Confessions of a State School Ivy Leaguer (Part 2)

~ Written while sitting in the airport waiting for my plane to D.C. to attend and present my research at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting. ~

A few months ago I wrote Confessions of a State School Ivy Leaguer (Part 1). In hindsight, I was right on the money. But, instead of fighting it, I’ve decide to become an expert at “playing the game” (whatever that means). So, I’ve been name dropping and networking everywhere, because that’s what we do. Except now, saying, “I’m a graduate student at Brown University studying urban education policy” doesn’t feel like such an unconquerable tongue twister. Why? Because I realize it’s really not a big deal. Rather than being fixated on the prestige and all that I never thought I could own up to I’ve decide to focus on all I can gain from this program and how much my perspective has been challenged and changed.

Here are some realizations:

Brown students are no different. I used to think, “who are these people, and what am I doing here?” I still think that, but I now realize, at their core, people want to belong and feel purposeful. We crave connections with each other — to something larger than ourselves. We know this. Brown students are no different – they’re just people. We’ve ascribed value to their lives and accolades because of their university affiliation. But really, they’re just people. It only means something if we let it. I built Brown up to seem like something for which I was entirely unfit. I felt motivated to continue the facade and charade of “belonging”. Something changed when I stopped competing and convincing, and instead relentlessly chased after learning. And then, I truly thought “I could be happy here” – there were moments at least. Not all at once but slowly, I gained confidence and stamina.

Here’s why:

I stayed the course – and was rock star! The change happened once I realized I DO belong! As in, I’m smart enough, diligent enough, persistent enough, intellectual enough, eager enough. I am enough. But then, the real work began. Now that I know these things, rather than keeping up the show and attempting to convince others, I have to own it. I know I’m good, and that I do good work. My emotional investments in my work and myself are propelling me up the social and academic ladders. Now it’s personal. It’s beyond simply playing the game. This is my life. And in this life, I’m unapologetically pursuing my dreams of becoming a researcher. That means, I have to show up every day. I have to grasp, and sometimes flail at, every opportunity.

Speaking of opportunities…

I learned my faculty work for me. In the simplest sense, if there were no students attending Brown, the faculty wouldn’t have jobs. My tuition (and hefty endowments/donations – YAY Ivy League!) pays their salaries. So, in a way, I’m their boss, and they work for me. That means I’m entitled to ask them questions and expect them to answer me thoroughly. I’m going to capitalize on the important knowledge and experience they have, and be a captive audience member so that I can grow my own knowledge and skills. They owe me that much. And in return, in my next endeavor, (once someone gives me a job) it’ll reflect well (perhaps even superficially well) on the institution . I’ll (un)willingly perpetuate the cycle of misconception because I am amazing and unstoppable. It’s not because of this university, but in spite of it. That’s how the game it played.

And in playing the game, I discovered that…

If you look beyond the curtain, this university has a lot to offer. At Brown there are spaces where you can be inquisitive and wonder. You can cultivate and engage in great conversations. There are spaces to be fearless in your pursuits, but you have to seek them out. There are so many talks and resources available. But, if you’re going to be exceptional then you have to show up. You have to show up often. Contrary to public perception, going to Brown doesn’t mean that everything will be handed to you on a silver platter. In fact, most of the experience hasn’t be easy at all.  However, if you advocate for yourself, commit to your craft, and focus on your goals you can be impressively successful – and learn a lot too. Real talk – I am learning a lot! But, you also should know, there have been extensive, debilitating road blocks along the way.

Such as this:

Brown is a great place to be a feminist – unless you’re a Jewish and/or queer feminist. The activism on this campus is both a blessing and a curse. Each day I’m excited to see students donning shirts that read “CONSENT” or “This is what a Feminist looks like”. I see stickers hearkening women’s empowerment and I’m often impressed by the conversation and engagement around tough issues. However, behind the curtain there’s some really toxic advocacy too. There’s competition for the “best” activism and spaces that privilege voice over value. These types of actions (here and here for example) make it dangerous to be a Jewish and/or queer feminist or activist on this campus. [note: I am juxtaposing feminist and activist because of how closely related those identities are to me. Someone else may be an activist but share a different set of values related to equality.]

