In through the back door

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for awhile. I hadn’t before because, as perhaps the title suggests, it never quite seemed I was on solid enough ground to. I remember hearing over the years how people felt once they got tenure. A sigh of relief, a feeling of recognition, the sense they had made it, that they were somehow now okay.

I never felt that.

Those who knew me well would reassure me (so many times over the years) that I’d done it, that I wouldn’t just be fired at any moment, that I’d jumped the hoops correctly (many of us know the “imposter!” fear all too well). But it never “took” and I never felt what people described.

“In through the back door” is how I’ve always felt about my academic path. Though I’ve been lucky to land on my feet (and I do mean to invoke luck, very explicitly), my life as an academic has always felt, at least psychologically, pretty precarious

The more I work though with first-generation college students, the more I want to reassure them that such feelings are normal and that we don’t all come to the university through traditional paths. I increasingly think making a range of experience visible is important and I’m fortunate to not feel as vulnerable as I once did.

I’m from a white working-class family. My father graduated high school and was a machinist then house-painter then janitor/maintenance worker. My mom dropped out as a teenager but went back and finished as an adult after many odds and ends jobs. Though I was a good (if undirected) student when I was young, when I was 12½ my mom died and life kind of went off the rails.

Jr. high and high school mostly became about hanging on, just enough. I got funneled to home ec and stenography and working at the campus convenience store. I got sent out to the VA hospital to learn how to file. I never took the SAT.

The early elementary school kernel of being deemed “smart” (mostly just because I read books and tested okay) was ultimately quite fragile, lost as a variety of other structural factors came to the foreground. I didn’t know how to think, talk, or ask about my future. I graduated, moved out, and got a job as a graveyard waitress at Denny’s.

It was only after an older woman I respected told me I should try and “do something with my life” that I ended up seeing what my local community college, Chaffey (in Rancho Cucamonga, California), could offer. I figured I could take a class or two during the day while I worked at night.

Community college became one of the most important experiences of my life. Though I kept waitressing full time to make ends meet, that shot at college changed my path.

The community college system in California gave people like me another chance at education. Not only did I get encouragement and praise for my inquisitive nature, I got exposed to topics I’d never encountered before (for example, sociology, the field I went on to specialize in). I got health care through the medical office on campus. I got small subsidies to buy my books.

I got the kind of mentorship that happens when you run into a professor in the corridor and the following conversation occurs: “Are you applying to Cal?” “Yeah, Cal State Fullerton.” “No, Cal. UC Berkeley.” “What is that?” …and the explanation and advice that follows.

I eventually ended up at UCB thanks to the state system of intentionally creating transfer paths for students like myself and keeping it affordable.

It’s hard to trace your trajectory somewhere. It’s too easy to fall into cliché meritocratic myths; to forget your privilege (though raised in a working class household, my whiteness was always a non-trivial part of my opportunities).

Remembering all the small pivots, and missed ones, that make up the whole is an impossible task. The truth is much messier, tangled up with chance and effort and privilege and any other number of variables that simply can’t be pulled apart.

CV’s hold stories in truncated, telegraphed form. When I was promoted to full professor this year it got me thinking about adding my community college experience to my CV. When I told a few of my students about my plan, their cheers of encouragement made me smile, even feel proud, and I was buoyed by their enthusiasm for sharing that part of my trajectory.

I can’t untangle my path fully, but one thing I can do is put my community college experience on my CV. I’ve left it off for far too long.

In an era where online education is touted, my community college experience remains for me a powerful reminder of how important our everyday face-to-face connections and the support structures that touch many aspects of our lives can be (from educational to medical to financial).

At a moment of growing economic disparity the second chance offered to folks like myself – one that didn’t leave me overly burdened with debt for an undergraduate education – seems even more critical to preserve.

And while a classic liberal education seems under constant threat from the push to instrumentalize learning for narrow job purposes, being exposed to a range of subjects and ways of thinking – many of which I never encountered in high school – was hugely important for my own development. A liberal arts education is something even working class folks deserve.

Though I probably will always feel some sense of having come in through the back door, never totally at ease in the professional world I find myself in, I want to make visible these diverse paths and cheer on those who take them. You can now find Chaffey on my CV.

[This post was lightly edited and published in MIT’s newspaper, The Tech, in 2016.]