A Xicana Scholar Pays Tribute To Her Academic Mama

Note: this blog post was originally published on Xicana, PhD and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Irene Sanchez is a Xicana, a mama, an educator and a writer based in Southern California. She began her higher education journey at a community college, which served as inspiration and motivation for completing a Ph.D. in education.

A Letter to My “Academic Mama”

Dear Academic Mama,

I am here. I am still here. I said this today after thinking about how hard life has been after I finished my Ph.D. I emailed you to ask you for a letter of recommendation again today and remembered how many times, for many years, I would come to your office for a meeting and how I wish you were here.

I came to you like many who walk through your door carrying more than books and my laptop. You reminded me that This Bridge Called My Back isn’t just a catchy title but a lived reality. And I thought about how, when I met you, you helped me set down my worries and my pain, and gave me a safe place as a Xicana in academe — a survivor, a single mama and so many things I was or became in the six years I spent with you in person. Although you aren’t Xicana, I remembered how you felt familiar, how your voice was soothing in faster Puerto Rican Spanish. I soon caught on, just like with a lot of things I had to quickly learn.

With your guidance, I found strength even when I was scared. What I remember the most, however, is how, after five minutes sitting with you, things became clearer. I would enter your office often on the verge of tears, and I would leave feeling as though I, a Xicana from a community college who became a single mother in graduate school and who survived so much, could finish a Ph.D. under what felt like impossible circumstances. I felt not only that I could finish but also that this feeling would last until the next time, because there was always a next time when I would be on the verge of dropping out or bursting into tears. You made me feel as though I could do this every time.

And I did.

I remember how you would ask, “How are you?” every time I saw you, since I met you in 2009 after sitting in your Women of Color in Academia class — a course that saved me and many others. You would ask this question of all of us. You asked us something about ourselves that seems so common and basic, but it is a question that no one seems to care about asking or is concerned with in academe, where they teach you that the personal has no place. But for us, the personal is political. It is everything, and it is the reason why we struggle so hard to be here to begin with. “Como estas?” I thought about how I would respond each time and why I responded this way.

I am here.

As you know, this became the first line of my dissertation and led to my own testimonio in Chapter 1 about how I came to be in Seattle and studying at this place where I never imagined I would be. I know you remember, because that last year, before I finished my Ph.D., you made sure that — no matter what the committee wanted to change or the ways in which they attempted to make me conform — I stayed true to myself and my vision for my work. That even when they told me that they didn’t get “women’s studies” or “testimonios,” or when I didn’t use traditional academic language, you fought for me and explained that, as a student of education, I was also a woman of color and a student in feminist studies, and none of that could be separated from the work I did in the academy. You knew since I met you, because I said it all of the time in my writing, that I refused to leave who I was outside the gates of the ivory tower. And I still live by that belief, though it is a constant battle even now.

The work meant something more to me, and it still does. As a Xicana and former community college student who was kicked out on academic probation, conducting my research affirmed that I am here. I made it to this place after everyone else told me I couldn’t. After moving out of my parents’ home at 18 knowing that I wouldn’t have their support in school, after getting kicked out of community college, after marriage and later after divorce so I could go to grad school, after deciding to move a couple of states away to pursue this far-fetched dream, I got a Ph.D. — even when the statistics and people told me every day that I couldn’t.

You saw something in me and reminded me on the days when I couldn’t see it in myself anymore. This hunger for a place to be safe where there is no safety, to create something new and stay rooted at the same time. I was reminded in this process of my own grandmother, who told me in the first and only conversation I had alone with her after learning Spanish as an adult, two weeks before she passed, “Don’t forget where you come from.” I promised her I never would. I didn’t.

You understood because you knew what it was like to leave home. I came to learn how your home was farther. Your home is an island that cannot be forgotten no matter how far it is on a map. I see now how you created this new home for not only me but also for many people who walked through the doors of your office and sat in your classroom. Because as women of color in academe, we are often surrounded by turbulent seas and choppy waters and sharks that wish to do nothing but devour us. You protected us. You gave strength. You built us up to believe in our own voices and words when so many other people diminish and silence us every single day.

And as we sat in my favorite cafe one week — after I successfully defended my dissertation and a couple of days before I left town to move back to California with my toddler son as a single mama — you said no goodbye. But you caught me off guard when you held my shoulders, looked at me and said, “We built this ship strong and not to sink, and Irene, you will not sink.” Then, you turned and left and walked out the door. I paused for what seemed like an hour, a little shocked by it.

I will not sink.

I will not sink. You made sure of that. So no matter how tough these times are now and how turbulent these waters have been post-Ph.D. (because they have been much more turbulent), I make sure I remember I can’t sink, because I need to carry on the work as long as I am here.

You are here. We are here. And there are other women who need us to ask the important questions about why we are here that the academy wants us to forget.

How To Support Grad Students Who Become Parents

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

Creating Space for Academic Babies

In my first essay, I reflected on the barriers I faced as a black mother in graduate school. Given the biases I had to confront, I attempted to hide my status as a mother when I went on the academic job market. I created a professional presence on social media that disclosed little about my personal life. I explicitly asked my letter writers not to mention that I was a mother. On campus visits, I asked vague questions about schools near the university.