And, while we’re talking about feminism and conversations…

Code switching is real. Sometimes, I feel like there’s a performative element to being a Brown student. If you can set aside Brown’s history of slavery and oppression and instead frolic freely among the waves of liberalism you’ll see what I mean. There’s a lingo and a “type” at Brown. In fact, most students will tell you, as long as your opinions reside with the popular – read majority – stream of thought you’ll get along fine!  If you can talk the talk and look the part you’ll fit right in. But, it’s a hard place to have a loud, and opposing, opinion. And for most of us, the socially acceptable buzzwords like, “conceptualization”, “space”, “colonialism”, “patriarchy”, “subjectivity” (to name a few) aren’t part of our daily vernacular – see what I did there?  The elite speech patterns I’ve acquired  to get along at Brown makes me feel and seem pretentious to everyone else who is important in my life. I have to “turn off” my “Ivy League speech” when I’m in other contexts because I literally can’t stand to listen to myself or because I can perceive how annoying it is to other people. Performing Brown feels necessary to make it here. It also feels really fake, impersonal, and detached. Yet I’ve become so accustomed to this lifestyle and role that sometimes it takes hours for me to snap out of it. I find myself hopelessly stuck in cycles of blaming systematic, institutional oppression and whatnot.

Lamenting aside, the reality is, the name does mean a lot to other people! And, that matters. You know, if we’re playing the game.

Effortlessly Perfect

I think, you become an adult the moment you realize that most of the time NOBODY knows what they’re doing. Practically no one is an expert in anything except for pretending to be an expert at something and making it seem like they’ve got it all together. Keeping up appearances and “faking it” could be a full-time job. I guess there’s a turning point, it’s a paradox really, where once you realize how much you know (about your field, life, “the real world”) you realize how much you actually don’t know. The objective then becomes, “how can I convince as many people as possible I belong here and I’m as knowledgeable as they expect me to be?”

When that objective impedes the functioning of your life and begins to dictate your decisions that’s called Impostor Syndrome. It’s defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence (Caltech Counseling Center, 2015).

Impostor Syndrome is common among, although not exclusive to, academics and high achieving women. It’s been discussed in academic literature since 1978 when Clance and Imes coined the “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women”. They explain that “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief. ” Alrighty, enough literature…

Impostor Syndrome is real and by reducing it to “humility” and ignoring its consequences we’re perpetuating the silence around mental health and the pressure and culture of perfectionism.

For me, Impostor Syndrome started invading my thoughts when I decided to apply to Brown. Then more persistently, when I struggled through my personal statement for my graduate school applications. And, most viciously when I got accepted to Brown and decided to come. In many regards, I’m “over it”. I know, and I’m confident that, I’m “intellectual enough” to be in graduate school but still, sometimes, it creeps up on me unexpectedly.  On a bad day, if I let it win, Impostor Syndrome prescribes me to stay in bed. It convinces me I shouldn’t even try because I’m simply not good enough. In my work Impostor Syndrome sounds like me telling myself “I can’t believe they’re letting/trusting me to do this task” – regardless of the rigor or importance. Then I spend hours scrutinizing over the smallest details to be sure to impress or meet their “delusional” expectations.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Impostor Syndrome as it relates to social media and the necessity to present as perfect and simultaneously have every accomplishment appear effortless. I’m sure many of us can relate to abruptly halting our lived experiences to snap the perfect photo (and another and another) and then later stressing about crafting the pithy caption to capture the moment that was already ruined once we decided to take a photo. Right? The anxiety social media perpetuates in terms of what/how/why we share about our successes and good news (and how we perceive others will respond) makes this compelling to explore.

Why is it that when someone posts about their successes on social media it’s always accompanied by a slight, yet extremely important, attribution to luck or “the amazing opportunity”? Yes, humility is important and often we aren’t doing it all on our own but, can you recall the last time you shared an accomplishment without being concerned someone would think you’re being conceited or think you’re only sharing it to boost your self-esteem and receive their praise? Why should you be nervous to call a friend or post online and share something exciting?

There’s this pervasive notion that you can’t actually be proud of what you’ve done.102615bucks-carl-sketch-master675 You have to be #blessed or #lucky to parade positivity online (listen to #blessed – Stuff Mom Never Told You for more on this – it’s spot on) because calling attention to your successes outright is, apparently, social media taboo. WHY? Why do women feel the need to downplay their success or appear effortlessly perfect?

There’s even an app now that helps women stop saying “just” and “sorry” in emails so they stop “inadvertently discredit[ing] their own opinions”. It’s troubling though because nobody is talking about the societal and institutional parameters that perpetuate these minimizing behaviors and render them acceptable. Why do women feel more comfortable making themselves small? In some ways, I think, it’s an attempt to build themselves up. We’re not talking about the protective features those asides provide to make women feel like it’s okay to share about their exciting news or even simply their opinion. These small, but important, choices we make assure we’re not experienced as “bossy” or “boasting”. We do it even when we know we’re right!

