Coming into academia as a first-generation college student presented a steep learning curve as an undergraduate, to say the least. As a postgraduate, it created and continues to create a whole new series of challenges in both the family and professional domains. I think that my specific area of study being gender issues certainly compounds these challenges at times.
First, the personal arena. My parents worked my whole life from pay-check to pay-check, but it was always understood that I would go to college. Without their support, I could not have become the person I am today (whether they like it or not). At the undergraduate level, there was usually nothing but pride in my accomplishments, besides an occasional, only slightly loaded reminder, of the difference between being smart and being educated. I was studying general psychology, and only just beginning to understand what feminism meant to me as a person and as a developing academic.
Among my extended family, resentments and assumptions only began to really show when I entered my master’s program, when I decided that my area of research would be sexual violence against women. Coming from the deep south in America, it is difficult to disentangle where their prejudices against higher education (or as they may see it, intellectual elitism) ended and women’s issues began. I know that an older cousin from the extended family was essentially shamed into quitting college for thinking he was better than his roots several years before I entered undergraduate. The fact that I would reach this first level, however, was generally understood ahead of time, since I grew up occupying the role of ‘that odd cousin who read a lot’, and it was only when I aspired to go beyond my assumed place that attitudes towards me shifted towards a need to remind me of exactly where that was. I really felt the change the first time I came to a family gathering after graduating with my M.Sc. There were veiled criticisms about how I know so much now that I have ‘all those degrees.’ I also noted that my parents made sure that the rest of my family knew I had recently lost an academic award to my male partner, as if I was still manageable as long as I was kept under by some man in some sphere, even if that sphere was one they couldn’t really understand.
And then there were the rape jokes. I never heard sexism and rape jokes from these people until they realized I was a feminist researcher. And then there was the explaining my own field to me, and comments that you can’t trust scientific studies made pointedly within my hearing. And then there was the small stuff that wasn’t anyone’s fault, like feeling like I couldn’t tell anyone about my experiences and struggles in my very hard work as a first year PhD, because they a) wouldn’t understand/care to understand and b) would say something dismissive and unhelpful that would essentially just add to the pressure I feel every day. It all adds up to a feeling of disempowerment and lack of support for what I have chosen to do with my life, hinging on a need for others to validate their own insecurities. It makes me feel like an outsider in my own family, as I am now not seen so much as the ‘smart one,’ but the ‘threatening one.’
Professionally, I think the challenges I face as a first-generation student fundamentally differ from the personal in that there is a lot less emotional meaning attached to them. On the other hand, the two areas of my life are at times difficult to separate, and I do feel passionately about my work. In a sense, the professional learning curve is no less difficult to contend with than the personal problems it comes with, as I navigate building a career that is so far from the anti-intellectualism culture that I grew up in. Of these challenges, on a very basic practical note, I had to learn what is expected in academic settings in situ. And like most female researchers, I deal with stereotype threat and imposter syndrome. I deal with fighting long-ingrained feelings of inadequacy in maths, from being told (like a lot of young girls) that I just wasn’t good in that area, while simultaneously conducting quantitative research. I feel that the stereotype threat is especially bad because of my subject area. I feel that the imposter syndrome is probably worse because of my upbringing, and the fact that I feel like a failure would be unacceptable because of the unbearable idea of facing a family who already thinks I am flying too close to the sun. HOWEVER, my upbringing and the fact that I am here in spite of it reminds me how important it is to be a woman in science and just keep doing it day by day and step by step. I accept that I can feel like I am tricking the world, and continue to do what I need to do. Honestly, the phrase ‘fake it till you make it’ keeps me going some days, and I don’t think that is totally problematic.
Written by PGRNS committee member Casey Bevens. Casey is a second year PhD student in Social Psychology at the University of Edinburgh.