This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Marisa D. Salinas is a first-generation, working-class, Chicana doctoral candidate of sociology at UC Santa Barbara.
Forbes annually publishes a highly shared article listing the ten most and least educated cities in the nation. Every year I have this bittersweet quiet moment where I stare at the wall holding three of my degrees and ask myself what it means that consistently seven out of the ten most uneducated cities in America are the small, primarily Latinx, disproportionately migrant, and rural towns that my family and I call home. As a Chicana from California’s impoverished San Joaquin Valley, I embody what Judy Baca calls an “internal exile” in the academy (Neumaier 1990). The lack of employment opportunities outside of working for the prisons or in the fields, and the low educational attainment rates coupled with teen pregnancy, drug epidemics, gangs, and the prison industrial complex, give me a situated knowledge base that few scholars share. Rather than view my origins as a deficit in the ways that the neoliberal university simultaneously critiques and fetishizes, my background provides me a unique epistemological toolkit that is perhaps my greatest asset as I research multiply marginalized populations.
As a Latinx sociologist that studies the contradictory experiences in the personal and professional lives of Latina faculty, you would think I would know better than to fall into the traps that often render women of color academics casualties in the pipeline. I’ve read and seen it all. The invisible labor. The racismxsexismsxenophobiaxelitism. The funding denials. The labeling of their research as “me-search.” The “congratulations on your new baby but also are you really serious about your work?” The diversity committees. The joint appointments. The never-ending mentorship load. The familial sacrifices. The tokenism. Did I mention the diversity committees? But it’s a strange experience being a Chicana graduate student that researches Latina professors because it’s not lost on me that the experiences Latina professors have parallel those of Latina graduate students. In some ways, my research foreshadows my own future as a Latina professor, which can be intimidating given the marginalization and “othering” that happens to Latinas across the pipeline.
The internal exile experience would come early in my doctoral studies. In the first year of my PhD program my mother code blued twice as a result of contracting H1N1 (colloquially known as the bird flu) from the hospital emergency room while being treated for pneumonia. Living in an agricultural valley, our air is filled with pesticide particulates coupled with the pollution from the Bay and Los Angeles metropolitan areas that migrate to the center of the state and get trapped. Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Valley fever, and other respiratory illnesses are the norm. To make matters worse, many of us live in dilapidated housing, lack heating, and are met by what is largely considered the worst healthcare system in the United States. My hometown doesn’t have a hospital, and many die en route to the neighboring city. While my family lives in these conditions, I live in a bourgeois tourist town on the beach with one of the most expensive property tags in the nation.
Like many other students of color that live in the luxe towns that house their universities, my survivor’s guilt runs deep, but the day I found out about my mom coding, it came to a head. I drove 3 hours home to find my mom in a coma that would last months. After she woke up and began learning how to talk, eat, and walk again, I knew I couldn’t leave my mom in the same conditions that almost took her life, so I moved her and all of her medical equipment into my home. So, there I was, a first year PhD student living in a studio apartment with my mom, trying my best to keep her and my academic dreams alive.
While this story may seem hyperbolic, for many students of color, this conflict between caring for family under chaotic conditions and making it through doctoral study is a palpable reality. Additionally, these experiences shape our trajectories in nuanced ways that aren’t easily realized. The repercussions of the decisions I was forced to make under those circumstances penalized me down the line in ways that didn’t immediately register for me. Like many students of color that lack the cultural capital in undergraduate study to attain the necessities for a strong doctoral level application (research experience, faculty letters of recommendation, etc.), I went to a standalone Sociology MA program prior to entering my PhD program. When returning to my PhD program after leaving for my mother’s medical emergency, I was met with great institutional support and had my MA thesis from my prior institution recognized in lieu of completing an additional thesis for a terminal master’s degree en route to the PhD. While this seemed to be of tremendous help at the time, I unknowingly did a disservice to myself. Unfortunately, MA theses of this type are not written in the traditional journal article format, and the level of rigor expected from them is not at the same level as that in a PhD granting program. Not only did I not hone this work, have a publication from this work, or build relationships with faculty at my new institution as committee members while completing this work, but I also seemingly had a lapse in my research experience, as most in my doctoral program worked on their MA research while in coursework.
At the time I failed to see the issue as I was flying through my required courses with high marks. Yet, for working class students of color there is such a void in the unspoken language of the academy. For those of us without a road map, we don’t have access to the forms of knowing that tell us to read between the academic lines—that there’s an entire other body of work we need to be doing to be successful. We have always made it through the educational matrix by following the requirements that we are explicitly told we need to do to get to the next stage: undergraduate courses, graduate courses, MA thesis, comprehensive exam, dissertation. But doctoral study is another world with its own unspoken rule book whereby you can advance through your program and hit all of your milestones while NOT actually doing the key things necessary to not render your PhD worthless in an already cutthroat job market. From strategically networking and juggling multiple research projects at a time, to relentlessly applying for funding and acquiring skills sets that appear to be only tangentially related to our areas of study and career goals, coursework and the traditional academic milestones are the tip of the iceberg of academic proficiency.
