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.