Surviving while in graduate school and beyond

Surviving while in graduate school and beyond
By: Xicana Ph.D.

“…and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard

nor welcomed
but when we are silent we are still afraid

So it is better to speak remembering
we were never meant to survive”. -Audre Lorde

While finishing gradute school, I continued to do what I had done since leaving my parents home at age 18 to pursue a higher education, I struggled to survive and would feel horrible that I wasn’t doing more, thinking survival wasn’t enough, always comparing myself, always trying to prove everyone else wrong for being a Xicana who barely graduated high school, for being a girl who didn’t listen to her parents because sometimes as a parent now, I know that we do not know everything.  I would shame myself for speaking out when I know speaking as a Xicana/WOC would get me in “trouble” and often overheard people say “well she had it coming” as if speaking out makes me a bad person, but I realize to them I become a bad person because they think I am a bad woman.

When trying to survive the only choice is painful, but to stay silent means dying a slow death so Speak. Write. Yell. Feel. Sing. Dance. Cry. Laugh. Love. And no matter what anyone else says, remember there is no wrong way to do this.

From getting married to divorced in my early years of college, to leaving to another state where I knew no one and later right before I took my doctoral exmas becoming a mother while being an adjunct sporadically until I finished my degree. I continued to speak and defy expectations including my ex-husband telling our friends, “she’ll never make it without me” as if I could not live without a man. As when I thought back to my parents and when I left home at age 18 and how they thought I couldn’t live without my fathers roof and approval of how I lived my life.

I have and I did.

Fighting for social justice and change is something I knew I stood for since I was young and it was through M.E.Ch.A and activism as a member of the Autonomous Chapter of the Watsonville Brown Berets and through other groups and organizations while I was a community college student and an undergraduate transfer student I look back to see how I drowned myself for many years in the social justice work, always running from trauma that always caught up and passed me at various points. Sometimes those moments of survival will force you to pause and when that happens…

The importance then of having access to mental health services in graduate school cannot be stressed enough. It was not until I entered graduate school that I myself went to a therapist for the first time and that therapist remained with me until I finished and moved away from Seattle.

Upon coming back to the community where I grew up, I came back with the tools and resources from those challenging years to continue working on creating the life I wanted for me and my son. The work had already begun. I saw in all the years of dealing with life while going to school and especially after becoming a single mother DV survivor at the end of graduate school that the most important revolution that can be waged is the one at home.

I learned cycles are harder to break when you avoid them. The dream of creating something different can become a reality and it was slowly becoming one for me with the knowledge that I didn’t have to keep running and that I had a support system that I created to help me get through school was the same system I had to get through life.

Although most of graduate school felt like I was trying to get by day to day, I had to also realize that getting by day to day as a single mama survivor was good enough- in fact it was an amazing accomplishment that I was able to complete a Ph.D. under those challenging circumstances. I know that wouldn’t have been possible without community and my chosen family and while those people also change and shift over time it is important to remember:

I was not alone.
Neither are you.

Never forget that.

And if you have experienced things similar to me, there will be moments going through school where you will feel like you can’t take one more thing that day, where you will crumble on the floor in tears, where you will want to drop out of school-probably every week, but realize there will also be people to talk you back to life, to tell you- you are brilliant and that is something that can’t be measured in degrees or a GPA. You can and will make it across that finish line to that goal, whether it is a high school diploma, to that GED, to the associates degree, to the certificate, to the Bachelors degree, to the Masters, the law degree, the medicine degree, and yes to the Ph.D. or whatever else you want to do beyond the confines of the ivory tower or limits you placed on yourself or placed on yourself as the result of believing the lies that told you your limitations as a WOC, as a  working class defiant Xicana.

When there is not a community that you fit in to survive, you already know what to do because you have been doing it.  Create your own space, demand your own space when necessary and build even when it seems like all you can do is put down one brick at a time. You will find people who will love you and support you and add to whatever it is you are trying to build with their own tools and resources to share and sometimes even a cup of coffee, a meal, a bag of groceries because you didn’t get your financial aid in time, a couch to crash on, and a shoulder to cry on. Remind yourself what future you want to create, stay in that vision for a moment, and slowly move towards it even if while surviving all you can do is take a tiny step forward. Take that step and  tell yourself:
You did a great job today. I am proud of you.
You have to because if you are like me, no one told you when you wanted them to and if they do now, they don’t do it enough. All that means is you need to tell yourself because if you don’t believe it, it doesn’t matter how many times anyone says it. You need to know it, who you are now is good enough.

Perhaps the next time you expect approval of your life outside of yourself from people who never gave it won’t phase you because you realize you don’t need anyone’s approval to survive. Like the time when your father didn’t want to go to your graduation for your Ph.D. and only a month before your mother tells you they aren’t sure if they can make it as if it was a casual event. And on the day you walked across the stage you see them waiting remembering just a month ago they didn’t even want to go, your father comes up to you when everyone else is congratulating you to ask where the nearest place was to watch a game on TV. No congratulation, but you didn’t let it phase you this time because you realize you didn’t need his approval then or now to live life. You realize that surviving hasn’t been a bad thing, because it gave you this knowledge and this life you created with no road maps and little resources. Like the therapist taught you years ago, don’t keep expecting different from people who always give you the same. You’ll end up dissapointed.

Congratulate yourself for surviving.

You did a great job today. I am proud of you.

After finishing gradute school, I continued to do what I had done. I will continue to do what I had done.  I struggled to survive, but realize survival is enough because I am still here building and growing and that is enough.

When trying to survive the only choice is painful, but to stay silent means dying a slow death so Speak. Write. Yell. Feel. Sing. Dance. Cry. Laugh. Love. And no matter what anyone else says, remember there is no wrong way to do this.

Photo: Me looking like a tired mama early on my graduation day with a diaper bag and my son dancing


3 thoughts on “Surviving while in graduate school and beyond

  1. I really really appreciate your post. I appreciate the time you took to write all this down and for sharing it. I felt every word, every syllable, and I am very thankful for you. I wish you and your son lots of good health and send good vibes yall’s way. Felicidades on your accomplishments in your life!!! ❤


  2. Dear Irene Sanchez,
    Thank you. Thank you a million times. I sit in my Masters classes and often the only other Latinx is the man cleaning the building. Sometimes when I can’t concentrate in class I watch him through the glass walls of the classroom. Your representation means the world to me. It is so hard envisioning the PhD finish line, even when you know you can do it, when there is no indication of the other people like you who have already done it. Every day I am reminded this space was not meant for me, and that my presence is an act of resistance. You are amazing.


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