By: Gabriela Kovats Sánchez, San Diego State University & Claremont Graduate University
Making the bold step to quit my job and pursue a PhD full-time left me in a special place in my life. My transition into PhD life led me to a sort of infantilization as I attempted to establish relationships with classmates and faculty while being marked as a “first year.” The competitive nature of the PhD program, the limited opportunities to develop non-competitive relationships with classmates, and the expectation to have it all figured out made me feel overwhelmed. Upon entering this new educational context, I simultaneously experienced a traumatic and emotionally abusive separation and subsequent divorce. This experience impacted every aspect of my life. Getting out of bed and facing life was a daily struggle. I found myself without a home and with little money. I couldn’t eat and I didn’t sleep.
Still, given the constructed parameters of professionalism (that are both race-based and gendered) and the systemic dismissal of emotional expression, especially for women of color (Lorde, 1984; Campbell, 1994), I felt I had to keep this personal hardship a secret from my professors and classmates. Years of gendered microaggression in my own life and my internalization of misogyny made it hard for me to reveal my situation to others even though it was impacting everything I did. It took days to read a single article. I wrote my final papers in tears. I’d excuse myself in the middle of class just so I could cry in the bathroom. Days when I should have been doing schoolwork were spent waiting in line at the courthouse so I could receive free legal advice about the divorce process.
Having to compartmentalize my academic life from my personal life while I was at school made me feel incredibly uneasy. I then came across Campbell’s (1994) work regarding the important role of expressing women’s feelings in public. She argued that “when our feelings are trivialized, ignored, or systemically criticized” it can lead to “the dismissal of significance to a person of her own life, in a way that reaches down deeply into what the significance of a life can be to the person whose life it is” (p. 63). This shook me to the core and gave me the courage to open up to my faculty advisor.
My advisor, also a woman of color, carefully listened to me. Over the following months, she took the time to check in with me on a personal level while making sure I never lost sight of the PhD. It was through her that I learned being vulnerable was a necessary process. Above all, I learned that my desire to pursue a PhD (just like hers) was rooted in my emotions and experiences. I learned that my purpose was not solely to fulfill the requirements of a successful dissertation; it was also about using my emotions and experiences to serve my communities in a critical ways (Sanchez, 2012). My advisor created a safe and brave space for me to share my feelings about my experiences as they directly related to my identity as a woman of color recovering from trauma and misogyny. She made sure I was tender and unapologetic about the most vulnerable parts of me. She listened. Most importantly, it was the support she extended outside the academic context that made me stay in the program. I believe that if it weren’t for her holistic support, I would no longer be pursuing this PhD.
As first generation PhD students and women of color in the academe, the support we receive is vital. A supportive peer network is crucial, but the support we receive from our faculty advisors is equally important. My advisor is not required to provide emotional support nor is she part of a university reward system that values this type of caring (Acker & Feuerverger, 1996), but as a woman of color in a field where there are so few of us, she felt the responsibility to do so. The Latina Feminist Group (2001) point out that for women of color, achievement is a double-edged sword. As we navigate professional spaces, we have to “construct and perform academic personas that require ‘professionalism,’ ‘objectivity,’ and respectability in ways that negate our humanity” (Latina Feminist Group, 2001, p. 14). For this very reason, I believe it is critical to highlight the active cultivation (and often invisible work) women of color faculty perform for their students. Holistic advising that directly challenges the traditional so-called objective culture of academia keeps us critical of the ways patriarchy and racism intersect in both our personal and professional lives. The fact that my advisor was also a woman of color was instrumental in my healing journey. I’m eternally grateful for her support. She inspires me to do the same for other women as I advance my career in academia.
Gabriela Kovats Sánchez is a PhD student at San Diego State University and Claremont Graduate University’s Joint Doctoral Program in Education. Her research focuses on the experiences of Mexican indigenous youth and the ways Latin American colonialism and US settler colonialism intersect in the classroom. Gabriela is a research analyst for SDSU’s Research and Equity Scholarship Institute on Student Trajectories in Education.
Acker, S., & Feuerverger, G. (1996). Doing good and feeling bad: The work of women university teachers. Cambridge Journal of Education, 26(3), 401.
Campbell, S. (1994). Being dismissed: The politics of emotional expression. Hypatia, 9(3), 46.
Latina Feminist Group. (2001). Telling to live: Latina feminist testimonios. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lorde, A. (1987). The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism. Women and Language, 11(1), 4.
Sánchez, P. (2009). Chicana feminist strategies in a participatory action research project with transnational Latina youth. New Directions for Youth Development, 2009(123), 83–97.