The New York Times, discusses this culture of appearing perfect and saving face well in one of their most popular articles from 2015: Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. They detail a phenomenon where students talked about how “They could say what they’d accomplished, but they couldn’t necessarily say who they were”. Such mind games! But it’s true and, it’s practically unbelievable that intelligent people can stare at their resumes and acceptance letters to Ivy League institutions (which if you “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment…what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation”) and see right past all the evidence that indicates they are deserving. They can easily convince themselves otherwise and may not even recognize themselves beyond the list of “things they’ve done”. Suddenly, their accomplishments stand in as the default measure that indicates who they are, their worth, and beyond the impressive list they’ve compiled they feel lost and misguided. It happens without consent and it’s positively crippling once it captures your mind.

The NY Times article also explains that “female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort.” These internal narratives are consistently challenged by loved ones’ encouragements, “you belong with those people”and “you’re meant to do this”. Where the words, “those people” throb like a pounding headache because they feels so separate, so elite, so much more than they could achieve; they  hear “you’re meant to do this” as “you tricked them yet again” rather than the support these phrases are intended to provide. So their foundation must be rebuilt often due to the wrath – expressions of support and encouragement – of what seems like never ending wrecking balls whose only obligation is to create cracks in their concrete with their terms of endearment. They go through the motions working themselves into fits of sleeplessness and mind boggling anxiety trying to prove they can do this – it becomes their sole obligation. At the same time, they’re consumed by maintaining an online presence of apparent effortlessness and success – but not too successful of course.

Don’t be fooled. Underneath the encouragement from friends and family and the pristine social media presence, their mind is unraveling. It tells a story which is comprised of lists of achievementsour-deepest-fear that amount to nothing special – cloaked in phrases like “it’s mediocre” or “just a thing I’ve done” – even when they’re spectacular! The list is glistening with expectations still to be met. We call these unmet items potential and as their list of accomplishments grows longer so too does the list of expectations. Somehow, as they become  more “qualified”, and subsequently feel less qualified, little by little the consideration of the associated hard work they’ve done to reach these numerous accolades dissipates. At some point, perfection becomes a burdensome, heavy expectation that weighs them down and occupies their mind. Soon, the means by with they achieve are less important and to the outside world it looks like they can do it all – and so they do and then some – whatever the cost. The conceptions that they work hard and overcome challenges or adversity are not entertained.  The final product becomes the only objective – nobody is concerned about the process or the progress. It’s a dangerous, slippery slope that ends in fear and pent up, insidious, persistent feelings of inadequacy which are kept separate from the persona they put on each day to face the world. It feels like they must make it seem absolutely effortless because otherwise, they’d have to actually recognize THEMSELVES rather than their resume. They end up feeling defeated simultaneously wondering how they can maintain the facade and how it was created in the first place. They experience all this utter nonsense, instead of owning their successes and being proud. Social media only makes it worse. It’s never ending and mostly they want it to stop – even if just for a moment – so they can gain some perspective.

Distracted Days

Oh My Gosh! I think too much! Lately, I’ve been getting so lost in my own thoughts I have barely been able to do anything else. I try to read and find myself flipping through the pages arbitrarily highlighting, giving the appearance of reading, but not reading at all. I’m so unfocused. All too often reading becomes “reading” and I find myself hopelessly wrestling with my own thoughts while simultaneously encouraging myself to focus. Always.

Sometimes it feels like I’m in a room and the walls are all my thoughts. If I could find some way out, a way to break down the walls, a way to push past the barriers that are my thoughts, I’d escape into fresh, crisp air. I’d be able to breathe again. Breathing fully, breathing deeply would feel SO good! I miss that.

I’m just thinking too much about everything! I spend too much time reconsidering a conversation with a friend, trying to decide when to send a text so it won’t interrupt people, rereading sent emails for typos and potential misinterpretations that cannot be rectified anyway, worrying that what I submit is barley good enough (that I can only fool people for so long – so therefore rereading and questioning myself until I make myself literally sick), observing and responding to my perceptions of social dynamics, I could go on and on (clearly)! I’m distracted. In one word, #done.

I want to slow down. I want to pull up on the breaks and tell my head “STOP”. I grapple constantly with this paradox, when I’m not working (and I’m doing something for me) my mind is spinning thinking about all the things I need to be doing.  And then I start thinking faster, allocating every minute and attempting to convince myself it will be okay. It feels like a frenzy, like if I don’t harness my thoughts I won’t be able to turn off the anxiety. Conversely, when I start working I can’t even focus on what I’m working on because I’m thinking about a million, minimally important, other things.  So, I think I should flip a switch in my head then maybe my brain will flip-flop.

