Sunday, June 16, 2013

On Attending Graduate School

Lately I have been reading multiple articles off of the internet from publications such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Chronicle of Higher Education that discuss the failings of attending graduate school in today’s economy. The writers of these articles have voiced their opinions concerning the merit of attending a graduate study program and how it usually doesn’t economically play out in favor of the student. There are no jobs, achieving tenure is almost impossible, and by the time you are finished with your course of studies, ten years (give or take) of your life has slipped away from you. The former student is left wondering if the experience was “worth it,” after they re-emerge into the non-academic life, with a PhD, but without a paycheck.
    I am a former graduate student, and I am contemplating applying for PhD programs. The aforementioned concerns have surely crossed my mind, as they would cross any rational being’s mind, when it comes to “how am I going to feed myself after all of this is said and done?” However, these have never been my top concerns when considering advancing my education to the highest level. I have other concerns that have motivated my decisions towards saying “Yes. I do want to become a PhD.”
    I am a 30-year-old, partially Hispanic female from a smack-dab-in-the-middle of the middle class family. Concerning the other people of my family who are of my generation, I am the only person who has attended graduate school, let alone the only female of our family who has gained a Master’s Degree since emigrating into this country over 100 years ago. My ancestors were mostly illiterate, in both their native and newly acquired English languages. The men worked with their hands mining coal, repairing diesel engines, bootlegging alcohol, serving in the military, and butchering animals. The women had children, assisted in the bootlegging, washed other people’s floors to make a buck, and aside from attending to their own children, watched over the children of others just to get by. They lived almost eight people to a room in the cold water flats of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Hoboken, NJ. When I think back to all of the physical effort that went into making sure that someday, a person like myself, descendant from these struggling, hard working people, could have the opportunity to not have to wash a floor or mangle their hands in hard physical labor, I do not second guess my decision for applying for a PhD program. I owe it to them. I owe it to myself, to my past, my family’s past, and to my future and my family’s legacy.
    I am not going to question if it will be “worth it”; it is worth it. Through my efforts I extend the upwards and outwards history of my family. We went from illiteracy to complete literacy, we went from no education to the highest level of education. All of the monetary reimbursement in the world could not make up for this achievement. In fact, from my perspective, the money is inconsequential to the actual achievement itself. Our progeny can look back and say that in the face of all hardships and obstacles, we defied the odds. From the actions of my ancestors I am reassured that as long as one has two hands, money can always be made. So the concerns of gaining tenure, turning a big paycheck, these things are not important to me. It is the achievement of the goal that is of the utmost importance. To reach a higher intellectual understanding of the world around you, this is the essence of a graduate program to me.
    I think that many people forget this when the weight of the struggling economy is bearing down on their shoulders. I admit, it is hard to keep one’s eyes on the horizon when the land directly in front of you is threatening to collapse into an endless chasm. I’ve been there, or more rightly, I am there. I am midway through life, barely employed, no health insurance to speak of. I am lucky that my apartment is rent controlled and I have a partner that understands my mindset and foots half the bill. I keep in mind that the struggling economy is not my fault, I did not gamble with the lives of others in the stock market. But I cannot let the consequences of the poor decisions of others shape my view as to what I strive to achieve, when I know that that achievement will not only influence my own life, but the lives of those to come after me. I refuse to allow the worries of a struggling economy to stunt my intellectual growth, after I and others have worked so hard to get to this point. I will not allow these worries to overshadow the fact that the people of my family lost movement in their hands from toiling with small parts, risked arrest, and had to send their own children to the kibbutz in South Jersey so that they, themselves, could travel for work, so that one day a person like myself could gain the experience of achieving the highest degrees of study.
    But it’s not only my family that I do this for, it’s not only for my family that I want this. Growing up in the inner city, the odds were against me. It is not an easy task to come of age in a middle to lower class neighborhood in the greater New York City area. As a child I watched those closest to me get involved in gang violence, a way of life that made it to my doorstep. I watched that type of violence as it tried to destroy my family, as it tried to eat away our souls and the very fibers of our being as well as everything that our family had accomplished in the past. One incident that comes to mind, which will paint a better picture as to what I experienced to further make you understand why education, at its highest level, is necessary for a person like myself, is when, at 18 years of age I had to chase a Latin King out of my parents’ basement at one in the morning. Why he was there is inconsequential, the fact of the matter is is that that person was in our house, unbeknownst to us, and with him he brought his culture of violence and hopelessness. After the police were called, this man was forcibly pulled out of our basement, shirtless, with a Puerto Rican flag tattooed on his chest. My family is of Puerto Rican descent, my father being the first generation to be born on the continent. The scene which was set in front of me was that of my parents in the pajamas, confused, frightened, and looking utterly violated, the bald-headed police officers who surely had to deal with this sort of thing on a nightly basis, and this shirtless man with the flag of our nationality poorly scratched onto him, where he wore it like a red-badge of courage, defiant, angry, and pathetic. This could be viewed as a cultural crossroads of a kind. What a person like myself could or could not be. Could I be my parents, who did their best to educate their children and others, people who have struggled through adversity to make sure that I would never turn out like this person, covered in filth from hiding in a basement? Or could I be this person, filled with anger and hate from the poverty, destitution, ignorance, and hopelessness that he allowed to be forced upon him? My parents ensured that I had received up until that point the best education possible, and for that reason, aside from my anger, my fear, and my confusion, which I most likely shared with our intruder, I chose the former. I came from the same area as this person, walked the same streets, yet I possessed something that he did not have that would influence my decisions for the rest of my life: knowledge. He allowed the actions of the outside world, a world filled with discrimination and prejudice towards people of our background, shape his view of himself. He played into the statistic. He allowed it to consume him. I could not allow that to happen then, and so I cannot allow that to happen now. When one comes from the privilege of never having to experience the full understanding of what ignorance can lead to, it is easy to say that furthering your education and graduate school may not be of any high importance, but when you experience the consequences of a life void of education first-hand, you realize how the gaining of those degrees, no matter what the obstacles may be, determines what side of reality you stand upon. So, it is my responsibility, not just to myself or my family, but to those who have experienced the same life as me, to further my knowledge of the world around me, to enshroud myself in it and then share that intellectual fabric with others. This is worth more than money.
    I am disappointed that the articles that I have read concerning the merits of a higher education have not discussed the points I have made throughout this piece of writing. Have we forgotten what academia actually means, what it represents, what it is supposed to further? For me, achieving a PhD would show that my family and any person who shares my background “made it”; we beat the odds of every statistic that said we would lead a life of ignorance and poverty. Having a higher degree, no matter how much money one makes, creates a culture of intelligence among anyone you welcome into your circle. The destitution and anxiety of poverty are not allowed in, for we are not intellectually poor. Those who come after me will have a standard to live up to, one that is not determined by monetary income, but by the respect for the knowledge one acquires, in whatever subject area they choose. For all of these reasons I will say “Yes,” a graduate program is completely worth it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

