It is too easy to look back on stupid things I said, did, or thought in my youth. But, at times, I can look into my past with pleasant surprise regarding a thought or action. “Wow — how did I know what the heck I was talking about then?” Since I started the countdown to finishing my PhD around this time last year, I have been reflecting a lot on my college years. Maybe I am looking back to compare my experiences as a college student to what I imagine my students experience. There is also a bit of nostalgia because — well — graduate school was just a different beast. Related to that aside, I also find myself reflecting on the past because I actually knew things before grad school (despite the implicit messages I received)!
A Culture Of Opposition
One memory that, now, looking back surprises me is giving advice on navigating what I called a “culture of opposition” in academia. As a graduating senior, having served as president of the student activities group that year, I was invited to give parting advice to incoming student leaders. In planning events on campus, involvement in other organizations, and advocating for greater services for LGBT students on campus, I had amassed experience in working with students, staff, faculty, and administration. Through my experiences, it seemed you could assume most people were either not interested or invested in your efforts, and a few even took an extra step to get in your way. So, while attempting not to be a pessimist, I emphasized that one should not be naive about others’ willingness to support you.
A Pocket Of Opportunity
In the picture above, you can see the poster I created as a visual aid for my advice to incoming student leaders. That is me on the right, going through my South Pole clothing phase. The ominous mass on the outside is the aforementioned “culture of opposition.” I recall seeing a shocked face on one staff member’s face when I misspoke, saying “culture of oppression.” (I thought it was funny.)
On the inside of the circle, in the center, is what I referred to as a “pocket of opportunity.” I made an attempt to draw a pants pocket that is releasing little hearts into the air. For me, this pocket was student life. The fellow students with whom I worked, but more so student affairs staff, offered a safe, encouraging space that provided what felt like limitless opportunities for me to pursue my passions. They, along with a few faculty and administrators, supported me in my efforts to create a campus resource center for LGBT students. Within an otherwise disinterested and, at times, oppositional culture on campus, I found this small pocket of protection, encouragement, and support.
Find Your Own Pocket
I am reemphasizing a (provocative) point I made before: we, as marginalized people, do ourselves a disservice by buying into the fairytale of academia as a safe, inclusive, and equal place. Despite my wisdom about the “culture of opposition” as a graduating senior, I made the mistake of assuming the best about academia as I entered graduate school. And, I embarrassed to admit I did so again as I started as a professor (albeit to a lesser extent). There is no place that I can think of that will automatically be “home” for me, that will automatically be welcoming and encouraging for people like me.
In order to survive and thrive, we have to find our own pocket of protection/opportunity/support. Unfortunately, I do not have advice beyond knowing that we have to search, for it is not a given for marginalized individuals. I cannot say that I have readily known where to look, but it became clear that I had to look for allies, mentors, sponsors, and supportive communities. This has meant broadening my search beyond my own cohort, department, university — and, outside of academia.