However, this overthinking isn’t all bad. I’ve realized that I want to “think” for the rest of my life.  I want to be a researcher. I want to explore, question, seek to understand, make mistakes, try again, discover, disprove, and learn every day. That’s what researchers are, they’re professional intellectuals (but we’re not getting caught up in terminology). Researchers think. They wonder. So, it seems only natural, pretty fitting, that I would arrive at this aspiration. So, then, how do I get there?

Confessions of a State School Ivy Leaguer (Part 1)

Some notes that I think should precede this post:

  1. I have been trying to write this for a while but I can’t seem to “finish” the post. It’s making me anxious to keep editing and rewriting so there will likely be a part 2 (at least). This is a starting point. We all have to start somewhere.
  2. I never thought I’d amount to anything better than state school (whatever that means). I feel like I was always “expected” to go to a public university. That being said, I LOVED UConn. My entire undergraduate experience was truly incredible and unexpectedly unbelievable. I learned SO MUCH! I grew so much. I’m incredibly proud to be a UConn alum and wouldn’t change a single thing about my experience.
  3. A part of me feels like there’s a lot of expectation for me to succeed here and not only represent myself well but also represent UConn well. It feels like any performance that is less than exceptional is unacceptable. I carry this burden (partially unwillingly) but also proudly. A part of me wants to prove I can do this. But it’s also a lot to deal with, especially when things aren’t going nearly as well as expected.
  4. Brown University isn’t a bad school. This writing is reflective of my experiences here NOT the institution itself.

When I was first deciding to come here, I had to confront a lot of my own insecurities and worries. I had to convince myself that my experiences and my aspirations aligned with the program I was accepted into. Essentially, I had to convince myself I was good enough, smart enough, intellectual enough to be here. Impostor Syndrome is real ( I didn’t know that then). Impostor Syndrome makes you work harder at everything you do while simultaneously forcing you to undermine and question your accomplishments by comparing yourself to your own perceptions of who and what is worthy of an “Ivy League Education”.  Basically , it makes you feel like all your accomplishments are a consequence of luck or circumstance. Basically, it makes you feel like YOU didn’t earn or deserve your opportunities or recognition. It makes it easy to prefer to be acknowledged as “mediocre” because then you don’t have to confront the disconnect between how you view yourself and how others perceive you to be. The best example of this I can recall, from my experience, is when an outstanding TA once said to me, “It started from my confused reaction to seeing such amazing things in you and also seeing that you didn’t see those things. I wondered to myself how things might change for you if you could see yourself the way I saw you.”  These words were super powerful for me!

Surprisingly, everything that challenged me about coming to this school (with regard to my own intellect, ability, and how “deserving” I was of this opportunity) became mostly obsolete (I realize that’s an oxymoron) once I got here. Admittedly, now (hindsight is 20/20), I NEVER could have predicted the real disappointments and challenges I’d face at this “elite” institution. That’s super frustrating! An advisor once told me that in life there are no counterfactuals (YAY economics!). He was super correct. Even when we think we’ve played out every alternative and every “what if” the truth is, we can never anticipate what we might experience and that reality coupled with the daunting feeling that once we choose we can never look back makes these decisions even harder.

In my opinion, Brown University oversells the name and undersells the quality. It’s one of those things you’d never know or think of until you’re here. No wonder I didn’t consider this! That’s the beauty of the signaling power of Ivy League universities. We find ourselves in these privileged spaces that are conceptualized as incredible and exceptional. [side note: taking a second to acknowledge there is privilege here regardless of how it’s created and maintained] This privilege is reinforced by how others think about and imagine “Brown University”. The thing is, I feel like this is a front. Because, the education I’m receiving doesn’t much different (certainly not better) that what I received at UConn. In fact, I recently found out that the professor I was so exited to do research with is collaborating with some of my professors at UConn on a few projects! So, in the world of academia everything is relatively interconnected. The name holds power and is desirable to employers BUT that’s probably and mostly because they don’t know any better.

I have yet to experience conscious conversations across or between difference. The kind of conversations where we separate the message from the messenger and critically consume what people are saying with the intention of crafting a collective learning space. I have no problem being challenged or having my perspective better (or differently) informed by additional viewpoints, opinions, experiences, or questions. I’m pretty sure that exchange is called learning. What I do have a problem with is feeling small. I have a problem feeling like I am constantly being judged, like my worth is decided before I speak based on anything I’ve said before, based on how others have interpreted my contributions, or what my peers believe to be my experience, intentionality, or privilege.

