How I Survived Academia: Part 2
Here’s what college actually looked like:
I never made it to the east coast; hell, I didn’t even apply to schools there. It turned out that I wasn’t ready to leave my family and the comforts of home: my mom’s food, my brothers’ support, and all the homies I’d grown up with who simultaneously teased me for being a nerd and rooted for my success. Plus, as the youngest and only girl, I felt the pull of my Latinx mom to stay as close to home as possible (and at 33, I still feel this.) So I found myself at the University of Texas at Austin, a large state school less than two hours away from my hometown of San Antonio.
Some people get their kicks from roller coasters, skydiving, and white people shit like hang gliding, but I crave the adrenaline that comes with being in front of an audience. Even as a kid, I loved the rush of being onstage. I tried out for plays, sang in front of the entire school on multiple occasions, and shined in the dance classes my mom put me in. My outgoingness translated to the classroom, as I was always the annoying kid raising her hand to answer questions. When I got to high school, I didn’t know a single person in my freshman class, but by the time graduation rolled around, I was voted class speaker. What I’m saying is, I’ve got personality, man—charisma. I have always liked to be seen and heard. So it wasn’t shyness that kept me in the back of the classroom at the University of Texas at Austin, too tongue tied and terrified to speak. Instead, it was the fact that it seemed like everyone around me had been given a handbook with all the secrets to college, while I was working with the little bits of information I could gather through observing other students.
I’d later find out that my suspicions weren’t entirely wrong. For some kids, college is a journey that begins years before the applications are mailed out. And I’m not just talking about the grooming that happens within the household by their college educated moms and dads—there are things like expensive SAT prep courses and educational consultants who help you find the perfect college. Or how about this: did you know that there are parents out there paying thousands of dollars for professional help with their kids’ college entrance essays? I only know because after getting my PhD, I was one of these professionals for a hot second. (In the words of Usher, these are my confessions.) I’d meet with kids for 1 to 2 hour-long sessions, multiple times per week, and advise them on all the specific details a particular school looked for in an essay while also clueing them into the unwritten requirements for a standout application: “You see Becky, I know it doesn’t say this anywhere on the essay prompt or website, but my boss just attended a weeklong conference with all the admissions people for this school, and they said it’s best not to get too personal here. We don’t want to scare readers off!” Shit like that. (I give these secrets away for free now whenever I can. Hit me up.) Of course, even if my parents had known about these services back in the day, which they most certainly did not, there’s no way they could’ve ever paid for them.
So while many of my fellow classmates had chosen the University of Texas at Austin based on its academic reputation or because their parents and parents’ parents had gone there, or because it was a good school for the major they were pursuing, I was there because I grew up in Texas and it was a name I recognized. Shit, my parents were just proud I’d made it to college, you know? Still, some part of me sensed that I was missing this Rosetta Stone of university life and because of this I should probably just stay quiet. I kept my head down and let everyone else do the talking.
My peers seeming to have all the answers wasn’t the only reason I stayed quiet. I also began to harbor serious doubts about myself as a student, something I’d never done before. I saw my inability to connect with things like Hemingway novels and 19th century British literature as a personal failure. Why couldn’t I see what these other kids saw? And when I did make connections worthy of mentioning in class, or when a professor asked a question for which I had a decent response, my entire body would swell with the words I wanted to speak. My inner voice would scream, “Just say it. Say it. SAY IT!” until someone else beat me to it; saying something I assumed was much smarter than what I had in mind. I’d swallow my words thinking “See, good thing you didn’t say anything,” as if my own knowledge was completely unworthy. As if my words could never be as good, because they were mine, and I was just some kid from San Antonio—a city that I’d heard other students describe as “ghetto” and “so Mexican.”
Given the isolation, stress, and daily self-shaming I experienced, it should come as no surprise that my mental health plummeted at this time. By now, my brother Philip was an Ivy League educated doctor (that’s right, my brother made it from the hood to the Ivy League) working on a Master’s of Public Health at Harvard, and he was the person I called when, right before an exam, the world felt like it was pressing down on my chest.
“I can’t breathe, and everything is going dark.” I told him over the phone, “I’m spiraling.”
“It’s a panic attack,” he explained in his you’re-not-gonna-die-so-chill-out doctor voice he always used when me or my brothers asked him for medical help. “You’re stressed,” he told me, like it was to be expected.
In hindsight, I wish that I would’ve asked more from him. Here was this person, just a phone call away, who’d surely experienced everything I was going through, including the anxiety and depression. Yet we didn’t really talk about the reasons behind my feelings, behind my panic attacks. We didn’t talk about the dark shadow that seemed to hover over my every move. I understand now that this was because the same shadow was clouding his life. And like me, he preferred to mostly suffer in silence.
The rest of undergrad was largely spent alone in my room as I poured my feelings into my LiveJournal and listened to Amy Winehouse. I occasionally saw a psychiatrist, thanks to the luxury of my dad’s insurance. She was an older white woman who unsurprisingly seemed to have no understanding of what it meant to be a young Latinx woman in college. After a short conversation, she diagnosed me as bipolar, wrote me a bunch of prescriptions, and sent me on my merry way. (Believe me, that’s a whole other essay.) I combined her treatment with various forms of self-medicating, like obsessing over every calorie I ate—a habit that would haunt me for years to come—and drinking to temporarily bring some light into my world. Ugh, those were some dark days. But somehow, the little fighter in me kept going, the same one who’d gotten me this far. I did my work, and I made good grades. I swallowed my feelings, and I pushed on through. And I did well enough to get into grad school. In some ways, I think this was the legacy I inherited, the gift that my parents and my parents’ parents gave me: survival.
But I wanted more than just survival.
When I think back to little me, the one who stumbled through undergrad with her sad eyes, with her shoulders weighed down by books and disappointment, I want to hug her. I want to tell her that one day she will know her power, that’s it’s right there in her tired body. I also want to shake her and scream, "WAKE UP. Live. Be present."
But there would be no need because, soon enough, life would wake me the fuck up.
The weekend before I moved back to Austin for grad school, my brother Philip was in town for what would be one of the last visits he’d ever make to San Antonio. I was on a high, looking forward to what this new life was about to bring me. Probably sensing my naiveté and bearing witness to what I imagine was the same sparkle in my eyes that I had when fantasizing about life as an undergrad, Philip looked at me and said, “Grad school will be the most humbling experience of your life.” In the moment, I resented him for this. I wanted to believe that only happiness awaited me. That all my hard work was finally about to pay off, just like I’d always been told it would. “I know, Philip, I get it,” I answered. He shook his head and let out a small chuckle; the quiet laugh of someone who’d been through some shit and knew much more than I could possibly understand, and then he repeated himself: “Grad school will be the most humbling experience of your life.” Guess what?
The motherfucker was right.
THIS IS PART two 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