what being a female academic looks like. Her presence, like Janni’s reminds me of the importance of having more women and people of color in faculty positions (and in higher education in general). We need to see more of their faces in front of the classroom, in offices, on committees. We need to make that work visible for others.

Higher education, as an institution, is flawed and needs fixing. When I hear people tell graduate students “don’t go,” I know they might have our best interests at heart; at the same time I feel like this shows no understanding of the importance of having people like myself (a woman, a mother, a Puerto Rican, a person of color, a first-generation college student) make it all the way to the PhD. The people I’ve met along the way have showed me that funding is not the only thing we need to succeed in graduate school (it sure helps, let me tell you). The human resources are essential as well.

My big point today is that I am here, writing about academia, because I care. I am also here because somebody cared about me.

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