I absolutely realize the policy world is messy and challenging! I get that. What I didn’t expect was to confront this environment in the classroom. I expected to be exposed to a constructive, collaborative, communal, safe, eclectic learning space. Instead, what I walked into (and keep coming back to) was a condescending, unilateral, opinionated, inflexible, tense environment that is dominated by a select few voices that we’ve collectively put on a pedestal and allowed to be privileged in our space.

I’m tired of talking myself out of participating or preemptively convincing myself that my contributions are worthless (so others don’t do it for me). I know that I’m smart enough and intellectual enough. Those concerns may once have been my foci but that’s not the problem here anymore. Now I’m more preoccupied the toxic space we’ve created where I feel small and insignificant. It’s a space where I feel like my opinions don’t matter and my contributions are only considered to the extent that they can be criticized. The thing is, nobody is asking me my opinions – hence this blog! I realized recently, if I didn’t put myself out there, I’d never be heard because I’d never be invited to speak. Why is that? What does this say about our class dynamic? What does this dynamic indicate about whose voices and who, specifically, is respected, privileged, heard, or acknowledged?

I feel like I left what I knew and where I felt entirely comfortable. When I left, I jumped, deep, into something that was built up to be so amazing and stimulating. That basically left me with farther to fall. And I went because they pushed me! [side note: I’m really trying not to be mad about how forced this all felt] I left something so great for what I presumed (and certainly others presumed) was better.  I guess you can’t know or truly appreciate what you have til it’s gone.

Overwhelmingly, Brown University hasn’t met my expectations.

Insights and Frustrations

A few weeks ago I wrote about what I payed attention to in class other than class. I’m still grappling what I was writing about then (more on this below) but the other day I gained some insight that helped me adjust my perspective. I’m taking a great elective course (outside my program) called Gender, Liberalism, and Postcolonial Theory. Almost always the course content and discussions each week feel over my head and leave me asking more and more questions. Recently the text Cruel Optimism  by L. Berlant came up in conversation (confession: I  haven’t read this piece). A common critique of this piece is that this white, female, western author did not do much to address and attend to race or African American scholarship in the context of her work. My professor’s response to this comment seemed just so correct. She asked, “how could we expect her to? Those authors and experiences are not what informed her subjectivity and influenced her world view. And in fact, I bet if she did cite African American scholarship she would have been criticized for “trying too hard””.  This left me distraught thinking “there’s no way to win!” Basically, someone’s always going to have a critique. That realization was both unbelievably frustrating and reassuring. However, it felt like it could only be reassuring if you had a certain threshold of self-confidence already.

I understood my professor’s question to mean two things. First, was she saying that eventually we will encounter a time when white people can’t participate in conversations about race? Second, is she suggesting we give a bit of leeway based on her life experiences yet also recognize she still has something to offer to the conversation? So here can we privilege the intentional action of meeting people where they’re at and understanding them based on who they are rather than who they are not? This might look like, “you’re right she can’t speak for the Black experience but her perspective is still valuable for the conversation because of these other reasons” rather than quickly dismissing their opinions because they are void of “lived experience”.

In a way, I am finding myself situated directly between these two extremes as if they were a continuum. Whatever my conclusion is (I’ll keep you posted) this helped me think critically about this internal struggle I’ve been having about my position in academia and specifically in the urban education reform movement.  In some ways, I’m inclined to “excuse” my classmates’ aggravating, dismissive behaviors because I am able to contrast these conflicting viewpoints and reconcile that my peers, too, are in a place of privilege and may be blinded by their privilege in terms of recognizing the experiences of others.  So, because of their positionality and lived experience they feel justified to speak loudly about certain topics. We should make space for their voices but we should also directly acknowledge that the nature of them being at Brown University in some ways makes them too no longer genuinely representative of the minority groups they are so pressed to speak on behalf of. Further, they too are simply individuals who are a compilation of the experiences they have been subjected to. Therefore, we cannot contend that their word view or experience is representative either because each person’s subjectivity is different. THEN if we trouble this a bit further and ask ourselves “what/who is representative” and “who is being represented” and ask “are they simply (or not so simply) “re-presenting” what they perceive to be their minority role in this space/field/conversation/world/etc.?” then how really do we interpret their contributions? I’m getting a bit lost here…  #Overthinking 😛

