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.
Maria Ahumada is a third-year English PhD graduate student and a teaching assistant for the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis.
There are multiple questions that I wish I would have known to ask before I applied and entered graduate school. However, I did not know some of these things were going to be crucial to my graduate school experience until I was navigating them myself. I am a city girl, born in Barranquilla, Colombia and raised in Queens, New York and Miami, Florida. I grew up in very diverse communities, where Latinx, Black, and Asian American folks were the majority. Therefore, moving to a small college town in northern California was a huge and unexpected culture shock. The first time that I visited the town in which my university is located, I was drawn by how charming it was but mostly I was excited to finally have my own room for the first time in my life. However, this all quickly changed when I realized I no longer had access to bodegas, Colombian and/or Cuban bakeries. How does one go from having the option to buy an empanada, a croqueta, and un cafecito to iced coffees and avocado toast? During my first couple of weeks in California, I remember calling my mom and panicking as I searched the aisles of my local grocery store for Sazon Goya. All of a sudden, food was my mode of survival in this space, not realizing that beyond food I was also missing community. However, food became the least of my concerns as I started to enter academic spaces. My concerns regarding the lack of diverse food options quickly transitioned to questions of being within academic spaces. How does one go from being in community with other People of Color (POC), to constantly being the only Woman of Color (WOC) in the room?
During my time in graduate school there have been many conversations where I have found myself completely clueless. Feeling confused, frustrated, and upset at myself for not having read or done enough research to follow the topic of conversation is very common. To no surprise, these conversations occur inside and outside of the classroom; however, over time I’ve learned that I have the option to walk away or to engage how I feel most comfortable. The culture of academia is one where you constantly doubt yourself. I often wondered if it was my fault for not having read enough before arriving to graduate school. “Aren’t I in graduate school to learn all of this anyways? Should I not have entered graduate school at such a young age?” These thoughts often caused me to doubt myself and question my ability to remain in my program. However, navigating these spaces has made me very well aware of moments of name-dropping and unnecessary inaccessible terminology, often a result of the competitive environment that academia creates. I have frequently sat in a seminar frustrated by the amount of time that I spent attempting to complete assigned readings, only to focus on the smallest part of a text, or focusing on a completely different text that was not assigned. I can count on one hand the number of times that I used my voice during seminar in my first quarter of graduate school. As a result of the pressure that the space of the seminar creates, I struggled to understand the fundamental conversations. Additionally, when I had a comment to make, I genuinely believed that I did not have the appropriate language to do so. However, over time I am working to separate the self-doubt by reflecting on the strengths that my lived experience allows me to bring into the seminar space.
As a first-generation college student, I survived undergrad by working two jobs as a full-time student. I did not have the privilege of reading or researching before entering graduate school. I also do not have family members that have been through this process before me and can guide me. As I become further engaged with my research, I am beginning to understand that the best way for me to navigate these spaces is by allowing myself to use the knowledge and languages that I have learned in my community. Doing so doesn’t mean that I am less educated than the person sitting next to me who can list all of the French philosophers of the nineteenth century. In fact, I understand this way of being as using my lived experience as a source of knowledge, which allows me to engage while disrupting spaces that were not created for me. It also means that although no one in my family has been to graduate school, their guidance is one that humbles me and reminds me of my power. Reflecting on my family’s struggles and triumphs is how I have been able to embrace the strength that has been passed on to me by fearless women in order to continue navigating academia. During my first year of graduate school, my mom fought and passed away from a chronic illness. She provided me and continues to provide me with the ability to create my own path. Graduate school does not give you the space to grieve; the amount of work and turnaround dates for assignments, especially in the quarter system, makes it impossible to process any kind of difficulties that one might be facing outside of graduate school. However, I constantly imagine my mom with me in these spaces, because as my biggest supporter, she guides me with the power to share knowledge in accessible ways.
My reflections are constantly evolving, and the doubt of being able to complete this program remains present as well as the feeling of being invisible and not belonging. My experience as a graduate student has shown me that before I can belong, I have to survive. However, as I attempt to survive, I am aware that I will never belong. I do not use the term “survive” lightly because graduate school has challenged me physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Therefore, in order to do so I have had to create spaces in which I belong, and I have been able to do this by building a community that welcomes me and my multiple identities. Connecting with other powerful WoC navigating graduate school and other academic spaces has allowed me to thrive immensely. It has been a struggle to find spaces where I can be my best authentic self as I figure out what that means or looks like. Nevertheless, when I am in community, I do not think twice or doubt myself; I just exist the best way I know how. This means speaking, moving, and thinking comfortably while feeling safe enough to do so. On the other hand, in academic spaces I am constantly needing to accommodate different parts of my identities, as a mode of survival and for the comfort of others. This compromised way of being is an embodied experience that occurs without warning. It expresses itself through tenseness in my body and anxiety in my mind, as my thoughts race to think of the “right” or “perfect” response. The constant feeling as though one needs to prove why they belong here remains prevalent, as if the graduate school application process wasn’t already taxing enough.
