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What I Wish I’d Known before Becoming an Academic

Category: Academia

In my first week of graduate school, I got a phone call from my grandmother. Up until then, I’d spent a lot of time accompanying her to doctor’s appointments, translating and advocating for her, fighting with insurance companies that wanted to cut off her benefits or refused to approve the latest medication prescribed by her doctors. When I moved away to start graduate school, I made it clear that all she had to do was call me and I would continue these tasks remotely.

So on this particular afternoon, when my grandmother called to tell me that her new prosthesis had not arrived as promised, I immediately called her doctor to find out what the delay was. I don’t think her doctor ever knew my name but he knew that I was the granddaughter – the one he’d been communicating with for months about this prosthesis. I reminded him of my last conversation with him: that I had explained that I would be moving away. That he had promised her prosthesis had been ordered and would arrive by X date. I explained that it had not yet arrived. He apologized, explained the delay and asked that I reassure my grandmother that he hadn’t forgotten. I hung up the phone feeling relief that I had been able to continue to advocate for her from afar.

When I decided to go to college I got a lot of support from extended family. They saw college as the key to social mobility. They saw it as an important thing to investment my time in. I don’t think most people in my family had any concrete sense of what being a college student meant or what I would study or why it could lead to social mobility, but that didn’t matter. They supported me anyway. However, when I got my BA, they assumed I’d be done. That I had completed this mysterious accomplishment and would move on. They didn’t understand what it meant to continue to go to school. Even less did they understand that going to graduate school would mean moving away to another state, ALONE. I know now that the moment I moved away, I started on the path of losing my connection to family.

The thing I wish I had known before becoming an academic, is that if you are like me… 1st generation college student and the child of immigrants, choosing to get a PhD can fundamentally change your relationship with your family.
My grandmother died during my second year in graduate school. I coped by burying myself in graduate work. My life became about my career and becoming a better academic. I would visit my family for holidays armed with my laptop and books. I stopped being fully present even when I was there.

“That girl is always working. I don’t understand. I thought that teachers got the summer off. Why is she still working?” my aunt blurted out in frustration once. I tried to explain to her that I was writing or that I was researching but in return I got bewildered faces. I don’t think anyone from my family of origin has ever read a single thing I’ve written. I don’t have any resentment toward anyone for this. I have certainly never encouraged it. But given how much time I spend writing and researching, it’s awkward that the people I love the most know so little about this part of my life.

The more I committed to academia, the more visits with my family of origin started to feel uncomfortable. I could no longer watch telenovelas with my aunts and grandmother without being critical of heteronormativity and racial bias in the media. I think they now see me as too much of a feminist, too radical, and a little bit crazy for daring to envision a world so drastically different from their reality.

While I was gaining insight into the connections between my personal experience and the world at large, I also started to adopt all sorts of complex language to describe my newly acquired knowledge. Academics are infamous for making up new words and I needed to learn this language quickly if I was ever going to survive in the academy. What I didn’t know… is how much of that new way of seeing the world and new language to describe it, would ultimately fail to transfer into my relationships with my family of origin.

The other thing that contributed to my growing disconnect with my family of origin is geography. I didn’t understand when I committed to academia how little autonomy I would have over where I live. When I started graduate school, I moved 2 hours away from home and thought I was making a huge sacrifice. Now, I’d give my right arm to live two hours away from my family. My work has literally moved me further and further away from my family members of origin some of whom don’t have the financial resources to come visit me. Not to mention, that in an immigrant family, citizenship and the right to travel is never a given. Those I love can’t just get on a plane and come see me in whatever part of the country academia happens to have planted me.

To the graduate students who often ask me what I wish I’d known before I started. To them I say, if you are like me, academia can mean entering a world that those who’ve been your fortress since birth know nothing about. Be prepared for the isolation and discomfort that comes with that journey. Remember though, that the good thing about the people you call home, is that they will be there in the end. No matter how querky you become or how much time you spend in your head, they will be there when you come back. And when the academy disappoints you as it inevitably will, uncomfortable as it may be, your fortress will be there to sustain you.