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.
Angela D. Mack is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. She has worked as a graduate instructor, a graduate assistant, and as an assistant director of composition while in the program.
My name is Angela, and I have been a graduate student in crisis in some form or fashion during my journey towards getting a doctoral degree. I am a wife, a mother, a former caregiver to my disabled mother, and I have struggled with a myriad of health issues. I am probably about ten or so years older than most of my colleagues in my current program. I am also the only Black woman in my department pursuing a PhD in rhetoric and composition, and I am only one of a handful of Black students in the entire department. I am a first-gen, first to earn a master’s degree, and now I am the first to pursue a doctoral degree in my family. That alone is a lot, and for many it is.
All of who I am is weighted with a life that was not afforded a straight line to go from degree to degree even though I finished my undergrad degree in four years. I have endured my fair share of crises in this journey, and if there is anything to gain from my story, then please recognize that many women of color struggle with the risk of being negatively perceived because of our hardships in and around the academy. Between the need for representation while working towards scholarly innovation, perception is everything. I share this version of my story in hopes to help other graduate student women of color to not feel ashamed or embarrassed for the lived experiences they have had. This is just one of the ways I am advocating for my own mental health and healing. I own what I have been through unapologetically, and I hope to encourage others to do the same.
Though much of what I have endured has come during my time working on my PhD, it did not start there. In my MA program, my sister-in-law unexpectedly passed away, my father had a second heart attack (the one often nicknamed “the widow maker”), and I had major surgery the semester I graduated. Though those circumstances were incredibly difficult, I had an amazing support system in my graduate program. I finished despite the many challenges I faced because my professors and peers rallied alongside me. They did not leave me alone. They did not allow me to isolate myself. They did not abandon me even when they did not know how best to approach me. Perhaps I was spoiled by such a supportive experience because I was not prepared for what would come once I started doctoral studies.
I have been a student in two PhD programs, and I started the first one around the time my son was turning two. I applied to the school I thought would give me the most flexibility as a wife and newish mom, so I settled for being a part-time student. I wish I could say that the program was as supportive of me as my MA program was, but it was not. Whereas I had an assistantship previously, I only took classes and went home. (I was not awarded one despite my application for it.) The lack of interaction and community was palpable to me. I felt invisible. I felt out of touch. I felt like I was all over the place. At first it did not seem as if anyone cared I was even there. The difficulties of being a woman of color in the academy was not readily part of my experience in my undergrad and grad programs. However, this first PhD program was different. I attended a large public university that focused more on STEM than the humanities, and in my department, my struggle with imposter syndrome was nearly debilitating. I felt too old, I did not feel I was prepared to move from literature to rhetoric and composition, and I did not feel like it mattered if I showed up or not.
The first PhD program I attended accounted for some of the most negative interactions I have had in the academy to date. In my first semester, only one of the two professors I had acknowledged me by name by week three, though the rest of that specific class was called on regularly. That professor, a lauded feminist known as a leader in her field, publicly humiliated me before the whole class because of my initial struggles with understanding theory. It was in her classroom that she told me, in front of everyone, that she did not understand why I could not grasp the material and perhaps I did not have the substance to be in a PhD program. In essence, I was told that my work was not good enough. I was not good enough to be there. I barely made it out of that class with a grade decent enough to keep going.
Meanwhile, as I struggled with the weight of my insecurities, I lost two important people the following semester. My best friend’s mother died first, and three months later, my mother-in-law died. These two women were part of my village; they were mothers to me. My mother-in-law died right around finals, so I had to help prepare a funeral, deal with my husband and in-laws in fresh grief, cope with a son who was too little to understand the loss, and move things around to finish the semester. Against better judgment, I came back the following semester. I should have taken the leave of absence, but I was not prepared for the toll of grief in my home.
I came back to school, and with it came another encounter with another professor, along with a myriad of problems that ultimately led to me withdrawing from the program. This professor was also a lauded feminist in her specific field, and she, too, let me know that she did not think I belonged in a PhD program. I was ridiculed often for what she perceived as insufficient writing for an assignment the class was to turn into a publishable article. She even became combative with me in a one-on-one online meeting and issued a threat to give me a low grade that made me at risk for suspension. Her threat was the final piece that catapulted me into a level of anxiety so high that I finally decided to take a leave of absence. I went to the advisor, I was not told of my options or given the proper paperwork, I left for a semester, and then I tried to return. When I tried to come back, I lost my funding, my transcripts and student records were messed up from a glitch in the system, and basically, I was advised to reapply like I was “starting over.” Ultimately, the loss of funding and my standing led me to withdraw from the program completely. I took an adjunct assignment, and when I shared with my former advisor from my MA program what happened, she recommended that I apply to my current program with her support. I did. I was accepted into a new program. I had to wait nearly a year to start, so I kept teaching until then. I left my first PhD program with a sense of humiliation, embarrassment, and a lack of confidence that I would never find success again. I left the program reeling from confrontations I had with two women professors—two white women who were known for their work in feminist praxis and inclusion—yet I received no benefit from such. It was bleak, but all was not without hope even in a program that demonstrated that I was simply not one of the students they cared about. I did have a professor and a colleague that supported me during that time, and they are the ones whose support still sustains me now.
