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By Sarojini Rao
Over the course of this summer, I have had the opportunity to talk to a number of friends and colleagues about their experiences in graduate school. However, not all of the people I spoke with are millennial women of color. This led to the realization that although MWoC students face some unique challenges, the key ingredient we lack is also lacking for many other groups of graduate students: mentorship.
Nobody expects graduate school to be easy, especially at the doctoral level. However, some students are better able to anticipate the challenges and prepare themselves accordingly. Students who know the career track they want to pursue, and who understand exactly what is expected of them, are well-equipped to seek out the support they need when they start facing obstacles. Seeking advice is not as fraught for them, because they know it’s what they’re supposed to do in that situation.
However, first-generation graduate students may lack this frame of reference. As a consequence, every challenge or setback morphs into a personal failure, rather than being a part of the research process.
Mentorship is crucial to helping us learn from rejection. A good mentor can frame a setback as a teachable moment and demonstrate how to harness rejection and failure to grow from it. In a competitive environment, where rejection is the rule rather than the exception (think grants, fellowships, jobs, publications) even students who knew what to expect often find that they need to grow a thicker skin. But without a space to debrief and process setbacks, becoming thick-skinned is the same as becoming callused and defensive and less willing to take risks.
Fierce competition breeds insecurity, leaving even those who seem to be doing well paralyzed in the vice-like grip of the fear of being “the loser.” At top universities, where professors face immense pressure to collect accolades without ever acknowledging fear or failure, good mentors can be few and far between. Fields that are overwhelmingly male-dominated tend to be worse in this regard precisely because we teach boys to never show weakness.
Over the past two years, I have become aware of more cases where professors seem to work with women of color and/or immigrant graduate students because they think these students can be more easily bullied. They extend opportunities to such students under the guise of offering mentoring and membership into an inclusive group of colleagues, only to then burden them with a disproportionate amount of grunt work and treat them with disdain. Worse, the professors who do this are just likely to be women or people of color themselves.
Students signing up to work with these professors may expect to be treated in a collegial manner and may look forward to developing their first professional connections. Being overworked and underpaid is par for the course during the initial years of any professional pursuit. But being berated repeatedly without apology, or having to face other abusive tactics can be so confusing to the newcomer that by the time we realize what’s going on, we may have already invested too much time and effort into the work to be able to walk away from it. And it’s difficult to talk about openly because we don’t want to acquire a reputation for being difficult or demanding.
Even professors with the best intentions may not know how to support first-generation graduate students. Firstly, they don’t know what we don’t know but need to learn. For instance, one of the earliest pieces of advice I remember hearing from multiple people was to treat graduate school like a job. This was confusing to me because, in practice, it felt like many jobs rolled into one. And besides, not having a 9-to-5 schedule seemed like the only perk to a job that had no weekends or vacations. Secondly, their own time and funding constraints incentivize them to focus on research rather than advising.
Finally, research is an isolating pursuit, and consistently prioritizing one’s own writing and ideas over competing demands calls for a degree of intellectual self-confidence that most women of color are never really allowed to develop. Seeking advice becomes all the more daunting when one is afraid that it will confirm the opinions of those who believe you don’t belong here in the first place. The advice one receives is usually some version of “you have to drink the Kool-Aid.” I only hope that they don’t fully understand the suicidal implications of the phrase. I’ll stick with coffee, thanks.
Given these constraints and challenges, I have no doubt that the only way to change the status quo is to actively forge informal networks of peer mentorship. Even one person who “gets” where you are or what you’re going through can make all the difference when you’re fighting the isolation and anxiety.
I have spent years trying to cultivate such connections, to mixed effect, but I keep trying because I’ve come to realize that it really is the most worthwhile strategy to pursue. As I’ve written before, I have reacted to my own shame about “falling through the cracks” by trying a wide variety of techniques to just avoid it. Believe me when I say they don’t work.
The only strategy that has produced an iota of progress, if only in my ability to articulate my goals, has been to practice vulnerability and tell everyone who’ll listen that I’m stuck. In her book Daring Greatly, University of Houston professor Brené Brown lays out the many ways by which shame keeps us small and trapped. The title is based on the speech given by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
This may seem like a very hokey “feel-good” conclusion to a series on navigating academia. But I have come to believe that if Women of Color are to carve a niche for ourselves and truly belong in the world of academic research, we need to be willing to take the risks to truly and fully be ourselves even as we cultivate our professional capacities. I remain hopeful that doing so will connect me to the like-minded co-conspirators I have sought far and wide, quite literally.
This article was originally published on Witted Roots.
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