Recently, more than halfway through my second year of graduate school, I experienced a major breakdown. On my two, three-hour flights that took me back home to Colombia, I questioned my sudden decision to retreat for three weeks to get myself together.
“Is this going to affect the way my professors see me? Do I now seem like I am not committed to my Ph.D. program?” These are the questions that ran through my head.
I tried to breathe through the anxiety while I listened to the Harry Potter audio books that my friend downloaded for me to get me through the flights. “You can’t go through life without knowing about Harry Potter, it’s criminal!” I heard him say in my mind.
As I listened to the second book, The Chamber of Secrets, the theme became increasingly more relatable. In this book—spoiler alert—there is an evil entity who wants to get rid of all the Muggle students attending the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The Muggle students are those who were born into non-wizard families yet possess great abilities for practicing magic. Despite the exceeding abilities of these students, most everyone in the school knew quite well who the Muggle students were. They were not the same as those students that were born into wizard families who were thought to possess inherent magic abilities. Some students and professors embraced the belief that Muggle students were inherently different from the other students.
As I listened, I realized that I am a Ph.D. student from a Muggle family.
I was born in Bogota, Colombia, where I lived for the first 18 years of my life. My parents—who met because they lived across the street from each other—were born into lower, working-class families. My dad grew up with his two younger siblings and his single mother in a house that they rented in a not-very-safe neighborhood on the south side of Bogota. Though my mom’s parents did own their home in the same neighborhood, it didn’t do much for my mom’s economic resources growing up, as she shared this home and everything else with her 10 siblings. Only three of the siblings, including my mom, attended and graduated from college. She and her oldest sister attended a postgraduate degree program in education, which is the step before obtaining a master’s degree in Colombia. So my mom, who gave birth to me when she was 20 and to my sister when she was 22, became a high school teacher. My dad, on the other hand, almost didn’t finish high school until my mom finally convinced him to get his GED after I was born. He was a stay-at-home dad.
Despite their challenging upbringings, my parents were able to provide my sister and me with the life of an aspiring middle-class family in Bogota. Growing up, my sister and I did not experience nearly as many hardships as my parents endured; however, our life wasn’t just focused on books and research.
We did not belong to a family of academics.
My parents still did a good job at cultivating a passion for reading, writing, and music in us. We were, as some people have described me in the United States, “cultured.” What attracted us to reading particular authors or listening to certain artists were the emotions that these works evoked in us. Therefore, the language that we used to talk about our favorite authors and artists was the one which matched the sensorial experiences produced by these works. In graduate school I have found this language to be discouraged, as if unheard terms in non-academic spaces provided a sort of false sense of objectivity.
Furthermore, my family and I balanced our passions with our own concerns about limited economic resources and the anxieties that came with this. Had I stayed in Colombia, I would have become a high school teacher like my mom, because this is the most available degree option in public universities in Colombia. I didn’t want this. Though I had great admiration for my mom’s commitment to secondary education, I was familiar with the amount of unrewarding effort and unfair salary that my mom experienced in this profession. I wanted to explore my passions without constraints on my ultimate goal.
After high school, my family and I moved to the States. “In the States, I will become an anthropologist,” I thought. This was easier said than done. With efforts, tears and patience, I completed a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Florida and was admitted to my Ph.D. program in the University of Michigan. In this program, I found out that there are some people who have trained their whole lives for academia. These students attended much more prestigious schools than the University of Florida, their parents met at graduate school, and they are now both university professors or have profitable careers outside academia. These students have different priorities than mine. They are able to compartmentalize their emotions, and regardless of their frustrations they can overcome life hardships while reminding themselves that school always comes first.
My worries, on the other hand, are split between school, work, the problems of my nuclear and extended families, and the fear of spending too much time alone.
I felt like an outsider to academia.
Growing up, I was always surrounded by family, and caring for them was my number one priority. I am now training myself to spend all of my time on my own, staring blankly at the computer screen, which sometimes results in my ability to finally focus and read like I’m expected to. In Ann Arbor, I isolate myself alongside other Ph.D. students in coffee shops and libraries. We feel each other’s presence, but we don’t speak to each other. Some students thrive in this environment; I struggle. By my physical presence in Ann Arbor, I feel like I show my commitment to the program. I prove both to myself and to some skeptical faculty members that yes, I am in fact qualified enough for this program. Sometimes, this proof requires that I forget that I come from a Muggle family.
But truth be told, I come from the Muggle world, where life includes activities besides reading and writing; where theory doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to make friends and have mundane conversations with others who couldn’t care less about my research project.
After my breakdown, I chose instead to show my commitment to my own well-being. To my surprise, I was supported by fellow students and faculty. I now want to prove that I can in fact keep up with my school work from home. My family, with their healing abilities, provide me with food and smiles. The city of Bogota embraces me and helps me recover. Here, I am reminded that there are places to go other than the closest coffee shop, that the Muggle world also has plenty to teach me. I have become inspired, and I hope to return back to Ann Arbor in a few weeks in better spirits.
However, I can’t stop questioning: is isolation necessary for academia? In the classroom, we often talk about how we would like our ideas to speak to the non-academic world, but we want our institutions to be in secluded places—a.k.a. “college towns.” Just like Hogwarts, we don’t want the Muggles to intervene in our world, but we want to intervene in theirs. The non-academic world is seen as an object of study rather than a space worth inhabiting. As a Muggle student, I find myself caught somewhere in-between. This sense of in-betweenness has sparked an internal battle, and I am in the process of reaching self-acceptance. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that I can find a way to exist in both worlds.
In the final lines of The Chamber of Secrets, Headmaster Professor Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter that “it is our choices that show who we really are, far beyond our abilities.” Although I questioned my decision to go back home—I still fear my decision might present that I don’t have what it takes to be in my program—hearing these lines makes me understand that my actions have the opposite effect. This time, I have chosen to embrace myself first, as I now realize that there isn’t any other way that I will be able to succeed in my Ph.D. program.