While academia is popularly depicted as the great equalizer, first-generation students of color from working-class origins know all too well the ways that it systematically reproduces inequality. Academia is simply a microcosm. The classed, raced, and gendered inequities outside academia’s bubble are perpetuated within academia in a multitude of ways, including the aforementioned illegibility of hidden curriculum (Margolis & Romero 1998; Apple & King 1977). Once my department put a call out for summer teaching associates requiring an updated curriculum vita, potential texts we might use, and a short description of what we might cover. Confident in the subject material and teaching, I drafted my application. I went to print it out in the graduate printer, and instead found my more privileged colleague’s application. I was stunned. Her application included the items required yet also provided the hiring committee a beautifully executed cover letter on departmental letterhead, which thoroughly outlined how her past professional experiences lent to her strength as a course instructor, as well as a complete, meticulously formatted syllabus for the course she intended to teach. Yet what was most shocking for me was not her building an extraordinary application for an unexceptional call. What shocked me the most was our completely different interpretation of what a seemingly straightforward call for associates asked for. Whether it was her elite private school training, her mentorship by a wide range of scholars across my department, or my own working-class linguistic sensibilities that assumed direct communication, we had deciphered the same call in completely different ways. If I had misinterpreted a call for teaching associates, what else had I lost in translation over the course of graduate study?
Furthermore, when a certain level of legibility is required for a decent shot at financial gain, first-generation students of color that are already coming into these programs at a financial disadvantage are at a greater chance of having their financial insecurity exacerbated. (Hoffer et al. 2007; Margolis & Romero 1998, 13). Securing funding is key to alleviating the pressures of working while conducting research and writing so that graduate students can produce meaningful research and graduate within normative time. When I was pregnant with my son, I remember intensely feeling the pressures of looming financial precarity. It was one thing to barely make ends meet as a graduate student. It would be a whole other thing as a Motherscholar (Vega 2019). I needed a fellowship. My son was due in a few months, and the campus childcare center had a waitlist that was 18 months to two years long. Despite questions such as “can’t your parents subsidize it?” from well-meaning white feminists in my department, I indeed did not have childcare and therefore wouldn’t be able to work on campus to generate an income nor have my tuition covered.
I was sure that I had a shot at my department recommending me for a university-wide diversity fellowship. After all, I had dedicated my entire personal and professional life to diversifying higher education. My research, conference presentations, departmental trainings, mentorship of undergraduates and graduates… all centered communities of color. I drafted my application and a colleague sent me the materials of someone in their department that had previously been nominated for this fellowship that I was so desperate to get. This award winner’s claim to diversity was attending a conference centered on race once and professors of color mentoring him. I would not be nominated that year.
For faculty and graduate students of color, diversity isn’t something you can extract from others and paste over on a vita. For us, it’s a never-ending mountain of service that is both a burden and a blessing. I say it’s a blessing because as a Chicana in a predominantly white institution (PWI), I can’t imagine devoting seven years of study purely to intellectual production without finding solace in the academic ghetto. Characterized by housing those that the university fails to serve and the (inter)disciplines that are ideologically distant from the conservative core of the Ivory Tower (and therefore most often divested from), the academic ghetto is where you’ll find the bulk of historically underrepresented students of color chasing their dreams while juggling multiple jobs, families, and the recruitment and retention efforts of other students of color via activism across campus. While the public university likes to get neoliberal kudos for its increasing numbers of historically underrepresented students and Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) status, much of this change has been the result of faculty and students of color putting in a tremendous amount of “diversity” work that has been rendered invisible by university personnel. Giving back to the academic ghetto feels like I’m going back home. The students and faculty look like me. They speak like me. The students’ sentiments of feeling academically inadequate and their desires of fulfilling their family’s dreams are reminiscent and echoes of my own undergraduate anxieties and dreams. And while I have never voiced this aloud, the academic ghetto is somewhere I, rooted in a borderlands of selflessness and selfishness, alleviate some of the survivor’s guilt I feel for not finishing my degree and taking my skills back to my community while I support the students that need help here on campus.