I already carried job-market anxiety and impostor syndrome feelings as a student of color. On top of that, I worried that if word got out I was a parent, I might have worse chances of landing a job.

I did, however, keep an ear to the ground for how, or if, potential departments talked about work-life balance. When I arrived at my current institution, the University of California, Merced, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed that work and life (including life with children) were not separate entities but rather two sides of the same coin. It was a place that valued the whole person, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Support for Faculty With Children

My initial impressions were not misleading. Most of our faculty events are family friendly or scheduled at a time that is consistent with our child care schedules. Colleagues often ask about one another’s kids, and it is not rare to see children on campus. This family-friendly climate made my decision to have a second baby while on the tenure track seem feasible. Indeed, I have had a positive experience so far.

For instance, shortly into my maternity leave, two colleagues invited my infant son and me to a nearby town for a morning writing session and walk by the creek. That was actually the first day since I had my son that I took out my laptop to work on an unfinished writing project.

More recently, I participated in a family-friendly overnight retreat for our faculty working group in Yosemite National Park. We worked during the day while the older children and nonacademic spouses were able to watch the younger children. Then we came together for family activities in the afternoon and evenings.

When the inclusion and support of parents and their children is purposeful, it increases both productivity and cohesion among faculty members. Ample research provides evidence that paid leave is good for everyone — the children, parents and organizations. For instance, a report by President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers revealed that more than 90 percent of the employers surveyed that had implemented California’s paid family-leave initiative reported either positive or null effects on profitability, turnover and morale.

It is important to note that the family-friendly climate on my campus is conditioned by relatively generous institutional parental-leave policies — mothers and fathers on the faculty are able to receive relief from teaching and other modified duties after the birth or adoption of a child.

Limited Support for Grad Students With Children

Unfortunately, however, support of our graduate students is currently less institutionalized. My university has put in place a few policies that aid grad student parents, including designing buildings with lactation rooms and charging students at reduced rate for the on-campus day care.

But graduate student who are new parents are not released from their duties as teaching or research assistants, leaving faculty to make accommodations in the classroom or research teams on a (nonideal) case-by-case basis. In those scenarios I encourage faculty to be creative and empathetic.

I was put to the test in that regard at the start of my first semester of teaching. Shortly before classes began, I received an email from a student informing me that she would miss the first few sessions of my graduate statistics class because she was scheduled to give birth in a nearby city. I took this opportunity to share my own experience as a mother and to work with her to jointly craft expectations and modifications for the class. Although I told her it would be beneficial to attend class as soon as she was able, I did not want to require her to “work” for at least six weeks. Therefore, I told her I would excuse her absences for those six weeks, give extended deadlines and accept email submissions of assignments, and forward her all my lecture slides.

In reality, she showed up to class by the third week and turned in assignments at a steady pace, but she appreciated the safety net I made available. As most mothers do, she showed strength and determination to pull through that semester. In the end, I still held her to the set standards but gave her a bit more flexibility in how and when she mastered the skills.

Making Universities Family Friendly for Everyone

Colleges and universities, as spaces known for shaping the future and creating change, should be at the forefront of implementing leave policies for faculty members, grad students and staff members. Change is needed not only at the structural level but also the ideological level. Academics must rid themselves of outdated gendered and racialized perceptions of working parents. Only then will there be more equity in graduate and faculty outcomes.

If you are wondering what you can do about creating space for academic babies, I encourage you first to look into Do Babies Matter as an important text that offers astounding statistics of the setbacks that parents face and also provides innovative solutions for institutions. Here are some additional tips for making one’s department family friendly.

  • Institute student leave policies that are applied consistently and equally to all students.
  • Do not assume a student has chosen an alternative career or that they will drop out of grad school because they have children.
  • Allow students to articulate their chosen career path and give them the tools to achieve success in whatever route they choose.
  • When mentoring students, ask about their whole lives, children and family included.
  • Discuss strategies for work-life balance.
  • Ask students which positions work within their child care schedule.
  • Include student parents on research jobs and publications; do not assume they do not have time.
  • Plan departmentwide events that are family friendly. A noisy bar is not an ideal place for a child.
  • Respect when a student declines an opportunity, but do not take that no as indefinite.
  • Work with your institution to put in place affordable child care, lactation rooms, family health care subsidies and the like.

And for the grad student, if you have a child while in grad school, here are some tips for navigating your training as a parent.

  • Decide the career path you want to take and make it clear to all parties involved.
  • Ask for what you need. Need time to pump in between classes? Ask. Need to take time off from classes? Ask. Need additional research positions? Ask. Need to decrease research? Ask.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Your time is no longer only yours. Choose commitments wisely.
  • Find an academic mother (or father) mentor. No one mentor can do it all for you. I sought out a woman who was a mother as a mentor at another university. Her advice was pertinent to my success and well-being.
  • Schedule your time wisely; share your schedule with your family and your advisers so everyone can be on the same page.
  • Reject the idea of being a supermom or superdad. Protect your sanity. Take breaks if needed.

Do you have other recommendations? Suggest them in the comments section below.