My Mother and the Pirates

“Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time, and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be rewarded instead of smacked.” -Peter Pan

As we are driving down route 78 on a Thursday morning, heading towards the exit for route 21, which will take us onto the turn-off for Newark, NJ, my mother does her best to avoid the maelstrom of oncoming traffic. “Calm down,” I say. “There is nothing to be afraid of. You have to go the same speed as the other cars to keep up with the traffic. Going 40 mph on 78 is going to get us killed.” “Just shut it,” she says in that tense voice that in my 30 years I have come to associate with the idea of my mother. “People drive like maniacs here. They shouldn’t be driving so fast.” It’s the same voice which she used when I was a child and wanted to go to the park, only one block away, by myself. I was never allowed until I was 13-years-old. At the time I resented it. In my head I believed that I was mature enough to at least cross the street on my own. It was akin to the sound of nails dragging themselves down a chalkboard for my pre-teen mind. She would always follow up with “It’s not you I don’t trust. It’s other people.” At the time I thought it was my mother just being overprotective. At the time I thought she was lying. It was me she didn’t trust. Now, at 30, I am starting to reevaluate her need to make sure I was safe.
It’s a Thursday morning and my mother is driving me to another job interview. It’s for another contract teaching position. I agreed to the interview already knowing that the job would not be permanent, already being accustomed to the fact that I will never find a position with health benefits, and that my life would continue to teeter on the precarious fine line of “just getting by” or poverty. My mother, at 62 years of age, having recently retired from the job that she had since she was 21, struggles to understand how or why this is happening to me. Is it a lack of effort on my part to seek full-time employment? Is it my off-color personality and my inherent unwillingness to compromise (which she says I got from my father’s side, her husband of 39 years) that has brought me to this situation of constant struggle that she has partnered herself with me in? I’m starting to believe that “it’s other people.” Because what person in their right mind, who is creeping slowly but surely into middle age, would want to be in the situation where their mother is still escorting them through the mundane trials of an unfulfilling life? I had to leave the interview promptly after it was completed. No time for the “getting to know you” adjunct lunch. I openly and embarrassingly admitted to the administrator of the Writing Program for which I was interviewing that I had to leave, because my mother was waiting outside for me.
They call my generation the “Peter Pan” or “Boomerang” generation. From the statistical standpoint of the public eye, my generation is reluctant to “grow up.” The responsibilities of adulthood, from their perspective, is something we do not want to fully realize yet. We live at home, in our late 20s and early 30s we still depend on our parents for financial support, we are trying our best to extend the euphoria of early adulthood. We don’t marry. We don’t produce children, at least most of us don’t, by choice. These studies make it seem like we are trying to enjoy as much as we can the escapism of a J.M. Barrie Never Never land lifestyle, where we all are playing the roles of Tootles and Curly, wasting time fighting pirates and dabbling at marbles. Where we will “never, never have to worry about grown up things again.” This is bullshit. As Wendy said “Never is an awfully long time.” So, I ask, what 30-year-old in their right mind would want this? Where is the dignity in it? Where is the means for self-esteem? What part of this kind of living can one take pride in? I find this nomenclature for my generation an insult as well as a complete oversight of the actual events that have taken place that have led me and my generation to this type of humiliating existence.
Over a year ago when I graduated from my M.A. program, with a 3.9 GPA, awards of distinction, and incredibly high hopes for my future, my parents, especially my mother, were elated. I was the first person in my family, as well as the first female, to obtain a graduate degree. I had my own page in the convocation pamphlet, which highlighted my academic achievements. My parents took a stack of them for safekeeping, to preserve as a souvenir of what the little girl who wasn’t allowed to cross the street could accomplish on her own. It was then that I thought that maybe my mother would trust that I could navigate this world on my own. After a lifetime of proving that I was competent, a lifetime of being an honor roll student, from first to 8th grade, of being a student at a premier gifted and talented high school, of being in first-year art shows in New York City, a Dean’s List undergraduate, and finally, a fellow in a graduate program, I would finally be able to cross that bridge into a prosperous and secure life. Yet, as I write this, I am still waiting in the queue at the toll booth of that bridge, along with the rest of the lost boys and girls, the middle children of the modern age. As I wait in line, I know I am going to have to borrow money from my parents to pay the fee to traverse that gangplank.
