Fall of 2015, I was prepping to apply to graduate programs. More specifically, during the fall of 2015, I was prepping to apply to PhD programs. I had just finished a Masters of Divinity at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, and I had taken a year off to really be mindful about where I wanted to go for a PhD programs.
If you’re in the academy, you know that applying to PhD programs is no joke. You have to email potential advisers, whose work you’ve presumably read, about 6/8 months in advanced. You have to basically see if your research interests align with their research interests, assuming you’re applying to a university that encourages writing and publishing – as opposed to some that encourage teaching more than the previously mentioned side hustles. Schools that encourage publishing are usually pretty high ranking and elite, because to be published and to be read, means prestige for the school. Which means more applications, and lower percentage of students who are accepted compared to the application numbers. It is a numbers game, and it is a “who’s got the bigger _________” game. Universities are businesses, at the end of the day, and they are run as businesses.
So, I had been playing the game of emailing professors. I had not really found someone who I loved, and felt would go to bat for me, which is important in PhD programs. Being a person of color, especially woman of color, we are presumed incompetent the minute that we walk into most institutions – so your adviser is going to ideally be the person who will defend you when no one else will understand your work. Your adviser is the one who will also introduce you to other people in the academy, the more people you know the better your chances of being hired when you graduate. It is a people game also. Also, you would ideally want an adviser who is well-known, heavily published, because they will know the big names in your field. Or you could go for younger new professors, or new hires, who are usually more encouraging of new ideas and pushing the envelope a little more.
Either way, I was playing the game. I was emailing professors, I had been recommended a few programs and had been pointed in the direction of one particular professor who was Latinx and also “down.” Looking into his CV I noticed he was also into social media, so I thought it was a match made in heaven. We began emailing. This is also a rather uncomfortable and hard to-do process because you are relying on a professor’s interest in you and their willingness to take on a student, assuming they even can because not all professors take on PhD students for advising.
Thankfully he seemed at least interested, and so I began to send him my CV and links to some of my more popular pieces online. Also in this process, you have to have a pretty clear idea of what you want your dissertation to be about, which is something that can change but generally this is when you know if your research interests match with said potential adviser. So, I proceeded to tell him that my dissertation, in some form or another had to have a decolonial component, where my diction would be understood by the general population. In other words, I was adamant that my writings needed to stay colloquial, despite what the academy has said: because how can I write a dissertation about accessibility in an inaccessible tone?
Then he stopped answering my emails….
This was in November, when all communication was lost. My application was due in December. I understood that these professors are busy, and tried to stay patient but a week before I had to turn in my application I emailed him again, because in the application you have to write your desired adviser into your application. However, if said adviser is asked about you upon your application review and they do not show interest then your chances are diminished. So playing this game that I had been playing for a few months was all relying on the interactions we had.
When he stopped interacting with me, I panicked. I began to second-guess myself. I began to worry that I was not good enough. Imposter syndrome is common for students of color in the academy; we are constantly feeling like we do not belong because we are often made to feel like we do not belong. Our ideas are too new, or too controversial, or simply because we are judged by the color of our skin before we even speak. I began to worry that this place was not for me, but I had come too far and asked for all my recommendations ahead of time and I knew I could not back out now. At least I knew I could not pull my application due to my own internalized oppression that told me I shouldn’t try because I wasn’t good enough.
Anyways, about a week before my application was due this professor finally replied. When I saw that he replied I nearly jumped out of my seat, this was IT, I thought. In his email his tone was different. It was what some would confuse as kind, but what he said was not kind. He told me that the academy was built with certain structures, and since it was not going to change I needed to re-evaluate my decision to be in the academy if I was so adamant about writing for a general audience and not an academic one. He told me that it looked like I was achieving some successes outside the academy and that I should continue to pursue that, but my work was too accessible for the dominant academic narrative.
When I read this email I sat in shock. It was pretty early in the day, I was sitting in my room and I just sat there. And then tears started to stream down my face, because believing in myself and my unreachable dreams has always been what I have done. I have had teachers roll their eyes at me when I told them I would go to college, I have had counselors tell me I was kinetically smart and not book smart when I wanted to be in more advanced courses. I have always thrived even when it felt like no one around me believed in me. And I was tired. I was tired of believing in myself, by myself. I thought, well I graduated from college with honors and then was accepted and graduating that spring from an elite private university with my masters, I THOUGHT I HAD PROVEN MYSELF. I thought I had done what I needed to do but here I was facing another moment where I either pushed through despite his support and all the odds against me (politically) OR gave up.
I would like to say that I pushed through and applied either way, but I did not. On that day, this Latinx “down” professor cut my wings and flying has felt impossible ever since. I do other things, I write full-time now and I run an online platform that helps empower Latinxs. But I have yet to apply to a PhD program, despite being courted by some pretty amazing institutions. On that day, I needed him to believe in me, and see how racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, migration, imperialism, and colonialism has not stopped this brown girl and I wanted him to understand that we needed each other. But he did not see that.
The academy rejected me. And I’ve come to terms with what that means for the academy, because this rejection says more about how these supposed liberal spaces make students of color feel and the lack of institutional support that students of color generally have in these spaces. It made me realize that defining myself over and against colonial definitions of exceptionalism meant that I was never going to be good enough until I got that doctoral degree, which places my value on my relationship to acquiesce to colonialism and not on my personhood. It made me realize how much I had been fucking up.