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The Super Woman Perplex: Being a Mother in Graduate School

By Farina King, 1/15/2015

Today more than any other day, I have been inspired to write this blog post about being a wife and mother in graduate school. I have been thinking of the millions of things that I could write. After my experiences today, the “Super Woman Perplex” came to the fore. I have been called a “Super Woman” for being a mother and graduate student at the same time. I am not condemning the people who have meant to compliment me, but I want to unpack such exchanges and my perspective of them.

Basically, the “Super Woman Perplex” refers to how mothers and family women in graduate school are considered “super women” in comparison to fathers and family men in graduate school who are often considered no different than other graduate students. The graduate student mother must aspire to be a “Super Woman,” because she must possess some extraordinary powers to “have it all” as a mother and aspiring professional, especially in the cutthroat world of academic competition. Graduate students have described their work experiences as “indentured servitude,” exerting dogged efforts towards that evasive “freedom” of an academic tenure-track career. They must be set for academic careers, which demand publications, teaching, mentoring, and community service among many other things. 

For female graduate students to decide to have children is very daunting. I am speaking from my experiences as a history doctoral candidate who married and started a family young. I had my first child while working on my M.A. thesis in Wisconsin. I had my second son while teaching as a history adjunct instructor in Utah, and I just had my third child (my first daughter) during my last semester of doctoral coursework here at ASU. 

Why and how did I choose to be a “Super Woman” as some people have called me? For me, it is always a question of priorities. Before becoming pregnant, I also felt confident in my health and body to support me while being a graduate student and having children. I also knew and trusted my support networks, including my husband who has sacrificed much and demonstrated faith in me as a scholar. I prioritize having and being a part of families, which stems from my values, beliefs, and identity. I was taught that if you place your priorities (major passions and driving forces) first in your life, all the other things would fall into place, as they should. Today was an example of that teaching for me.

Unexpectedly, I received negative response from an article that I submitted for publication. The reviewers assure me of the “promise” and “potential contribution” of the article, but they demand a lot of revisions by an upcoming, looming deadline. I was unprepared for such responses. I felt shattered, and that I was a failure. My spouse and children could sense my gloom. My four-year-old son asked me, “How can I help?” He and my two-year-old son started cheering for me, “Go, Mommy! Go, Mommy!” My husband then showed me the clip from “Batman Begins” with the following exchange between Alfred and Bruce Wayne:  

Bruce Wayne: I wanted to save Gotham. I failed.

Alfred Pennyworth: Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.

Bruce Wayne: You still haven’t given up on me?

Alfred Pennyworth: Never.

By the end of the clip, I was in tears and hugged my spouse and children. In that embrace, I knew that I would never be a failure. I would always have them, the inspirations of my life. I also knew that Batman was never alone, and no Super Woman is ever alone either. In many ways, the Super Woman image is only a mirage, because like most heroes, the super women “stand on the shoulders of giants” and are supported by teams of heroes including little children. 

Bilagáanaa niliigo’ dóó Kinyaa’áanii yásh’chíín. Bilagáanaa dabicheii dóó Tsinaajinii dabinálí. Ákót’éego diné asdzá̹á̹ nilí̹. Farina King is “Bilagáanaa” (Euro-American), born for “Kinyaa’áanii” (the Towering House Clan) of the Diné (Navajo). Her maternal grandfather was Euro-American, and her paternal grandfather was “Tsinaajinii” (Black-streaked Woods People Clan) of the Diné. In this way, she is a Navajo woman. She is a doctoral candidate in the U.S. History Ph.D. program at Arizona State University. She received her M.A. in African History from the University of Wisconsin and a B.A. from Brigham Young University with a double major in History and French Studies. King has written and presented about indigenous Mormon experiences in the twentieth century, drawing from some interviews that she conducted for the LDS Native American Oral History Project at BYU. Her doctoral research traces the changes in Navajo educational experiences through the twentieth century. King is also a dedicated wife and mother, with three children and stud muffin husband. 

 

I Am Not a "Diminished Asset": Reflections after Bringing Baby to Campus

By Meghan Nestel, 1/14/2015

When my daughter was four months old, I took her with me to campus for the first time. As I buckled her into her car seat and drove to school, I practiced conversations with professors, staff, classmates, students—anyone I felt might wonder at (or worse, raise opposition to) my bringing my daughter to campus.

