Black, Poor, and Woman in Higher Education: What I Learned From Graduate School

Originally posted at Conscious Daughters I have been hesitant to publish this blog post. I’ve lit...

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Originally posted at Conscious Daughters

I have been hesitant to publish this blog post. I’ve literally looked at it for four months contemplating when I would be brave enough to have my say about being a black woman in higher education. I understand having come from a working class background that my position is of privilege. For that reason I give my account of my experience as such. It is rare that we discuss working class issues without negative content. This blog post, is for everyone but specifically my poor and working poor black and Latina women and girls who are considering entering graduate school or who are already enrolled. We are all human. We all have opinions. I hope we can have a provocative but respectful exchange about this topic.

 “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.”-Toni Morrison (Remember this.)

This is my favorite quote and it reminds me that life’s struggles are difficult but you will always be able to redeem yourself if you learn to ride the waves the wind blows. You will have many waves to practice on in graduate school.

Read: Is it Worth It: Black America's Looming Loan Crisis

Being a black woman from a poor/working poor economic background is difficult but a privileged position nonetheless. I recently graduated with my master’s degree from a predominately white university. The course work was very difficult, but those are not the lessons I want share with you right now. For every black and Latina woman and girl, this is my account. I promise, you will have your own and your story needs to be heard too.

This is what graduate school taught me:

 1) Higher education is a tool for one to gain a career within the University or Corporate system. That is it. Learning intellectually can be done in communities or solitude. Trust me.

Read: In Pursuit of Education: The Fight for Equality in our Schools

2) I am a black woman who was raised in a poor/working poor economic community. It was not until I went away to graduate school that I learned my economic status would be the precursor to people’s opinions about what I know and who I am. You should expect this. Throughout my public schooling I did not learn to think critically about anything really. As black folk we are taught to go with the flow, praise Jesus when it gets hard, and shop when it gets unbearable (9/11). I mean that sarcastically but unfortunately it’s true. That does not mean that I was or am not capable of learning and thinking critically. Take advantage of your weaknesses and improve them. Don’t get down about not learning certain things that seem obvious to your colleagues. You have a different upbringing. Notice I didn’t say unfortunate or worse. You will realize that there are topics, words, and phrases that you know and others don’t. Value your upbringing. You have a different knowledge than others. Your differences are only a sign of your culture. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of it. Accept, study, and proclaim it. This is how we survive historical erasure. You must know how unique you are. Be confidant in who you are and where you come from. Situations do not define you. You define you. I say that because it is not uncommon coming from a working class background to be intimidated. Focus on all the good the hood brought you. Haha. Write down topics, words, phrases etc. that you may not understand and research them. Most of it will not pertain to you but it is good to know what others around you know. It makes you personable and expands your interpersonal world.

 3) Blackness is a wide spectrum. We come in many flavors including Asian and Latino/a. Blackness and black people are to be respected. Learn from everyone that you feel you should learn from. Especially, your brothers and sisters from across boarders and seas. Most times you will be the only black or Latino in your cohort or classes. Do NOT be resentful or envious of the other black and Latino/women/men in your program. The fact that they are there is rare. Embrace the relationship if the opportunity presents itself. You will gain a friend for life. You may find yourself unable to relate to your black or Latino colleagues. That may or may not be because they are from a different financial community than you. Meaning sometimes damnit, you just can’t see eye to eye. You will be stressed trying to figure out how to pay your bills (in addition to going to school fulltime) and your colleague will be complaining about their parents not buying them a new car all in the same five minutes. It happens. Accept the fact that we are all different and focus on their better attributes. The grass is not always greener. Take this as an opportunity to get to know someone who is different than you. It will build your character and your list of amazing friends you’ve gained through the years.

4) Every black or Latina professor, administrator, or colleague you meet is not going to be your homegirl/boy. Digest this information right now. I promise you the first time you feel rejection from another black woman/man it will hurt you to the core. You must remember she/he is human and just because they are black they have no obligation to you. They are colleagues. Even if you get the opportunity to be mentored by another black woman/man always be mindful that you have to remain professional in that relationship. They are still your colleagues.

5) Learning, writing, and thinking critically are all things that take a process to master. Do not move ahead or behind your process. Instead, stay present and enjoy it. It will be difficult but your process will make or break you. You might as well go through it gracefully. Graduate school is also a test of endurance. If you plan on continuing in higher education as a career your test will be imperative. You WILL be tested. And you WILL pass. You will. Treat your process as gold.

As far as being a student especially at a University that is majority white, be prepared to have a case of culture shock. You must never ever be afraid to be who you are. You do not have to fit into a certain mold; the people that need to be in your life will accept and support you just the way you are (never forget that). There are some crazy white people who will say very racist things. Take a breath and breathe because there are going to be black people who will agree with your crazy white colleagues. But on the bright side, you will have white colleagues who will be giving those same people the side eye just like you J. This brings me to my next piece of advice: never ever let people see you sweat. Allow yourself to accept the past and move on (slavery, religion, subjugation, etc etc etc). You are in grad school for one reason, to get your degree. Everything else is small to a giant. My last but most important piece of advice be professional. Period.

As you can tell from this piece most of the lessons I learned from grad school are about life. Never believe to be enlightened or to gain intellectual wisdom that you have to be accepted to a University or institution. Learning and wisdom begins and ends with your will. The libraries are free and books are abundant. Don’t forget your elders. They are walking history lessons. I learned to love the fact that I have different knowledge being from a poor/working poor background, black, and a woman. Your voice, your intellect is needed and given to you for you to share. Good luck in your endeavors and remember to ride that wind! In the future I will go more in depth about my experiences being black, poor, and a woman in grad school.

Stay true,

R. Smith

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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