Just for fun, I want to offer another perspective too that makes me want to swallow up and take back everything I just suggested in terms of searching for understanding and collaborative learning spaces. Here’s a scenario from today:

The professor asks our class how they would build relationships and trust in a district  where they are called upon as Brown University education policy “experts” to consult on a project.  A male in the class immediately offers “I’d assert myself and explain my educational background and my credentials and essentially say WHY they should listen to me”. Four men speak after him and then the conversation quickly dissipates. After a few moments of silence, I share my observation that only men spoke up to answer this question and I ask how gender might play into this scenario. I suggest that asserting my “power” or “credentials” may make me seem like a “bossy” woman and an inamicable colleague. Same action. Very different response. Later (outside of class), my classmate counters my contribution. He explains that since he used a woman in his example my critique was unwarranted and I had no place to undermine him. Basically, “[I] could have made my point without challenging him or calling him out”.  

What did I do in the heat of this moment as I’m being told that humility is a characteristic of the privileged and the elite and that I know nothing of his life or perspectives [imagine a whack-a-mole being hit repeatedly, made to appear smaller and smaller until it disappears into the hole]?  I did what any socialized female would do… I APOLOGIZED! I AM SO MAD! I CAN’T BELIEVE I DID THAT. I LET HIM MAKE ME FEEL LIKE I WAS WRONG. I LET HIM WIN. I APOLOGIZED EVEN THOUGH I KNEW I WASN’T WRONG.  And then I felt small again. 

What’s challenging me about all of this, is the cyclical nature of my experiences. I start out feeling great and usually (after I talk myself into it) I’m confident about what I’m going to say in class. BUT the minute I speak and especially the instant I’m met with hostile, seemingly unwarranted, opposition I feel absolutely crushed. [side note: this is different from me not wanting to be corrected and this is different from me not appreciating a challenging conversation across differences] I feel inadequate. I want to take it back. I wish I’d never said it. I apologize often (like before and after I participate) and it’s come to my attention that maybe I’m apologizing to myself for YET AGAIN putting myself in this difficult place. Impostor syndrome overwhelms me daily and I the rhetoric of “I’m not deserving, qualified, or intelligent enough for this opportunity” screams in my head. I can’t silence it.

I am tired of feeling small. I’m tired of second guessing myself. I’m tired of concluding every day by definitively stating “I want to quit.”

And I’m just so confused and defeated trying relentlessly to reconcile these new insights and keep an open mind when I’m bombarded with these constant, upsetting experiences.

*deep breath* – I’m exhausted by this. I don’t have words or energy to keep writing…

The Good Struggle

My professor tells us: “I want you to keep thinking about our conversation and wrestle with these ideas and the perspectives that were shared into the next week. I want you to leave here with your head hurting.”

Then she quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald. She says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” 

So that’s what I’m grappling with today, this week, every day.

Recently, I discussed the paradox that you have to get lost to find yourself. In unpacking this statement, I think I’ve realized something that is “so grad school”. I thought that graduate school would help me sort out “what I want to be when I grow up”. I expected to “refine my passions” and “hone my craft”. I’m definitely doing those things but more so I’m realizing how much I need to learn and how much there is to learn. At this rate, I could justify being in school forever! I’ll continually tell people that I feel like I have the stamina to continue to a Ph.D. but not the academic focus. I’ll probably also tell them that I revere so highly those scholars who have earned a Ph.D. and I feel like my contributions could never amount to theirs. Since I regard their work so highly why should I attempt to add anything novel to the already colorful, complex conversation? Who am I to think I could contribute more than or differently they have? [That’s the impostor syndrome talking]

Metaphorically, I view my role as a student like being a sponge. In undergrad, my only obligation was to soak up all the water, to take everything in. I figured that Sponge-Man-677713graduate school would be akin to
wringing out the sponge and keeping damp only the parts necessary for my work and my interests. Right now though, I think that the sponge is getting so heavy it may likely submerge itself below the surface level and stay there until someone fishes it out. That’s to say, I’m overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed because everything I hear interests, confuses, inspires, challenges, motivates, and teaches me something.