“My husband usually watches her while I’m at school, but he has an unexpected work obligation,” 
I explained. 

“I am holding student conferences this morning, which I can do while holding the baby,” I reasoned. 

Then for good measure I added, “She’s usually quiet. She’ll probably just nap anyways.”

I didn’t end up saying any of this to anyone. No one questioned my bringing her along—they chatted with me as usual, cooed at the baby, and went on with their day. 

An anticlimactic anecdote, I know. But for two reasons, it is a moment that has stuck with me as I continue to negotiate my roles as mother and graduate student.

First, it confirmed to me that not everyone will be against you if you choose to have children while pursing your degree. This is by no means to say you will not encounter individual and/or systemic opposition (which I’ll talk more about shortly), but that there are people who will not only be supportive but actively cheer you on. My advisor, for example, asks me to bring my daughter to our meetings. A certain staff member happily arranged my teaching schedule to accommodate my childcare needs. Statements of support and encouragement, as well as offers of help, have come from a number of my colleagues. And, despite now having brought my daughter to campus a handful of times, I still have yet to have had a negative experience. 

Why then was I still so anxious that first day on campus? And why do I continue at times to experience similar guilt and fear? Because there subsists an underlying societal belief that women cannot be simultaneously successful as mothers and workers that affects us even when we know it to be false. I had been made aware of its existence through articles about the challenges faced by graduate mothers, and through stories of a student’s mentor telling her she would not be her advisor if she had a baby in graduate school. I experienced it personally when I feared opposition to bringing my daughter to school, rather than securely anticipating support and acceptance. 

On that day, I suddenly became very aware of how much I had internalized the doubts and assumptions that accompany this belief in the incompatibility of work and motherhood. I was determined to simply work harder, to prove to anyone (including myself) who might question my abilities that I was as dedicated to and capable of research and teaching as I was pre-baby. Just as Lisa Miller described in a recent article titled “Stop Blaming Women for Holding Themselves Back at Work,” I had an impulse “to assume a posture of apologetic gratitude, as though I believed (or feared) that having a baby would make me somehow less of an employee: less reliable, less driven, less creative — a diminished asset.” 

Miller concludes her insightful article (which you can read here) with the suggestion that “the first step is to stop channeling all of that criticism inward or toward individual women and instead turn it outward. Companies need to try harder, too.” ASU needs to try harder. Affordable on-campus daycare, affordable healthcare for dependents, and more than one lactation room per campus are all great places to start, and I would like to have conversations about how we can ask for these with other student (and faculty) parents. But I have also come to recognize a need to make changes on a more immediate level. I am working on not turning criticism inward, because being a parent does not make me a “diminished asset.” And I will continue, without guilt, to bring my daughter to campus when the occasion calls, working to change perceptions about graduate student parents even if it’s just one person at a time.   

Meghan Nestel is a third year doctoral student at Arizona State University. She studies medieval literature, and teaches literature and composition for the Department of English. She has a seven month old daughter, whose main concerns at the moment include growing her first tooth and learning to crawl.

 

The Graduate Experience of a Native American Woman

By Farina King, 11/18/2014

To clarify, my perspective as a Native American graduate student is distinct in various ways. I am a woman of mixed ancestry. My mother is Anglo-American, and my father is Navajo of the Towering House Clan. I have a fair complexion for an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. I was raised in a Christian home mostly far from the Navajo reservation in the D.C. metropolitan area of Montgomery County, Maryland. I grew up where some people did not know that Native Americans still existed. Starting in elementary school, my father would come to my classes to provide presentations on Native American culture. My father’s family continues to live on Navajo lands in New Mexico. I visited family occasionally in my youth. 

Returning to the Southwest for post-secondary education enabled me to re-connect with family and Native American communities. In Phoenix, I find a diverse and strong urban Native American community. I have been able to participate in programs, free of charge, at the Phoenix Indian Center where my three-year-old son received tutoring in the Navajo language and where I started learning Navajo songs with the Diné Urban Singers. I am now taking Navajo language courses at ASU. I have served in the leadership of the ASU American Indian Graduate Student Association, making great connections with fellow Native American graduate students and helping to organize events that bring awareness to indigenous issues and share Native American culture with a diverse student body and population. 

