Your Brilliance Can’t Be Measured by Degrees: A Xicana Writer’s Reflections on Two Years Since Finishing a Ph.D.
By Xicana Ph.D.
“You don’t build bridges to safe and familiar territories, you have to risk making un mundo nuevo, you have to risk uncertainty of change. And nepantla is the only space change happens. Change requires more than words on a page-it take perseverance, creative ingenuity and acts of love”-Gloria Anzaldua
Two years ago today (12/18) I finished my Ph.D. in Education. Perhaps I should’ve wrote about finishing after One year, but last year I couldn’t, wasn’t in the space to write about it. It was a long and challenging journey as is life. I was hopeful it would get easier when I finished, but I was wrong. Not knowing how to navigate graduate school was one challenge of many. The more challenging ones are all the other things they won’t tell you. They won’t tell you about how you need guidance; that you need support of a certain sort. You will get denied and derailed if you let them make you feel as if you cannot perform the ways in which they want you to. Even if you do, you will get doors slammed in your face. You will get told by peers you aren’t on their level and that is why you didn’t get a fellowship or a chance to present or letters for a job. They will justify their own position and say you just simply aren’t one of us. You may began to believe them, but don’t. You will get told that you cannot publish or present even after people ask you at conferences if you are a professor already when you are only in year 2 of graduate school. You will be made to feel as if everything you had fought against, all those people and words you heard as a younger student struggling through K-12 and community college. You will begin to think maybe they’re right. What was I thinking?
I thought I could get a Ph.D. and continue to serve my community, but in different ways. I thought I could get a Ph.D. to push myself to learn something new. I thought I could challenge the knowledge that everyone says is true. These lies about how in order to get ahead you must accept meritocracy or elitism. I realized later it wasn’t the knowledge from my classes that allowed me to challenge these things or become critical, instead I challenged these ideas with my lived experiences, like so many of us do and continue to do. Doing so I realize there are few safe places and perhaps that is on purpose. My desire to push myself into these uncomfortable places have a purpose and that is to make sense of my life and my place in it in fighting for a more just world. Sometimes I feel as if I am standing still and when I make progress it is a sort of snail’s pace. I exist in between, a nepantla of sorts. Gloria Anzaldua talks about nepantla in the sense of it being these in between spaces that are difficult, but how they are necessary to our transformation. These spaces encourage growth and becoming something new. Like a snake shedding skin. What I see many not remembering when speaking of Anzaldua is how in order to transform one has to confront the shadow beast often while simultaneously undergoing these sometimes-painful transformations.
Meeting my shadow beast. I am a poet and writer. I have been one for many years. Off and on. Now thankfully mostly on. I realize even while I didn’t physically write I was still preparing for the times when I would. Growing up I didn’t think that what I had to say or write carried much value. We are taught to believe these things not just as Women of Color, but as Xicanas and other identities we hold that remain marginalized in society. We exist on the margins or sometimes in these in between spaces we are also marginalized within them. I wonder if they confine me or if they had become some sort of home. I realize I need those uncomfortable spaces to keep going as they are when I urge myself along to keep working to find questions that are waiting to be answered.
Writing takes you to dark places so that perhaps you can shed light on them.
I learned this during my years in graduate school, but I wouldn’t say I learned this because of graduate school. Yes there is a difference between formal schooling and education. My learning was because of life. It was because of the struggle of being a marginalized student within academia even while in a Ph.D. program at one of the top ten education schools in the country. I realized it because I knew who I was. A Xicana who had been kicked out of community college on academic probation and dismissal. A Xicana who before that almost got kicked out of high school, a high school everyone regarded as “bad”. A Xicana who liked to talk back, who just dared and opened her mouth to begin with. A Xicana who questioned authority and the structure of society as we know it, like many of us do everyday by simply surviving in spaces we weren’t meant to.
I learned to become scared of my own voice at a young age, something that carried over into my adult years. I then learned to become scared of my own writing. Family does that to you. School does that to you. Society does that to you. Almost as if I was scared at what truths would come out of my veins after many women and people passing these legacies to me for generations. They live inside me. Uncovering that to me is education. It is not simply finding answers to questions that have already been asked, but asking questions that no one has asked and then stumbling in darkness until we do find answers.
My advisor had left just as I ended my 4th year of graduate school. My 4th year where I was pregnant, working as a TA, hustling side jobs and getting ready for the birth of my son that summer. I knew I wouldn’t have the support I needed to find employment and opportunities because I also didn’t have the support and opportunities I needed to stay in school, to find funding, to present at conferences or be able to write/publish. At that point I just wanted it done. Dropping out was always on my mind, but after having my son and thinking about the mountain of debt I was already in and how close I was to the finish line (close meaning about to take exams when he was born), dropping out was no longer an option. I had to finish. I had to finish no matter what.