One of the great parts about graduate school is that you’re extended the opportunity to take everything you’re hearing (and reading) and think critically about how it fits or does not fit with the theoretical framework you already subscribe to. It’s your privilege in this academic space to be skeptical of the resources you’re engaging with and then slowly piece together how these texts and lectures challenge or complement your worldviews, your practice, and your research.  Here’s how this works in practice. Tonight, I endured two and a half dense hours of discussion focused on post colonial theory and liberalism.  I felt like I was bobbing between drowning and keeping my head just above the water. I hoped I was making the “right” kinds of contributions. I fought my internal discourse that most cacophonously questioned if it was evident that I [felt that I] understood practically nothing from the week’s reading. I hoped I wouldn’t be “found out” and that my utter confusion wouldn’t be embarrassingly exposed. [Side note: remember, impostor syndrome creeps into the forefront in moments of perceived (or actual) weakness.] Overall, I felt like I didn’t belong in that room. I put a lot of effort into trying to appear as if I was following along intently while also honestly attempting to hear to my peers who were speaking more eloquently, articulately, and substantively than I was even thinking. They were speaking the language of anthropology. They were making the “right” connections to the text.  As the class was ending I was exhausted both from my valiant attempt to portray a role I felt I didn’t deserve and that I didn’t fit into and from the course material itself. It felt like I’d never thought that much and that quickly in my whole life. I was metaphorically drenched and actually distraught.

Then I heard that quote. For a moment, my experience of knowing nothing and feeling inadequate or like I didn’t belong subsided. Shifting my perspective allowed me to recognize that contending with so many challenging and conflicting ideas and having the ability to react to the seemingly crippling weight of the resulting confusion, is the most authentic type of learning and is a testament to my intelligence (and competence).

Now comes the part where I need to give credit where it’s due. Nearly three months ago a friend (and mentor) told me this: “You’re supposed to be questioning whether you belong and feeling like you’re in over your head. We can go on and on about women in high power places and impostor syndrome, but we don’t have time for that, and I’m not even sure if it would be helpful. So instead I’ll say this. If you felt capable, if you felt like this was going to be easy, if you felt like you were “one of them” and totally qualified, then I would tell you to leave. I’d tell you to leave because I would be confident that you wouldn’t learn and you wouldn’t grow because you thought you already knew everything.” – this is most definitely a classic case of “I told you so” or one of those moments where no matter how many times someone tells you you won’t believe it until you figure it out for yourself.

In graduate school you feel like you’re supposed to be an “expert” and yes, that’s part of it. However, I think it’s more about gaining expertise in a few areas and how through the struggle and act of constantly restructuring and revisiting what I know, what I think I know, and how these ideas shape my underlying assumptions I will be able to enter a space space of real vulnerability and discomfort, a space of learning.

I’ll still need to reaffirm my place here and there will be days when I doubt my skills, competency, knowledge, stamina, intelligence, etc. when it comes to my work as an academic but for a moment, I’m feeling inspired by this lack of direction because it illustrates for me the possibilities for growth and new realizations.

This Week I’m Thankful for Shabbbat

Written last night. Revised later.

It’s finally Shabbat! Which means, we’ve made it to the end of the week and a well deserved day of rest. Earlier today, when my friend asked me what my plans were for the weekend I instantly said “I’ll probably do work”. I meant it too. AND I will do work this weekend – I’m a graduate student with four jobs. Every minute counts.

But, something changed for me once Shabbat arrived. Even though I really didn’t want to I pushed down my social anxieties, got out of bed, put on something presentable, and went to Shabbat at the Brown/RISD Hillel. As I was sitting in services, I realized it was the first time all week that I was truly “present”. It was the first time all week I wasn’t running a to-do list through my head, struggling with my perceived inadequacies, recounting or anticipating a conversation, freaking out about my future, or missing UConn. I didn’t dwell on this realization. Instead, I took a deep breath and ceded to this unintended feeling of community and mindfulness.

As the service went on, I found myself stuck rereading one of the interpretations in the prayer book.

“How wise is our tradition to command us to seek rest on Shabbat, and what joy it is for our souls to be refreshed.” 

I read that quote over and over and I kept flipping back to the page to sneak another glance. In most situations, I’m looking forward to what’s next and because of this I usually don’t even acknowledge and appreciate the steps I took to get where I’m currently standing. This is one of the reasons I’m purposely so busy; there’s always something to accomplish next. That’s probably why I never really thought about “resting” as a Jewish value or as a “wise” action. This called for some re-framing!