I have found these networks of Native American graduate support, but I still have distinct concerns as a Native American female graduate student. Last year, for example, I withdrew from a graduate course partly due to the atmosphere of the class and the instructor’s lack of mediating that environment. On a day dedicated to the theme of “Indigenous” on the syllabus, the class was assigned to discuss a study with part of the title translated as “Barbarians” that focused on how Spaniards perceived indigenous peoples in the colonial era. The class did not consider the indigenous voices of the history. Some students started to refer to examples of Native Americans in the postcolonial era and discussed modern Native American identity, when the reading materials and main topics of the class dwelt with the colonial period in the Southwest and Latin America. Most of the students and the instructor were unaware that I was Navajo because of my lighter skin. I felt uncomfortable with the disjointed references and speculations on indigenous identity. I did not want to speak, because I was irritated with the instructor and the class.

In a previous instance, I had once walked out of a class because of anger and mixed emotion, when a fellow non-Native American student spoke in tears about the “Othering” of American Indian children on the Mormon Indian Student Placement Program (ISPP). I have family and friends who participated in the ISPP. I have conducted interviews with former students of the program. Some of them have praised the program for saving their lives and ensuring a prosperous future, while others have criticized and condemned the program for abuses and depreciation of indigenous culture and society. Again, I felt uncomfortable to open a personal side of my experience and background to provide a more nuanced perspective of such historic programs and indigenous experiences.

Instructors and students who are aware of my Native American background sometimes expect that I know everything about every tribe in the United States. I think that people often homogenize “Native Americans” and do not consider the immerse diversity of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Instructors and especially students also have been quick to say that Native Americans did not have “history” before European contact, because they do not recognize that indigenous peoples had their own ways of understanding and knowing their world and its past.  

For me to be in graduate school is due much to the perseverance of my parents who were both first generation college students. I am fortunate to have their examples and strength. I also went through a rigorous school system in Maryland and lived in an area that celebrated diversity. Still, being a Native American in graduate school is a great exception and challenge. I can only imagine the struggles that Native American graduate students face without the same support and background I have.

Remember that there is a Native American presence on this campus and in this city. Come to recognize, understand, and appreciate this presence. We are on the homelands of indigenous peoples, including the descendants of the Hohokam, the Akimel O’othom (Gila River Indian Community) and Akimel Au-Authm (River People or Pima) and Xalychidom Piipaash (People who live toward the water or Maricopa). Learn about these extraordinary peoples who have survived colonialism and persist. This knowledge and understanding of the enduring relationships between peoples and lands will enlighten us, illuminating how we can be supportive to each other as diverse and distinct graduate students. 

Bilagáanaa niliigo’ dóó Kinyaa’áanii yásh’chíín. Bilagáanaa dabicheii dóó Tsinaajinii dabinálí. Ákót’éego diné asdzá̹á̹ nilí̹. Farina King is “Bilagáanaa” (Euro-American), born for “Kinyaa’áanii” (the Towering House Clan) of the Diné (Navajo). Her maternal grandfather was Euro-American, and her paternal grandfather was “Tsinaajinii” (Black-streaked Woods People Clan) of the Diné. In this way, she is a Navajo woman. She is a doctoral candidate in the U.S. History Ph.D. program at Arizona State University. She received her M.A. in African History from the University of Wisconsin and a B.A. from Brigham Young University with a double major in History and French Studies. King has written and presented about indigenous Mormon experiences in the twentieth century, drawing from some interviews that she conducted for the LDS Native American Oral History Project at BYU. Her doctoral research traces the changes in Navajo educational experiences through the twentieth century. King is also a dedicated wife and mother. 

 

Encouraging Words

By Kalissa Hendrickson, 8/24/2014

I have the incredible fortune of remembering the very first words my Dissertation Chair, Professor Ayanna Thompson, ever spoke to me. 