I started my current PhD program in Fall 2018, and even though I was overjoyed for this second chance, I would also continue to endure a series of unfortunate events in my personal life that started that year. In January, my father started having uncontrollable pain and unexplained massive weight loss. In February, my home was burglarized, and the inside was nearly destroyed by the criminals. In May, I lost significant mobility where I was now limited in my ability to walk and I began having severe nerve pain. In August, the second week specifically, I received a call from my sister to let me know that our dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I received that call when I was leaving my cohort orientation. This was a week before the semester began.
I started my new program already in crisis. In October, my home was burglarized again while I was on campus. My husband and I later learned that I was the target of both attacks; I was the one being surveilled as to when I arrived and left the house. We were told that we were no longer safe, and we had to move immediately. We scrambled and were displaced while having to secure and move to a new location after living in our house for ten years. In that same October, towards the end, my father’s cancer advanced to Stage 3. He was terminal. He was given only a year or so to live. It was the same type of cancer my mother-in-law passed away from not even two years earlier. My family was cash strapped from the burglaries and displacement, my father was dying yet taking grueling rounds of chemo, my son started Pre-K, and I was in a PhD program on an assistantship with a full course load and teaching. All of this was in one semester. What was I to do?
I struggled in deciding if and what to share. I was brand new to this program, I am the only Black woman in my discipline, and I still had cohort meetings, a class to teach, and a stipend my family depended on. I came in wounded from another program. How do I not look like a liability? How do I reach out without coming across as too needy? While I was struggling with my own issues, I already had a colleague who had to withdraw because of his own family emergency. Would I be asked to do the same? My situation was precarious. However, I decided to go against my feelings and disclose what was going on because if I did not, I would cave in on myself. Despite my anxiety and great hesitation, I chose to disclose a portion of what was going on with a few professors and the director of composition. I chose to do so for self-advocacy. I had been through too much, and my encounters and issues from the previous program had me nearly crashing and burning. I could not hide. I had to put myself out there. I had to share a good portion of my business. By doing so, I went against all the Black sistah codes of keeping my issues to myself. I went against my cultural norms.
I had a Black woman professor that gave me the safety and room to share as well as another woman professor of color who did the same. With them and a couple of other professors, and a bevy of support from other graduate students and the assistant director of composition, I was able to fight for visibility, communicate my needs, readjust my personal expectations, and be honest about where I was. I communicated to my own students that I was having personal challenges outside of the classroom, yet I kept my commitment to them that I would continue to show up as best as I could. I negotiated deadlines; at times I moved around our class meetings; and I struggled out in the open. I was vulnerable, I was hurting, but I kept showing up because the routine helped me combat isolation. I sought counseling, my family moved into a new home that November, and I finished the semester emotional and exhausted but finished nonetheless.
All hope was not lost because in spring 2019, the unexpected happened. My father had enough chemo treatments to remove the cancer surgically. It was a miracle because it was deemed medically impossible at first. In April, he underwent a nine-hour Whipple procedure, and the cancer was removed. My stepmother and I were allowed to share the news with him that he was cancer free. By the close of my first year in my new PhD program, I succeeded in areas the other professors from my first program told me I would fail in. I taught, I mentored, I went to counseling, I still negotiated my needs, and I was awarded one of the outstanding graduate awards in my first year from my department. I finished, and despite it all, I think I finished well.
This version of my story was to convey a simple truth: as a graduate student in crisis, I am a survivor. I survive inside and outside of the academy. So much of what is shared about women of color in higher education focuses on the institution and its violence and aggression. As evidenced from my own story, I indeed understand. However, I think what is often overlooked are the lived experiences outside of the academy that have a direct impact on our progress in the academy. I am aware that I have more of a history of receiving support and that is not the case for so many of us. There are other Black women that came before me that left my current program for their own issues with the institution, and those are valid. Not every woman of color is in the position to disclose their circumstances, and some run the real risk of being dismissed from the program. That is also true. There is a true need for advocacy, and it has to be the kind of advocacy that does not take our stories as data subsets for IRB approval, that does not meet some diversity initiative, or mark us from a place of negation. We need others to do the work of seeing us and hearing us, not from a minoritized positionality, but from our real need for communities of empathy and care. See us as capable women in all our complexities.
As I conclude, I offer these suggestions, in no particular order, as a list of sorts, to help facilitate a community of empathy and care for women of color in higher education:
- Recognize that some of us will not disclose much and some will disclose almost everything. As women of color in the academy, our relationships to it are not monolithic.
- Do not place women in a position to compare their experiences to each other as if we must compete to see who has been through the most or the worst. Just let a sistah be and let her be who she is freely!
- Do not patronize a woman of color in crisis. Do not tokenize her experiences into some sort of exceptionalism or resilience. The myth of strength often prevents her from getting the help she needs.
- Work to make women of color visible outside of crises. Rally for us! It should not be only when we are going through a problem that others pay attention.
- Let us take the lead in communicating our needs when we can, though this may not be the case for everyone.
- Check in on us but do so with the understanding that we are not looking for rescue as much as we may need support and recognition.
- And finally, realize that me, as a Black woman, and my colleagues, as women of color, carry the weight of our lives with us when you see us.
This list and our stories are not meant for anyone to feel sorry for us. They are not shared as if it singles us out. Our stories are ours, and mindfulness of such reality helps. It humanizes us. It makes us visible. It centers us in our triumphs as women, as scholars, as educators, and as advocates. I am a survivor. We are survivors. And what we carry, however we carry it, matters.