During the High Holidays I’ve been challenged to reflect, repent, and return to my faith and my Jewish communities both near and far. In the midst of all the change and all the seemingly urgent obligations in my everyday life, I once again, found solace in the familiarity of  the Jewish community.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the paramount theme of returning that we discuss on the High Holidays and how it relates to life. Here’s some background. This past year, I had to learn an important lesson: we cannot know for certain where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing one minute, hour, day, month, or year from now. For example, a year ago I was SURE I’d be going to graduate school at UConn. Some things don’t work out as we’ve planned. Over the course of a year, we may gain some direction in some facets of our life but I think overwhelmingly we’ll miss the mark or end up more lost. This theme of returning, in Judaism we call it teshuvah,  helps us recenter our aspirations and actions. As I struggled to really apply this concept and wrap my head around it, I considered the paradox that sometimes we need to get lost to find ourselves. During the time of the High Holidays we are invited to be self aware, to grapple with our missteps, and recognize or take responsibility for where we went wrong – where we got lost. By evaluating our actions we can return to daily life better prepared for the unpredictable year ahead.

As I was walking home tonight, I was reminded of a favorite poem by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel we used to read each Shabbat at camp.

Tonight is a time to catch our breath.
Whatever we have been doing, making, working, creating
Tonight we pause to catch our breath.

No matter how necessary our work, how important to the world, how urgent that we continue it;
No matter how joyful our work, how fully and profoundly human;
No matter how flawed our work, how urgent that we set it right;
No matter how hard we have worked to gather our modest fame, our honorable livelihood, our reasonable power

Tonight we pause to catch our breath.

So, as I walked with these words in my thoughts I tried desperately (but not anxiously) to recover all the lost breaths and stockpile enough for the upcoming week, metaphorically of course. And as I kept walking (and breathing and thinking) I contrasted this poem with a post I recently shared with my friend from The Belle Jar called “Fuck Busy”. When I shared this insightful, spot on post with her I wrote, “Have you ever read something that is so eerily accurate and it’s like the internet is a mirror?”  [Side note: It’s a great post and I could comment about it for days!]

Here’s the brief version: I know that for me, “busy” is a defense mechanism. If I schedule every minute of every day then I’ll know exactly what to expect. I’m a planner. That’s what happens when you have OCD (for me). I like routines. I like to be able to  anticipate each interaction and mange my time “efficiently”. I realize this is a direct contradiction to what I said earlier, but it speaks to why that lesson was so difficult and necessary for me to learn.

Anyway, I did this busy thing so well in college that I managed to graduate knowing almost nothing about myself other than that I am a hard worker and I am really good at time management. I started to attribute those qualities to my self worth. I found it easy to ignore anything about my life that wasn’t ultimately “productive”.  So, I have a great answer for an interview question some day and some excellent evidence to back it up.

I stay busy intentionally to avoid being “stuck in my head”. I structure my time so I don’t have time to think about me. Which is likely why I struggle each day with impostor syndrome and still can’t attribute my successes to my experience or qualifications (more on this later).  You can probably imagine then how strange it might have been tonight at Shabbat to find myself in a situation that didn’t go as planned but that also wasn’t terrible or accompanied by “flooding”. In the moment  it was really refreshing. Later, I’m definitely overthinking it. [reasons I had to revisit this post the next morning :p]

Part of this project is to become more attuned to myself. The goal is to explore things that make me uncomfortable and rather than avoid the impending discomfort, accept it and learn something. So far, it hasn’t been easy. And, the more I think about what I want to write about and tackle next the more my thoughts race. If you’re sill reading and if you’re wondering where I’m going with all this. I’m getting there. I promise.

So, Shabbat tonight was in the plan but feeling comfortable, happy, mindful, and relaxed was definitely not. I expected to sit through services and watch the clock. I expected to leave quickly after dinner to get back to doing homework, to feeling “productive”. I expected to feel self conscious the entire time and anxious about the conversations I was having. That didn’t happen. Instead, I smiled and took more deep breaths than I have in the last three months. Which is why, when we were asked during dinner to share one thing we’d do differently in the next week I said, “I’m going to try to be intentional about taking time for me”.

I don’t know how it will turn out. I may be totally overwhelmed. I may shut down. I may face more perceived inadequacies. I may make myself so busy so I do not even try it at all. I may like it.

Taking time for me is something I want to be comfortable with not forced to do or reminded about. Too often friends and mentors have uncomfortable conversations with me about “self care”. I’ve been reluctantly having these conversations since middle school. I think moving forward I’ll be more inclined to practice self care once I gain more self-awareness and move into the acceptance and action stages of knowing myself and my needs. Which means, in the coming weeks I’ll likely need to slow down and reprioritize myself in my list of obligations.

I think I’ll start with recognizing and appreciating Shabbat, a built in day of rest and reflection. See how that all comes together?

I touched on a lot here and I realized I didn’t fully unpack most of it. I’ll come back to many of these topics and explore them more as I get more comfortable. Stay tuned!