I defended in August 2015 after already walking in the ceremony. I held my son in my arms as I crossed that stage, but the day was mostly sad for me as I had many men put me into dark places in my life, that day was no different. I was glad when the day was done. Spotlight was off me. I could go home to my house full of boxes and go to sleep dreaming of new beginnings. Gentrification was changing the Seattle landscape as well as the rents and I knew my savings would last me a lot longer where I grew up then it would in Seattle. So with no job prospects I took my son from the only home he knew, the place he was born and came back to California following my defense. It was lonely. I was simultaneously applying for jobs and trying to edit my dissertation to the liking and approval of my committee that was now 1,000 miles away. I remember the months leading up to the day (12/18/15), I spent in semi-isolation as I housesat for a family friend up the street from where my parents lived. I felt an extreme amount of guilt as my toddler son often spent long days watching TV as I struggled to write/edit and applied to hundreds of jobs both in Washington and California as well as other places.
Although I had come back to familiar faces, I remember the feelings of judgment that were always there waiting for me, how can I be this “educated” and yet have no job, no house, and nothing to show for it? Those ideas were in line with traditional notions of achievement and success in a capitalistic society. They were also ideas I sought to challenge in my dissertation titled: Testimonios of Transformation: The Experiences of Latinx Community College Students in Washington State Redefining Achievement and Success. I felt like I was in between two worlds that were clashing. How can I be struggling this much to find work? Why did I even go to college? On top of that the judgment of being a single mother isn’t just something I faced in academia that was life as a whole. I have often felt more scrutinized for the behavior of my son as opposed to other people. The expectations were different. They always were. My kid couldn’t just be a fussy toddler. My kid couldn’t just be a kid. I couldn’t just be myself. In short, coming home, reminded me why I left to begin with, something didn’t fit. I didn’t fit, but it also reminded me of so much more. Some narratives also don’t fit anymore. They needed to be shed.
I left the Inland Empire of Southern CA when I was around 22 years old. Something pulled me to go away even after I had said I wouldn’t. Go try something new. Go try something that pushed me out of my comfort zone. So in 2005 I moved to attend UC Santa Cruz with my then husband and high school sweetheart. It was one of the best decisions I made even though I wouldn’t predict the pain I would go through to get there. Just like years earlier I left my parents home the day I turned 18 to pursue higher education on my terms. Something urges you to just go. Go see what is beyond your imagination and when you decide to do that, there is an urgency that follows you like a shadow and if you refuse to see it, it can haunt you like a ghost.
A few years after moving to Santa Cruz, I moved to Seattle to go to graduate school immediately after my divorce after I said I would never leave California. Sometimes we speak things into existence, sometimes the words make us think about the opposite, opening the possibility of another-the opposite or rather what we think is impossible as a new existence. I accepted that sometimes you have to do things because they are necessary in life. Following this rupture, I was excited to be in a new place, but it was accompanied by a great feeling of dread, and although I refused, this dread became something I had to embrace. It was a similar feeling moving to Riverside and now returning to Los Angeles a couple years ago, but this time I have a small child.
Ultimately my decision to stay and commit myself to staying came down to the fact that I had never planned to live permanently anywhere I went to school. Southern California is my home and the whole point of getting degrees was so that I can continue to serve my community. Coming “home” wasn’t easy. Not too long ago, I found myself still struggling to find work and with my savings quickly dwindling. My son and I soon ended up at my sisters house for a little while and I ended up having to go on welfare while also working full time as a program coordinator at UC Riverside for $15.00 an hour while my son attended a state-owned daycare. I thought I hit the lowest moment, but that wouldn’t come until the second time I was on welfare post Ph.D. earlier this year that I wrote about here.
One thing they want you to believe is that you didn’t work hard enough or try. Don’t believe them.
I reached out to folks in academia in Southern CA, but I soon learned that if I wanted to make it here as one person told me over a coffee meeting, “You know what school runs the show here for higher education?” and I nodded. We both knew. For it isn’t just a particular university or their alumni, it is also a mindset that leads people to believe that they are better simply for having access to things as if we can not see the strings pulled by the puppet masters. These strings are not invisible, mine had been cut for years, but if you play the game long enough and are a good puppet, they will make you the star of the show. During this time, I also learned that since I went to school out of state, I would be on the outside looking in, much like I felt as a Xicana transfer student who made it to graduate school. I was not made to dance when they told me to.
I have felt like an outsider much of my life, but always in good company. No one does this alone. That was what partially motivated me to keep going to school, for everyone and everything that said I couldn’t, but mostly for everything and everyone that said not only I could, but I had to. Many people taught me inside, but mostly outside of academia, don’t ever take no for an answer, don’t silence your voice especially after considering what is at stake. If they slam a door in your face, find a window. If you get shut out and denied, make your own platforms to share knowledge in community, but more importantly create knowledge with community. That is what writing has done for me now. It has continued to save me over and over again and although I have found the writing or “literature” world quite similar to academia (because it is academia disguised as art), I know where to also find people like me and trust we will find each other.
The gatekeepers of academia will always be there and they don’t determine my goals or how I live my life or what I write and never did. That is why you see this blog today. That is why you read my words and have somehow related. That is why you hear my poems. You hear my voice. You see it. To think this arose from denial after denial of people telling me my writing wasn’t good enough for them, for their special journal, for their anthology or book, for their approval or denial. I was and remain no one and nothing to them, and that’s ok. I don’t write for them. Academia is not the entire world. Education is what is out there urging and pushing and pulling us to try something new, to be brave, to speak up even if no one else does, to sit uncomfortably in the unknown, because on the other side of that feeling is a realization that this education, this brilliance is something no one can take away from us.