“Part of why I’m in grad school is to understand my own story and the stories of others like me.”
Kim is the daughter of a Guatemalan immigrant. Her mother, trained as a nurse in her home country, came to Los Angeles with only a 6th grade formal education. Here in the U.S., she was a live-in nanny. Kim’s father, a third generation Mexican American from Los Angeles, was a college drop-out who eventually earned his bachelor’s degree after returning from the Vietnam War. “With this background, I have the sensitivities of a first generation college student but have this other side of me that is not exactly first gen because of my dad. I’m in a position to understand both of those stories,” she says.
Her family experience has shaped who she is and what she studies as a Ph.D. student at U-M. She recalls, “I was lucky enough to be bussed one hour outside of my community to really good schools and had a wonderful educational experience, although a decidedly different one than those in my local community. This was through the ingenuity of my immigrant mom. I don’t know how she did it; I think through the resourcefulness that immigrants often have. My parents set me up to go to really good schools my whole life. They saw lot of potential in me. They wanted me to play sports, but I always said no, leave me alone please, I just want to read.”
As the only daughter in four children, particularly in a Latino culture where girls especially stay close to home, she was given wings when her parents told her she should go to a really good school – anywhere she wants. That message was affirmed by her dad. She says, “My dad traveled the world in the military and passed his wanderlust on to me. There was so much I wanted to see.”
With encouragement from her family and a little help from some of her teachers in high school, she did her own research. She learned about different colleges and applied to a lot of really good schools, getting into most of them. Once that happened, Kim was fortunate enough to participate in recruiting visit weekends for students from underserved geographic, socioeconomic and racial backgrounds at schools like Rice and Duke. She remembers, “I got to go to many of those and remember feeling that, yes, I want to grow. I want to see and experience how the rest of the country lives.”
Her undergraduate years at Duke helped her discover her own ethnic identity. “I had been a part of a white school but came from a Latino community. There were lots of Latinos in California overall. At Duke, it was a different environment and I got to see more of that and to discover what it means to be Mexican/Guatemalan American.” She became a student leader in the undergraduate community and joined a Latina sorority focused on raising awareness of Latina/o culture and spreading it through service and sisterhood.
After graduating, she became an admissions officer, eventually working for her alma mater recruiting students, particularly underrepresented minority students, from all over the West coast. She describes, “It was lovely to go back to Duke as an employee and be able to craft incoming classes. It was very fulfilling and also frustrating. I saw the elite underbelly of college admissions – how standardized tests, legacy programs and student pedigrees create an overall institutionalized racism. I knew there was intrinsically something really wrong about it but didn’t have the language to describe it. I had a lot of good ideas but found they weren’t taken seriously and that I needed to have another credential to be effective in creating change.” So it was time for grad school.
“Michigan was last on my list,” she says. (Not something any of us who work here want to hear.) She eases our concern, saying, “I wanted a one year master’s program so I could get back in the field as soon as possible. U-M has a three semester Master’s of Higher Ed and even that felt too long for me.” When she received the Rackham Merit Fellowship, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and chose U-M. “But then I got here. I just soaked up school. My intellect was on fire here – I just thrived.”
Kim lights up when she talks about the ways in which her experience here opened her eyes: “I was receiving an exceptional education and getting to put names to the things I felt, things that affect students like myself. I was also interning for the National Forum for Education for the Public Good, a think tank of grad students based here at U-M. There, they were doing revolutionary work to inform policy on undocumented student access to higher education asking questions like how do you bring stakeholders and policy makers to change an agenda and effect some real change? That’s when I got excited about systemic change in higher education and a whole other world opened up to me.”
Encouraged to apply to the Ph.D. program by doctoral students at the Forum, she chose to stay at Michigan instead of return to a highly acclaimed program closer to her family. Michigan’s expertise in organizational behavior and its implications for diversity on college campuses kept her here. She explains, “At Michigan it is very intentional – students are thinking about broad systemic change and how oppressive some standard things can be – but they are an historical legacy. I want to know how we frame these things and change them.”
