I vividly remember the paralyzing experience of taking my first college-level course. It was the summer before my first year at a private, predominately-white institution, where students from underprivileged backgrounds, like myself were required to take remedial courses such as writing, math, and professional development classes. However, most of the students in my classes were from all backgrounds and at varying stages of their undergraduate career. This brought a wide-range of different perspectives to the class, and as this space became classed and gendered, I struggled to verbally contribute to class discussions. On a number of accounts, students and professors would ignore my comments or interrupt me by correcting my grammar or pronunciation of words, which I felt undermined my intelligence.
One day as I went to speak, I stuttered and could barely finish my sentence, and at that moment my anxiety and fear halted the words leaving my mouth. After multiple failed attempts to voice my opinion in class, I began to shut down and eventually choose to stop vocalizing my thoughts for the rest of the summer term. These negative experiences left me discouraged in my abilities to succeed in an environment that was truly foreign to me.
Prior to attending my first college class, obtaining a higher education seemed unachievable. I come from a financially single mother, who had me at the age of sixteen. As the eldest of five, I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from college. I did not have any immediate family members to consult with or ask for advice, which probed me to confide in my Student Support Service (SSS) counselor. Just to put the plug in for SSS, this program was critical for my academic success and although every institution may not have this program, I highly recommend their services for first-gen students and other people of color who attend universities with SSSP or similar initiatives. It is a federally funded grant given to colleges to assist students’ transition to higher-level study and provide them with the necessary tools to academically thrive. Unfortunately, this program is not automatically funded by the government, so each year SSS faculty, professors, students, community members, and other activists join forces to lobby for the continuation of this program.
Returning back to my experiences with my SSS counselor, she listened and reassured me that I was not the only first-generational student to feel overwhelmed, insecure, and unequipped for college classes. As I continued to meet with her over the academic year (once every two weeks), our sessions were vital in building my confidence, assisting me in exploring other campus resources like the writing center and math workshops, as well as encouraging me to always “speak my mind, even if my voice shakes,” a quote I carry with me to this day.
I share these humiliating moments to offer a glimpse into the personal and professional challenges of my academic career. As a first-gen student, educated through public schools, I am used to working twice as hard and utilizing as many college resources available. I cannot recall a specific moment when navigating the academy became easy, if anything it has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to believe and trust in my own competence, and for that I am grateful.
As a now Ph.D. student in a highly competitive program, similar insecurities resurfaced my first semester of graduate study. This time it looked slightly different, and under an all too familiar term known as imposter syndrome. Commonly understood as a psychological battle, where people doubt their intelligence, I found myself questioning my ability to contribute in graduate seminars too. After writing numerous college essays, teaching high school students, presenting at different conferences to a variety of audiences, and at last, obtaining my B.S. in Social Studies Education, I still struggled with the fear that others would perceive me as less than because of the way I spoke. We all know that language is socially constructed and “proper English” does not exist, but the truth remains that people judge you based on the way you look and speak, and not “sounding” professional closes off many opportunities.
So here I am, in my first graduate seminar with a variety of students from very privileged backgrounds (sounds familiar?), who are throwing around titles of theorists they read and concepts I could barely pronounce, and my same academic anxieties reappeared, full force. This time, I did not have an academic counselor or family members in close proximity to rely on. Instead, I tackled my fears differently.
First, I cried to my best friend, but then I reached out to other people of color in my department, shared my experiences, and before you knew it, we had a supportive environment to truly discuss our everyday struggles navigating the academy. Secondly, instead of taking criticism personally, I am now appreciative of constructive feedback because anyone who takes the time to read and critically engage in your work is a true gift. And lastly, I refused to let school consume my life, I found an outlet from my studies, which has been the gym. Although the gym is not for everyone, finding a hobby is important for maintaining sanity in the academy.
My academic experiences have been trying, and many systems of oppression, beyond my control, have played a role in my overall life and effort to obtain the highest educational degree. However, what keeps me focused and fuels my drive to keep pushing against adversity is my deep commitment to decolonize what constitutes as “intellectualism.” Or in other words, I understand that society views my master’s degree and eventually will perceive my Ph.D. as a reflection of my expertise in a given topic. However, within these institutions, what is deemed “scholarly” is contested and debated, so in order to change what or who is “worthy” to be studied, I must first be in these same spaces to constantly critically engage with black women’s history in its entirety, the “heroics,” the “problematics,” and the “everyday” women. As I embark on this task, I join a burgeoning group of black women historians who have been and is currently doing the work to write our narrative (s).
So, to my first-gen sista(s), never allow your unconventional background to prohibit what seems or is deemed unattainable. You are worthy, you deserve to be in that space, and you are beyond capable. Keep pushing!
Tiana Wilson was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y. She graduated SUNY Buffalo State College in 2017 with her BS in Social Studies Education. Obtaining her M.A. in History at the University of Texas at Austin, Tiana is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in History, with a portfolio in Women and Gender Studies at UT. Tiana’s research interests include black women’s internationalism, U.S.-Latin America Relations, Twentieth Century Social Movements, and African American Women’s History. In her spare time, Tiana enjoys outdoor activities with her dog, Bentley.