Six years ago, to the chagrin of my parents, I abandoned a career path I found wholly unsatisfying to pursue a Ph.D. in English. I entered my first graduate-level English course, taught by Professor Thompson, as a non-degree graduate student (one with very little background in English studies), scared out of my mind and all too aware of the vast amount of things I did not know. I sat through the first few weeks of class in silence, afraid to utter a word, and entirely overwhelmed by what appeared to me to be a class full of people all smarter than I. This continued on until the night Professor Thompson sat down next to me at the beginning of class, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “You are going to speak tonight”.  This was not phrased as a question, or as a command, but as a simple statement of fact. I was horrified, both by the knowledge that she had noticed me not speaking and by the prospect of actually having to say something. But you know what? That night in class, I spoke. I do not remember what I said, chances are it was not very profound, but I did find that after speaking up that first time, speaking again was not as scary…

Graduate school may sometimes feel like a solitary activity, but it is not. Making connections and fostering communication is essential to success in all realms of life, especially academics. As Outgoing Co-President of the Graduate Women’s Association (an association, by the way, that Professor Thompson supported from its beginnings) my goal for this year is to continue to grow an organization that I see providing all graduate students a place they can feel free to speak, to ask questions, to gather information, to offer advice, to make connections, and to contribute to intellectual excellence of Arizona State University. I hope that all the Graduate Women’s Association has planned this year—socials, professionalization workshops, invited speakers—help each and every one of you to grow, both as academics and as people. 

Professor Thompson helped me find my voice six years ago, and in the following years she has also helped me see that I have something to say. She assisted me in getting into the Ph.D. program, functioned as a mentor during the early years of my studies, shepherded me through my first conference experiences, congratulated my upon my first publication, and now writes recommendation letters for me as I venture out onto the academic job market. So, at the beginning of this academic school year and in my final year of graduate study, if I have any big-picture advice to give other graduate students who are entering into their first years of study, it would be this: find the person or persons who encourage you to speak, and keep them close. 

Wishing you all a wonderful and successful 2014-15 school year!

 

Pursuing Balance

By Dara James, 4/21/2014

Balance.  I think that creating balance is the greatest challenge to face as a graduate student.  While we hopefully embark on our academic endeavors with passion, curiosity and a quest-ful taste for rigor and the unknown, we are also tasked with finding balance in other parts of our lives which too have significance and meaning.  The singular and oftentimes isolating focus of academia necessitates that we grab firmly that which is important to the completeness and entirety of our lives. The challenge of finding balance is presented on a daily basis as we journey along the winding road of academics in determination and committed pursuit of our degree. 

As students we try to balance school, work, family, time, sleep, self-care, relationships, goals, dreams and personal interests.  The nature of graduate school demands an imbalance of commitment beyond which is ordinary and additionally commands an unspoken submission of sorts.  As a single mom and full-time PhD student, balance has been, and continues to be, the absolute greatest challenge of my academic career.  While lacking perfect solutions to the dilemma of creating balance, I can relate greatly to the shared and common experience.

Finding balance within the academic realm requires an almost paradoxical fluctuation of stability between planning and presence.  Planning creates intention and the carved out reality and spaciousness for achieving balance, while presence allows us to be mindfully aware of our ever-changing world and what is needed in the moment to create equilibrium.  

Successfully finding balance in the setting of graduate school requires an individual willingness to best determine what is important to each of us as students and people.  We must remember, learn and discover that which we value most and need to sustain the completeness of our lives—and at the same time we must explore and understand what we are willing to compromise for the sake of our own balance; this is an evolving process.  Within the contextual background of academic intensity, perhaps balance is best achieved by knowing what is significant to each of us and further, being creatively yet pragmatically willing to position all of these elements into our lives as we work towards the procurement of greater equipoise.

Dara James is a pursuing her PhD in Physical Activity, Nutrition, & Wellness at Arizona State University under the mentorship of Dr. Meg Bruening.  Her Master’s degree is in Exercise & Wellness, and her undergraduate degree is in Kinesiology and Physical Education.  Dara’s past research includes an exploration of self-compassion, stress and eating behaviors in college freshmen, plate waste and fruit and vegetable intake as related to school salad bars, the relationship between mindful eating and taste perceptions, the associations among stress, physical activity and body composition in women and exploratory work in the field of child-caregiver feeding interactions.  She is currently working on adapting a mindful eating program for a youth population and further investigating the associations among self-compassion, stress, shame and disordered eating behaviors.  She is passionate about helping people improve their relationship with food and experience of eating.  Dara believes in the daily practice of self-compassion and enjoys hiking and yoga in her spare time.  She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her children. 

