Behind the Veil: The journey of a POC at a PWI
Entry 6: Lessons Learned
As I get ready to start my second year as a doc student, I can’t help but sit back and reflect on my journey so far. To say it has been a rollercoaster would be an understatement. From losing my aunt and uncle within one week of each other, to meeting people I love enough to travel across country with and for, I have had more highs and lows than I ever thought possible. Although I have learned many things over this past year, I have chosen to highlight three major lessons that will hopefully encourage first-year doc students and motivate the rest of us to keep on going.
Lesson 1: You are dope
This, by far, was the hardest lesson I have had to learn (and definitely the most important). Those of you who have followed me on my journey know how much I struggled with Impostor Syndrome last year. And although I won’t say I am cured (at all), I would absolutely say that I have come a long way. What I have learned is that while Impostor Syndrome is real, the things it convinces you to believe are not. No matter how many times I am tempted to question myself, I combat those thoughts by reminding myself that I belong here. I….belong….in…..this…space…..PERIOD. At the end of the day, I was admitted into this program because they saw something in me. They saw potential in me and believed that I was worth investing in. Yes, me, the first-generation, Afro-Latina from Brooklyn who was raised by a single mother is worthy. And not just because THEY think so, but because it’s true. Relying on the opinions of others will not sustain you. You have to acknowledge your own dopeness and operate from a strengths-based mindset in order to endure and persist. Are there things that I don’t know? Of course. Are there times I feel absolutely clueless in class? Yup. But so what. I am a student. I’m here to learn and that’s exactly what I am doing. But instead of dwelling on the things I don’t know, I’ve learned to focus on the things that I bring to the table. I walk into every room with knowledge and experiences that no one can touch or take away from me. Once I started seeing myself as a contributor, it totally changed my perspective on who and what I am. I am dope, and so are you.
Lesson 2: It’s ok to be your authentic self
When I first got to school, I really struggled with figuring out how to “be” in this space. I was constantly having silent conversations in my head – “Is it ok to say that?” “Is it ok for them to know that about you?” “It is ok for you to wear that?“ “It is ok to do that?” I felt like I was always walking on egg shells. As a woman of color, I know how to code-switch with the best of ‘em, but this is more than that. I think I was worried about being judged before I even had a chance to open my mouth. A couple of months ago, I was home in NY and really wanted to get my hair braided, but didn’t because I remembered I had an academic conference coming up. I assumed I couldn’t attend with an “ethnic” hairstyle and still be taken seriously as a scholar. I know now that it’s nonsense, but it’s how I felt at the time. Ever since I was young, I have been taught that if you’re going to a special event, whether a job interview or fancy party, you have to be “presentable,” which was code for your hair better be straight. Although I have progressed from that way of thinking and finally feel comfortable rocking my curls in all spaces, I noticed that I still (whether unconsciously or not) believed that I couldn’t have braids in my hair and still be professional. Boy was I wrong. I remember walking into the conference on the first day and seeing so many afros and braids that my heart almost skipped a beat. And the most surprising thing, at least to me, was that these weren’t just African American Studies professors. These were psychology, physics, and engineering professors, presenting their research while unapologetically Black. It was mind blowing and beautiful. But it didn’t stop there. I also went to an open mic night hosted by one of the subgroups of the academic organization. Yes, that’s right. I went to an OPEN MIC at an academic conference! I just remember sitting there in AWE as Ivy League professors got on stage and spat freestyles or recited spoken word pieces. I literally could not believe my eyes. I just remembered the 20-year-old version of myself that dreamed of performing on stage at the Nuyorican Poets Café one day, but never fathomed being able to have “Dr.” precede my name while I did. Yet here they were, making it happen. So, I had a choice – sit there and admire their truth or stand up and live my own. I chose the latter. I got up on stage and lived out the dream of my younger self while simultaneously allowing my current self to create new ones. I left that conference feeling unapologetic about all of my identities – unapologetically Black, unapologetically Latina, unapologetically Brooklyn, unapologetically a spoken word artist, and, most of all, unapologetically me. Regardless of the space you are in, it is ok to be your authentic self.
Lesson 3: Build Your Squad
This is another lesson that I believe is vital to survival, at least to my own. When it comes to building your squad, there are three main components. The first one is peer level support. This means finding people that are where you are in your journey. These are the people that you are going to call to vent to when you’re overwhelmed, study with when you need to be held accountable, and encourage you when you’re tempted to give up. Some people in your squad might play all of these roles for you, while others may only play one. Each person is still valuable. I have one person in my squad that I will call to go to happy hour with but wouldn’t call to study with because she always procrastinates. I have another person in my squad that will study with me at 7am but will fall asleep on me after one drink, so I don’t invite her to anything that starts after 8pm. Although they are very different people, I need them both. Something else that is important to note is the fact that not everyone in your squad has to be in your program or even at your school. I have built relationships with people in other programs and colleges that hold me down just as much as the people I sit next to in class every week.
The second component is mentor level support. These are typically professors that are going to support you academically and professionally. For me, I have been incredibly intentional about building relationships with professors in my program as well as professors at other universities that either share my research interests or personal experiences. These are the people I go to when I need advice on what to do next. This was probably the hardest set of connections for me to make because of how initially intimidated I get when approaching professors. However, I choose to remind myself that the person who is supposed to be in my squad will welcome me with open arms and want to invest in me. Have I met with professors that weren’t a good fit? Absolutely. But that’s ok. It’s part of the process. But what I can say is that after a year, I have three professors in my squad that I know have my back and will always make time for me. And not only do they want me to succeed, they know that I can.
The third component is mentee level support. This is probably the most underestimated or forgotten component of squad building. These are people that are earlier on in their academic journey. For me, this includes master’s students and first-year doc students. These are the people that look up to me and come to me for advice. Although you might be tempted to think that you are not qualified to mentor anyone, you are. My ability to pour into other students is a blessing and a privilege that I don’t take lightly. Also, talking to them reminds me that I’m not incompetent. Being in doc classes can often make you feel like you don’t know anything about anything, but talking to other students helps you to realize that you know a lot more than you think you do.
The most important thing I’ve learned when building my squad is that it’s ok if some of them are White. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. When you think of your squad, you often think of the people closest to you, which is often comprised of people that look like you. However, when it comes to my squad, that is absolutely not the case. There are White people at all levels in my squad and I believe that they have my back just as much as anyone else does. Being a doc student of color at PWI, I am often tempted to chill with as many people of color as I can. However, I would seriously limit myself personally, academically, and professionally if I built my squad based on race. Instead, I chose to build my squad based on people that showed a genuine interest in me and what I have to offer.
Although I have learned these three lessons, I know that I will have to continue to revisit them, and so will you. But when all else fails, if you remember the first lesson, everything else will fall into place. Never forget that you are DOPE.