This post is part three in our three part series on the #SAGrad search for #CSAM18. Check out our previous installments here.
I am a second year graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) Master’s Program at the University of Vermont (UVM). I identify as a queer, gender non-conforming black femme. Along with my enrollment as a graduate student, I hold a graduate assistantship in the Department of Residential Life as an Assistant Residence Director. Over the last year that I have lived in Vermont, I have learned quite a lot about the ways I show up in the world as a scholar, professional, and an advocate for social justice.
The Academic Experience
One of the greatest strengths graduate school has afforded me is the opportunity to have agency over my own learning. Although the nights are long, as are the readings, my faculty has given me the space to center my learning and research on functional areas and student populations that I am passionate about. I’ve had the opportunity to organize and facilitate spaces for queer and trans students of color through my practicum experience, while also getting experience in Residential Life through my assistantship. Additionally, graduate school was where I was exposed to the term “scholarly personal narrative.” For the first time, I was able to connect theory and class content to my experiences and social identities that have influenced how I have navigated higher education and other social spaces. My learning in these spaces has given me language to explain how I have benefitted and been disenfranchised from many systems in our society.
In one of my first graduate courses I learned about Paulo Freire, an educator and theorist who coined the term “praxis” as theory and practice, which is an ideology that allows theoretical frameworks to inform how one practices in engaging and serving students. Moreover, praxis has been a foundational learning objective throughout my graduate experience in HESA. It has given me the opportunity to bridge my learning in the classroom to real life experiences by supporting students while responding to crises, hearing conduct cases, and supervising resident advisors. Although I have benefitted from many spaces in higher education, there have also been limitations as well. Higher education is presently still a system that lacks the ability to be accessible to all folks from a variety of lived experiences. Through my own understanding of praxis, I am continually learning how my understanding of praxis helps me support students through their real life narratives and difficulties of navigating higher education.
Although there have been many highlights to my academic experience as a HESA graduate student, there have also been quite a few challenges. Academia has always been a part of my life, but as a young adult who has engaged critically with many of my social identities, the cohort space adds another challenge. I have learned about meeting my peers in very different developmental stages, where I have often failed to see them fully. Despite my own mistakes, this has aided my own growth as a professional working alongside difference and offering me new and different perspectives. Ultimately, my academic cohort has pushed me to think more about humility, my privilege, access to social justice spaces, and how identity always matters. The first year with my cohort mates allowed me to work through my own pains and experiences. Consequently, my second year has already been more enjoyable, and I have expanded the ways I learn and engage in classroom spaces.
Finding Belonging as an Outsider in Higher Education
I have had the privilege of living in quite a few places in the continental U.S. through internship experiences and academic opportunities, but Vermont has been the most unique place I have ever lived. Living, working, and studying in the second whitest state in the U.S. constantly reminds me of how my blackness is most salient for me as I navigate grocery stores, meetings with students, and building relationships. Over time, I began to feel myself in a constant critical mode because my academic engagement mindset fuels my hyper awareness of how I am racialized and where I belong in the state of Vermont.
Belonging is a large takeaway of how I perceive student development, and that does not exclude me. I have learned that finding a sense of community is integral to my success as a graduate student and as a professional at a predominantly white institution. Intentional and authentic community has allowed me to process the racism, misogyny, and microaggressions I have faced. It is no easy feat for any Black person to live in Vermont, but as I have grown to love the people and places who have helped me evolve, I have gained so many skills that have pushed me to move through spaces with acculturation. My graduate school experience has taught me that I can in fact maintain my authentic self and preserve my blackness even when who I am may exist in isolation.
Can I Protest?
Lastly, the most difficult journey I have experienced since attending UVM is understanding my role in student protests. Over the past few years, students of color at UVM have demanded to see their needs reflected in university policies and their learning. As a graduate student of color, I have formed many meaningful relationships with students in and outside of my professional role. The kinship I share with black and brown students sustains me in ways that I never expected. Although my sole purpose is to support them, I have also been challenged with my role as an employee of the institution. I began to recognize the real implications of who, where, and what I show up for. My true reality as a HESA grad is holding the weight of supporting my students, uplifting my own self as a black student, but also considering my classmates and the future of HESA.
This past year, I have re-examined what it means to support students and how I navigate the political opinions around professional boundaries. The spectrum that exists on whether I should support and engage in protests is often overwhelming and nerve-wracking, but I am bound to these words by Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Lorde’s sentiment with substitute this for, “I am not free while any [student] is unfree, even when their shackles are very different from my own.” My choice to work within the institution does not mean I cannot continue to resist or dismantle oppression and power as I work through it. While there are many limitations and political implications to my actions, I will always continue to ask myself, “Can I protest?”
Self-Awareness is the Key to Evolution
Evolving in my abilities as a graduate student have caused me many sleepless nights. It has meant acknowledging my strengths and my weaknesses. I have been challenged to meet others with more humility and less of the academic social privileges I carry. I have learned to name my mistakes and go the extra mile for my students and colleagues. Self-awareness has taught me that some days I feel competent in supporting my students while also doing my academic work, while other days make me feel completely incompetent. I am becoming okay with the ambiguity and the unknown. My growth is a work in progress, therefore I will continue to challenge myself with care and love. The moment I accepted that my evolution isn’t linear, I unlocked a new piece of becoming more self-aware. I am an evolving Black grad in Vermont.