“People at Michigan are part of a movement for social change in higher ed, especially when it comes to equity. We need a broad understanding of organizational behavior – a framework by which faculty teach, money is raised. For that, I’m getting exceptional training here. I saw some of the campus climate issues and realize it’s a broader cultural thing here. Administrators and University leaders are asking themselves the same questions. It’s broader than just my program.”
During her time at U-M, Kim has faced challenges. She describes, “The continued distance from my family is hard. I had to learn how to stop working and take time to come home.” Facing some of her hardest trials, she took the summer of her second doctoral year to be home with her dad, who passed away at the end of that summer. She received so much support from U-M: “My faculty told me to stay home, take the time I need and that there are more important things, but my dad told me to promise to stay in the program and finish. With such a wonderful community here, I thought: they can help me get through.”
A third year doctoral student, Kim is preparing to take her candidacy exams this spring. She works with Dr. Julie Posselt who studies the organization of higher education for diversity and equity, and the implications for access and inclusion that those structures have.
Kim still considering what her dissertation research will focus on but is very interested in the social movements at U-M, the recurring campus climate issues, and why it seems we can’t get past them. She wonders, “Why do we still have these terrible levels of isolation? It’s more than affirmative action, more than declining enrollment. We still have it at institutions that can admit whoever they want and still see students there actively fighting against cultures of exclusion. Why do we still have these problems? I’m very interested in not just social movements happening but why even despite the social movements, the campus climates are so entrenched.”
“I believe that one of the explanations is a cultural one. It has a lot to do with how we’re organized in institutions by academic departments and by disciplines and the faculty there. No matter how many events, renovations or structural interventions you plan, until the culture changes and the curriculum changes…until we do those things and change what happens in the classroom, I don’t know if we’ll ever get past those issues.”
“The culture of the faculty depends on the institution, department and disciplines; this is one of my advisor’s key area of study. I have related questions: how do disciplines teach about race and think about race and race relations? It’s interesting how in disciplinary cultures, race has been conceptualized over time and perceived as a cultural phenomenon. Race was considered a biological concept but is actually is socially constructed. How scholars have gone about that shift is a social movement in and of itself, but I don’t understand how we can still have these divisions over difference in higher education. The implications are that maybe it’s not just about how many students get scholarships, maybe it’s about faculty, and maybe that has implications for what we teach and how we work with students in the classroom.”
As she evolves as a graduate student, she can’t help thinking about her future career path: “Higher education is an applied field – you don’t have to be a faculty member, but think I’d really enjoy it. I miss students very much and it would be neat to be able to teach. I also would love being an administrator and have the chance to go back and effect change on one campus. My own professional aspirations will evolve, but I think this would be a real privilege.”
Graduate school can be all consuming if you’re not careful, and Kim takes care to recharge when she can. She says, “In grad school, often your fun revolves around your work, even like happy hour with your research team. I enjoy getting lost in mindless things that remind me that I’m not a student 24 hours a day. I feel like I don’t have a lot of room for a lot of other things, but I’ll have more flexibility once I’m done with my coursework. Other grad students tell you it’s important to have those other things.”
She carves time out of her day every night for her family, not letting the distance keep her from close ties to her mom and brothers. She says, “I look forward to talking to my mom – we Skype every night. I have a whole other group of people rooting for me, even if they don’t understand what I’m doing.”
Kim’s got a ways to go before receiving her doctorate, but she’s got support from more than her family. Her experience as a grad student has been supported and enhanced by the relationships and programs she’s found in Rackham. She says, “I’ve always been a part of Rackham. There’s so much that Rackham does – programs, professional development workshops. I definitely really haven’t had to want for much here. I haven’t had to worry about things I’d worry about at other institutions. The Rackham Merit Fellowship allows me to focus on my work and focus on being a scholar.”