Before I start this post, I want to tell you all how much I have enjoyed writing for Hack Library School and sharing my perspective with its readers. Often, these blog posts have helped me focus whatever I was working on. I hope you have liked my writing, and please feel free to keep in touch. Find me on Twitter, @JessicaLColbert!
Alright, let’s get into this.
In my farewell post, I want to get a little personal. And by that, I want to talk about my socioeconomic class and how that has affected me through this whole shebang we call grad school. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, especially as I transition (see? title drop!) from being a student to being a professional.
Academia as a Student
Although I certainly have not had the same poverty experience as many people, I did technically grow up living below the poverty level. I am also a first generation college student. This lovely combination means that I had no contact with academia until I was in it, and I basically did the whole process of getting there myself.
I only applied to one place for undergrad, and that place was the College of William & Mary, where I received my BA in English in May 2015. I felt like such a fish out of water there. I had friends who were the sons and daughters of ambassadors and politicians, people who spent their entire summers with their family overseas, and people who went to some of the best high schools in the entire country. Hell, I thought I was the smartest person to ever grace the planet in high school (I was Valedictorian), only to discover that my high school wasn’t that great, and I was not even remotely prepared for the level of scholarship that was expected of me at W&M.
My first semester of undergrad I almost had a nervous breakdown because I never learned how to do literary critique or textual analysis in high school, and I was suddenly expected to write papers. I was getting Cs on my papers, sobbing as I walked home. I eventually had to teach myself how to do textual analysis through various critical theories, but it took me about a year or two to get the hang of it.
I almost didn’t finish. I had some medical issues, and administrators recommended I do a medical withdrawal, not realizing that I wouldn’t be able to pay back what I owed that semester. I almost got sued by the state of Virginia. I seriously considered suicide. But I did go back, and I finished on time with a GPA good enough to go to the best Master’s program for Library Science.
And guess what: I kicked ass in grad school. Perfect 4.0, even during the semester I had a head-on collision. I graduated with 53 credits and a thesis. Learning how to write in the social sciences was a little tricky, but I had some great professors who were eager to mentor and guide me. Admittedly, I could be a bit of an asshole sometimes, but you have no idea how proud I felt to be a poverty-class first-gen student who was doing as well as I was. I had done it. I had infiltrated the club. I was climbing that social ladder through my hard work and intelligence.
Academia as a Professional
That hard work and intelligence also carried over into my work as a graduate assistant, but I often had trouble navigating how I was supposed to act around other professionals. My dad raised me to tell the truth and to be authentically who I am, that I should never change for other people. If they didn’t like me, that was their problem. But that mindset doesn’t really work in academia, as I’ve discovered. A lot of academia is coded through passive aggression and half-truths. I often felt like I was doing everything wrong and that everybody secretly hated me. I felt that I was too loud and too passionate, like my girlfriend’s black lab who shows affection by jumping on you and lightly biting your arm.
And I constantly worried that I would be found out to be the white trash that I am. My mother insists that I was never white trash, but compared to the people around me in academia, I sure feel like I was. I was constantly worried that I would do or say the wrong thing to the wrong person. This fear especially cropped up when I started doing professional development and, more recently, job interviews. For months I have lived in constant paranoia that I would end up without a job and with no safety net (I make more money than my dad, even as a graduate assistant) because of my class and how that has shaped how I act.
Through this whole process, I’ve had some great people who sort of showed me the ropes. These were supervisors and professors who I could ask questions or speak with honestly about my fears. Because of these people, I did excellent in my interviews, and every single on-campus interview I had was tenure-track if it wasn’t a residency. Academia needs more people who understand that not everybody comes from a middle class or even working class family.
And in the end, it has all paid off. Somehow I have pulled a Great Gatsby and landed a job that will pay me more money than anybody in my family has ever made. I’m actually escaping my socioeconomic class, which doesn’t happen often. But as I transition into this new role as an academic faculty member, I worry that my roots will never be completely buried, and weeds will grow through the cracks in my façade.