Academics on Academia: We Belong

I am happy to have ongoing conversations about higher education with my friend and colleague Liana Silva. Our first one is really about that sense of belonging or fitting in academe. Reading Liana’sĀ  piece reminds me of my experience as an undergraduate and then later as a graduate student. I was a first generation college student, who graduated with strong grades from high school. I took the array of Honor’s and Advanced Placement courses during high school and participated in sports and other activities.

But, nothing prepared me for the other side of the university experience–the culture of academe. Everyone assumed that I had money, since I was in university. I don’t know where this came from and I certainly was not going away for Spring Breaks or Summer vacations. Add to this that as a Latina, I noticed that suddenly I represented the “woman of color” in class and the expectations in the classroom varied among my different professors. I was at an institution with a good number of Latinas/os, but not enough to be more than a small minority. When I began to entertain graduate school the process seemed alien. I was fortunate to connect with Graduate Women Scholars of Southern California. It was in Scallops (slip of the tongue by our faculty advisor who hailedĀ from Boston. She meant to say Scholar and Scallops slipped out and it stuck) that I learned about how things worked in academe. This peer mentoring group was one of the best things that happened to me during the last year of my undergrad, as it made the transition into grad school that much easier.

After I earned an MA in Liberal Arts and Sciences and entered grad school in Political Science, I learned that most did not have the strong mentoring that I had and almost no one in the cohort had presented at a conference, had a CV, and were familiar with the vagaries of the tenure track process. Wow. My mind was blown. While I felt like the step-cousin in the department with my areas of research, I was ahead of the curve with my knowledge of academia, which proved useful. I also noticed that Political Science was also very conservative methodologically and politically, and very white. If I thought that Women’s Studies was not that diverse–well, Political Science was a completely different terrain.

Reading Liana’s post really stirred up some memories for me and makes me once again realize how important mentoring (peer and otherwise) is crucial to successful experiences in academe. When you don’t have the mentoring network, it is so easy to feel that you don’t belong…that you are an imposter. Add to this the incredible whiteness of academia and this becomes more complicated for people of color. I will never forget my first experience at the American Political Science Association ( #APSA ). I felt lost and kept on telling myself, “You belong here.” I attended meetings related to Women and Politics and the meetings for the nascent Race, Ethnicity and Politics section. I went outside of my comfort zone and tried to network on my own. It worked. I was emboldened by the good mentoring I had, but at the back of my head occasionally was–do I belong here?

I remember those moments and now make a special point to speak to people new to the conference–especially graduate students. So, Liana, I think we have started an important conversation.