 

Don't Give Up: Thoughts on Grad School from a First Year MA Student

By Elizabeth Kiss, 2/16/2014

While working full-time and going to graduate school full-time is hard, it’s doable.  You will just most likely be exhausted, overly emotional and socially unavailable.   You hear PhD students say that MA students have it easy.  They forget that there are only two differences between us:  (1) PhD students are funded and MA students are not; and (2) They work 20 hours a week, and we work 40. You’re taking the same seminars, you’re doing the same amount of coursework, you’re contributing to the same discussions they are. That being said, do not resent your cohort. It is not their fault.  You might get irritated when they complain about how tired they are, or how stressed they are.  Don’t.  It’s a waste of energy.  Just take a deep breath and remind yourself that you can do this.  If you’re working full time and going to graduate school full time, you’re not going to have time to bond with your colleagues anyway.  You’re going to waste so much energy you need with that negativity.  Trust me on this one.  That being said, this is the perfect sentence to segway to the graduate school workload!

I’d love to say there is a way to prepare you for the amount of work you will be doing, but there really isn’t.  You’re expected to be working on your seminar papers for your pro-sems, your dissertation or thesis and keeping up with a ton of reading and also working.  I hear a lot about Google calendar alerts and day planners and alarms when it comes to organizing your life.  I tried that.  I scheduled everything into Google, down to date nights with my amazingly understanding boyfriend, family dinners with my parents and siblings on Sunday and lunches with my friends.  It never worked.  Perhaps its easier if you’re not studying something as horrific as crimes against humanity, gang rapes and genocide—but there were days I just got up from my reading and walked away from it.  Other times, my friends would come and drag me from the house and make me leave in order to get away from academia.  If you plan on scheduling your life down to the last second, you need to remember one thing:  Take care of yourself.  Get away from your employment and your graduate work.  Don’t feel guilty about it, either.  Everything you’re working on in graduate school, should theoretically, in a perfect world, contribute to your thesis or dissertation.  So do not burn yourself out on it.  I tried to remain that organized my first semester, and I am a fairly organized individual by nature. I would not be over-exaggerating if I said that my first semester of graduate school, combined with a full time job, was the most stressful time of my life.  My days would start at 4:00 AM every morning and would continue until 10:00 PM at night, and that is if I got to bed on time.  Those organizational skills?  Out the window.  Once I lost that rigid schedule I tried to impose on my life in order to remain in control, everything got a lot easier.  

Will people be sympathetic to your work schedule?  I believe it truly depends.  While most of my professors were sympathetic to my plight, others were not.  My academic adviser and another professor told me that had I simply had the time to sit down and focus more of my attention on my studies, I would excel.  But I listened to criticism more than anything.  After a professor told me that my papers were rushed and sounded like foreign policy rants with no empirical evidence to back them up, and that I shouldn’t be in the program, I almost gave up.  It was this specific professor’s words and hostile actions towards me that had me considering quitting the program.  Not the workload, not the ability to do my own research—the fact that a professor was able to make me feel so terrible about myself in five minutes when I had gone in to ask for guidance.  I had not scheduled a meeting with him to beg for leniency.  I was honest when I said this was not my best work and that I was under a lot of pressure at work.  That was unimportant.  For the next six weeks of the semester, after being repeatedly told I was wrong in front of my cohort when I expressed an opinion on the material, I just stopped participating.   I think it is important to inform any graduate students who are working on top of their scholarly pursuits that not all of your professors are going to care if you are working or not. 

I will end this with the following advice I received from a member of my cohort who is also working full time:  “Hang in there lady. It gets different and then the same and then different and hard and intense and basically a ginormous emotional roller coaster!”  Holly basically summed up graduate school in one sentence.  

Don’t give up though.  It takes a special type of person to go to graduate school and work.  You’re basically working two full-time jobs.  Juggle as best as you can, take care of yourself and remain positive.  You’ll do great.  

Good luck and May The Force Be With You!

Elizabeth is a first year MA student at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies studying comparative politics and international relations, specifically focusing on gender and sexual violence and inequality in Post-Communist countries.  On top of her full-time graduate status, she also works at Parker Schwartz, PLLC, a law firm in North Phoenix, as an intellectual property legal assistant to Ira Schwartz.