I ask the next question with humility, not to pat myself on the back or boast of what I have accomplished, because there are trains of individuals in the same position I am in, but how does a person with a similar background to my achievements get into the situation that I am in right now? From our past it can be seen that we are not too lazy to do what it takes to be outstanding, we are not reluctant to go the extra mile to accomplish higher goals. The rhetoric of the popular media, when it comes to my generation, always seems to associate an unwillingness to try when it comes to individuals in the same situation as I am in. During the Occupy movement, a picture was painted of my fellow lost persons that we were just dirty, over privileged “hippies,” demanding a free ticket for something we haven’t yet earned or achieved. But we have tried to exorcise ourselves from demonic possession of destitution. We constantly work to elevate ourselves from this prideless position. We have earned the privilege of a better, more dignifying standard of living. But we still have yet to see any improvement in gaining the reward of an independent life. How can we be to blame when we followed all of the rules set for us in the 90s and early 2000s by those same voices that now have the audacity to accuse us of being apathetic and idle? Under the Bush (I) era education reforms we were pushed in droves to go to college, to do well there to “earn our bones,” as my mother would say. To stay focused. We would get out what we put in. I’m still waiting to see what fruit will spring from my efforts to be respectable.
The situation that I and others of the “Peter Pan” generation have found ourselves in is not our fault. If we are to be grouped into the category of the “lost boys (and girls)” then I will counter that categorization by going as far as saying that it was the pirates that put us here. Yes, the pirates. The Captain Hooks and Smees in business suits that robbed us of the futures we rightfully earned, but whose rewards we will probably never reap. We didn’t collapse the world economy through our reluctance to grow up or work. We just happened to be the generation that would face the consequences of “other people’s” economic irresponsibility. We have no choice now but to run under the wings of our mothers, who were right in their inclinations to be overly protective of us.
    In Peter Pan, the children ask Mrs. Darling “Can anything harm us, mother, after the night-lights are lit?" Mrs. Darling, with all the comfort and faith of a mother, replies “Nothing, precious, they are the eyes a mother leaves behind her to guard her children.” As I drive home with my mother from a successful, yet for all intents and purposes, lackluster and disappointing interview, I feel more pity for her than myself. She came of age in an era where one could maintain a single job throughout their whole lives, buy a house, start a family, provide that family with stable health care, and even send the children to college on one good salary. She abandoned her dreams of being a distinguished anthropologist so that her children would be able to earn some form of distinction to lead more prosperous, dignifying, and fulfilling lives, she gave up her dreams so that we would be protected. As we get back onto traffic-filled route 78, underneath my mother’s muttered cursings of how people act like animals on the road, I come to realize that the contractual position I had just signed my name onto, the guarantee of no health care or job security I quickly agreed upon, is as disappointing to her as it is to myself. As much as I struggled to achieve some form of academic and the hoped-for subsequent economic success, her trials to make sure that I could gain something better quickly overshadow my own. My mother was right in her fears when she would not allow me to cross the street on my own, because she knew when I didn’t that the world is full of pirates, waiting to snatch her children up and rob her nest of life’s adventures. These are the pirates waiting to pigeon hole us into a different type of "Never Never Land": a land where we are never allowed to grow up because of the economic crimes they have committed, we are never allowed to self actuate, and the dreams of our parents to create a better future for their children are never realized.