Yet it comes at a cost. Graduate study alone entails a tremendous workload. However, graduate students of color carry a load of invisible labor that—like faculty of color—they juggle without institutional recognition, release from responsibilities, or reward (Medina & Luna 2003; Duncan 2014; SSFNRIG 2017). Much of the invisible work that I as well as my other women of color friends do is essentially running around with a bucket trying to catch the students that fall from the student of color higher education pipeline. Much of this work entails providing emotional support for students of color that feel alienated from the implications of navigating an institution that views their intersectional struggles as secondary to their identities as students. Like the Latina professors in my research that discuss feeling ill prepared to really help students with these issues, I, too, at times feel overwhelmed by my lack of training in this area. Another area of this work is working with students of color that dream of graduate school but lack an institutional agent and the institutional support to foster/sustain their continuation as well as the mentorship to enable them to become competitive for graduate study. The labor is multi-pronged. The physical and intellectual labor of this entails constantly meeting with students; teaching them how to draft literature reviews and research questions; editing proposals; drafting letters of recommendation; overseeing research projects via formal mentorship through campus-recognized programs; and preparing them for the culture of postsecondary education. Beyond mentorship, forms of diversity-related work that graduate students of color often do include pushing back on problematic practices and policies that impede marginalized students from accessing opportunities on campus, mentoring more junior graduate students of color trying to get their own footing in academia, hosting diversity trainings, and sitting on diversity committees at the departmental level, all while juggling our own personal and professional responsibilities as those engaging in intellectual production from the margins of academia.
In my current study, I commence my interviews asking Latina faculty if there is anything they have sacrificed to be in academia. The question is always followed by silence and a long exhale. And then it comes. The spilling of tears and the truth-telling about regrets and the movidas they too had to navigate as they made their way down the perilous path to tenure. And so, I listen and take it all in. While it might be overwhelming for some to hear what could be perceived as professional foreshadowing, I’m grounded in those moments of vulnerability. For those few minutes, the Chicana graduate student trades places with the Latina professor veterana, and I’m reminded by the intergenerational connectedness of women of color forging paths across institutions not designed for them. The reciprocity of academic sustenance between profesoras and Latina students becomes undeniable. I remind them of the experiences they have shared with me to illustrate just how far they have traveled not only in their own lives, but also in breaking down barriers for Latinas like myself.
Baca believed that to be an internal exile one must affirm your own experience of the cultural forces at play that not only refuse to recognize your culture, but also denigrate it in an effort to control it (Neumaier 1990, 256). While she shared these experiences nearly fifty years ago, the sociopolitical landscape of being a Latina in American society was different from that of today. For Latina and women of color scholars broadly, the neoliberal academy seemingly shallowly celebrates our cultural differences yet refuses to change the material and immaterial conditions that allow for the exploitation of those very differences. For internal exiles, academia is this contradictory place that represents both our wildest dreams and greatest sacrifices. It represents both an affirmation of our intellectual capabilities and provocation of our deepest, darkest iterations of self-doubt. As graduate students of color, the lamentation of our missteps, the rumination to ourselves to “imagine if we knew then what we know now,” is the omnipresent soundtrack to this part of our academic journeys. Yet, to approach our experiences with anything other than an indictment of the academic hegemony that renders us internal exiles is a direct challenge to the training we have received to know otherwise. Rather than internalizing notions of inferiority, perhaps we should consider our estrangement from the Ivory Tower as validation that while we may be in the academy we are not of the academy. After all, who wants to feel at home in the master’s house? (Lorde 2003).
Apple, M., and King, N. “What Do Schools Teach?” Curriculum Inquiry, 6, no. 4 (1977) 341-358.
Duncan, P. “Hot Commodities, Cheap Labor.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35, no. 3 (2014) 39–63.
Hoffer, T.B., M. Hess, V. Welch Jr., and K. Williams. Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2007. Chicago, IL: National Opinion Research Center, 2007.
Lorde, A. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Reina Lewis and Sara Mills, 25-27. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2003.
Margolis, E., and M. Romero. “‘The Department is Very Male, Very White, Very Old, and Very Conservative’: The Functioning of the Hidden Curriculum in Graduate Sociology Departments.” Harvard Educational Review 68, no. 1 (1998) 1-32.
Medina, C., and G. Luna. “Narratives from Latina Professors in Higher Education.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2000): 47-66.
Neumaier, D. “Judy Baca: Our People are the Internal Exiles.”In Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras, edited by Gloria Anzaldua, 256-270. San Franscisco: Aunt Lute, 1990.
Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group (SSFNRIG). “The Burden of Invisible Work in Academia: Social Inequalities and Time Use in Five University Departments.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 39 (2017): 228-245.
Vega, C. 2019. “Strolling and Straddling Academic Boundaries: Chicana, Latina, and Indigenous Motherscholars in the Academy.” Master’s thesis, University of California Los Angeles, 2019.