Beyond finding community, as a teaching assistant and writing instructor, the classroom has been a space where I have managed to create a welcoming environment for myself and my students. Teaching has been one of the ways in which I have carved out my own space in this institution. I began teaching from the moment I entered my PhD program. I was initially terrified at the possibility of having students older than me while not having any prior teaching experience. My first year I was a teaching assistant in the English department, often for courses that I did not have much experience with. In my second year I am now teaching my own Intro to Writing course for undergrads, and I will be doing this for one more year. In the midst of struggling to find spaces of belonging, I have found that teaching has often saved me from quitting. It has shown me how important it is for my body to be in these spaces, not just because I represent a Latina in higher education. In fact, representation is on the back burner for me because it is my praxis in the classroom that allows me to freely be myself. My way of teaching is one that centers honesty with my students; they do not expect me to have all the answers and know that I don’t expect them to either. This has allowed me to create a safe space in my classroom in which we are all continuously learning together. Additionally, I talk in whatever dialect feels most comfortable for me in the moment, and I encourage the same from them.
Doing so has allowed me to disrupt the pressures I often experience in seminar spaces of needing to have the most thought-provoking questions, providing sharp comments, or using inaccessible language. These pressures often result in the silencing of voices, which I refuse to allow myself to repeat when I have the power to change my students’ experiences. In return, their willingness to participate and make mistakes openly allows me to be my most energetic, humorous, and kind self. My students have taught me so much about teaching, learning, and being in community, and I have felt more valued and validated by them than I have in any other academic space.
However, the feelings of doubt do not escape the teaching experience, as I have often found myself jokingly saying, “How am I teaching an Intro to Writing class when I barely know how to write myself?” One of my mentors recently validated me by saying that I do know how to write and reminded me that sometimes words have a way of coming back. Therefore, I turn to my experience as an instructor whenever I doubt my ability to navigate these spaces. I am realizing that bringing in the same pressures that are present in the seminar space into my own classroom only serves to set my own expectations as a TA extremely high. In fact, what matters most is that I am able to offer my students a different approach to teaching that validates and creates a safe space for them and for myself.
This same mentor recently provided the amazing opportunity of co-facilitating a Chicanx theory class with a peer. For the first time, I was able to lecture on Gloria Anzaldúa, who is someone that highly influences my work. Anzaldúa coined and defined autohistoria-teoria—“a way of inventing and making knowledge, meaning, and identity through self-inscriptions” (Anzaldúa 2015, 6)— a methodology I incorporate in my research that engages with twentieth and twenty-first century U.S. Latinx literature. Anzaldúa’s methodology, which challenges systems of knowledge by deviating from traditional power structures that subjugate and continue to influence the lives of Women of Color, is one that I am also able to apply to my mode of navigating academia. During this facilitation I was able to share a piece of my story with the students and also offer space to hear theirs. After class, several students came up to me and my peer wanting to stay connected with us. As I reflected on this moment, I was reminded of the impact that our bodies and our stories have. As facilitators we represented two Latinx graduate students; however, the central part of this experience for myself, my peer, and the students was that our approach to a theoretical text was one that disrupts academia’s expectations of classroom discussion. As a WoC, my lived experience serves as a form of knowledge that allows me to navigate and challenge graduate school and other academic spaces.
As I continue to navigate graduate school, I am constantly reminded how much these spaces need students of color yet do not provide enough support for them. These institutions need us to produce research and be in the classroom. However, it us up to us how we navigate that power in order to not reproduce cycles of violence to others. I am also reminded how much students of color have to balance as some of us are marginalized not only by race but also by sexuality, class, language, gender, and more. This essay is crucial to my method of grounding myself within the theory that I engage with. In my own research I look at the ways that Latina authors disrupt tradition through literature. Furthermore, this essay and this journal follows this method of disrupting tradition, as it allows me to speak my truth and share my lived experience as a graduate student of color.
Anzaldúa, Gloria and AnaLouise Keating. Light in the Dark/Luz En Lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.