How I Survived Academia: Part 1
If there’s anything I do know, it’s college. I spent more than a third of my life there, working towards a goal I’d set for myself while still in high school—a PhD in literature. And just a few months ago, I finally made that shit happen.
But behind the degrees, and the graduation pics, and the papers, and the eight long years I spent in graduate school; after four years of undergrad, here is the truth: I was absolutely miserable for most of the journey.
And I’m not just talking “School is hard. I’m never going to finish,” miserable--though there was plenty of that. I’m talking about the type of miserable where many days were a downward spiral of anxiety and depression, rooted in insecurity and feeling like an outsider. The type of miserable where as soon as class ended, I went home and replayed over and over again anything I might have said in class, convincing myself it was wrong, and I was stupid.
I know—it sounds sad. And it was. But beating myself up was the only way I knew how to cope with feeling lost as a Latinx woman in academia. Because surely there was something wrong with me. It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that I was in a white institution with mostly white professors and mostly white students, right? Riiight.
The thing is, I grew up dreaming about the day I’d finally be on a university campus. I imagined myself in the middle of some big east coast city, rushing to class with a cup of coffee in my hand. I saw myself in big cozy sweaters curled up with novels in the library as the familiar smell of books quieted any homesickness. There I was sitting in a lecture hall, my head cocked to the side as I thoughtfully considered each word my brilliant professor spoke. And of course, in this fantasy I’d be among the first to raise my hand to answer a question, my classmates marveling at the intelligent response that seemed to effortlessly move from my brain to my mouth and into the air, arriving at their ears like some sort of genius fairy dust that carried all the right answers while bewitching everyone. “Who is this person?” they’d wonder, eager to befriend me. We’d instantly bond and gather at each other’s apartments to drink wine and talk about books, and politics, and sex, and probably even makeup too, because we were complex enough to appreciate it all.
My idea of college was a mishmash of novels I’d read about kids who attended fancy prep schools and Ivy League institutions, anything I’d seen in movies and television, and the two trips I’d made to visit my older brother, Philip, while he was in college. There was just one problem: unlike most of the people and fictional characters I’d modeled my college dreams on, I wasn’t white. Although I would eventually grow up and—thanks to various types of privilege, some luck, and some grindin—make it to college, The Catcher in the Rye meets Felicity version of university life I always assumed I’d live out was, surprise surprise, a bunch of bullshit.
Of course, the fact that I was able to dream about college from the time I was a kid meant that I was born into a place of privilege that many aren’t. My working-class parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they had enough to feed me and my three (much) older brothers and keep a roof over our heads. Although my parents didn’t go to college, not going was never an option for me, largely because of my brother, Philip, who was a stereotypical firstborn—the super determined, high achieving leader of our pack.
Looking to escape the tense household we lived in (my parents would divorce years later), Philip joined the army and was stationed on the east coast, where he eventually went to college. I was just a toddler when he left, and I have no memories of him living in our home. But I do have memories of him pressuring me and my other brothers to go to college. He told us that an education would change our lives for the better, that we wouldn’t have to face the same issues that our parents and the rest of the familia dealt with on a daily basis. But it turned out that my brother was only telling us half of the story; shielding us from the truth by telling us all of the good and none of the struggle. This would all make sense years later, after Philip died, but I’ll get to that.
This is part one of the author's multi-part series, "How I Survived Academia."
Words by Yvette DeChavez
Images by Yvette DeChavez
Yvette DeChavez was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. She sees her work as an opportunity to explore mental health issues and heal from intergenerational traumas. She writes a lot. She never reads enough. And she always thinks too much. Also, she has a PhD in literature, which is pretty cool.
Yvette is currently a postdoctoral lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin.
Reach her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org