Academia and Adobe Ceiling?

Some questions for Katherine Rodela on academia and identity.

1. The adobe ceiling

When I first saw this term, I resented it.  I felt like we were using a stereotypical Mexican object to define the complex barriers Latinas traverse in order to become academics (or reach the highest levels of their chosen professions).  Also, adobe unlike glass isn’t so easily penetrable—it doesn’t just break, it lasts and sustains.  But, now seeing the description from Gutierrez y Muhs, I appreciate it more—I don’t accept it fully, but I appreciate it.  Physically adobe can be beaten hard to crumble—it’s hard, but possible with lots of effort and force.   

I’m the first in my immediate family to go to college and the first to get her Ph.D.  I was raised in a working then middle class family (my dad’s salary grew over time).  My family is Mexican-American: my maternal grandparents came from Mexico during the Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century.  My father’s side of the family has been in the US since Texas was part of Mexico—like a comedian once said: we didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.  We’re all from El Paso, Texas—but my cousins and various family members identify themselves in different ways.  The more conservative ones tend to call themselves Hispanics, most of us call ourselves Mexican-Americans, others Latinos, and then there are a few that call ourselves Chicanas (I’m one of them).

To me, I need to think about where and who I come from to begin thinking about the journey I’m on to be come an academic and a professor.  I feel very privileged to be where I am now and grateful for all the teachers, professors especially at Seattle University and Stanford who helped me believe in myself as a researcher and budding scholar.  I feel like I’m here because of my family’s journey, especially my mom and dad’s away from El Paso and the poverty they lived in there to get me to where I am. 

Having said that, I do feel the adobe ceiling at different times.  Partly, it’s not a glass ceiling because I have no examples in my family or life except for advisers or the occasional Latina professor to see what it’s like to “make it” as an academic. The ceiling is thick, dense, and at times daunting for me.  Also, it’s hard to envision myself in that world when I have so few examples.  My adviser at Stanford has been invaluable to me as an example of a strong woman, who has family and who makes a significant contribution to education and the academy.  Her journey was fought hard and every honor she has received is well deserved.  She is why I’m at Stanford.  But, other examples of Latina professors, I’m not sure.  I look to a mentor I work with at UCLA who is a woman of color who has also shared with me advice on navigating academia. Between these two examples and other trusted advisers, I feel like I have support and am grateful for them in my life, though I still struggle to know where opportunities are and which ones to take if I can.

Overall, I feel like it’s hard to know what information you need, when you have no idea what advice to ask for.  Sometimes it feels like every other graduate student knows how to navigate this world—they all see the road signs—but I feel like I keep missing signs for the turns I should be taking.  If it weren’t for other friends of color at Stanford and my advisers, who have supported me through my graduate school journey, I’m not sure where I would be right now.  At this point in my journey (as I work on my dissertation), I feel like I need to make up my own signs with the advice I get and create the journey I need and I want.

2. What has been your experience of academia as a Latina and a mother? 

My journey in academia started long before I realized I wanted to be an academic and get my Ph.D.  I didn’t know it at the time when I was an undergrad at Seattle University, but I do think other professors there saw it in me.  This impacted how I thought about myself as a Latina and now as a mother too in academia.

My senior year of undergrad, I got a Fulbright Fellowship to do research in Peru.  The week of my graduation I remember running into an old history professor of mine.  He was one of those classic quirky and intimidating professors, who would say things with double meanings and made you feel like you never quite knew if he liked you.  We talked about my plans to move to Peru the following week and, as we said goodbyes, he recommended that I check out a book that was about people who wear masks in life.  He said that I should look at it because I wear masks and take them off and put them on strategically.  I remember being offended by what he said and its implication of fakeness—of course, polite as ever, I said “oh yes, I will look at the book” but I never did.  I was too pissed off at him for even suggesting I wore masks.

But, as time went on and I read more about women of color (especially in academia) inhabiting masks, he was right. I did wear masks at Seattle U and continue to wear them, but I feel like over time, these masks are less about masking who I am and more about being strategic about how people perceive me.  When I am talking to someone who is literacy expert, I’m going to play up my work in adult literacy development and talk about community college work I’ve done.  When I talk to someone interested in Spanish as a heritage language, I’m going to highlight my work as a Spanish teacher for native speakers and interest in this field.  In this way, it’s about finding and showing commonalities.

But, this mask wearing I know has an insidious side—I mask that which I don’t want people to see.  I’m never ashamed of being a Chicana or where I come from or what I study. But, if I know a professor doesn’t quite like talking about race or tends to me more conservative, I’m not going to write a paper for him/her about race or that’s too political.  I’m not going to challenge someone who has more power over me with my own beliefs.  I don’t try to change myself, but I’m not going to show them how critical I am or my passion for social justice.  I want them to see me as an intelligent, critical thinker: to value what I bring to the table and not dismiss me right off the top because we disagree with each other.

I know some might find this just good protective strategy, but I also see how it has made me not challenge what I hope to challenge in my career: unequal opportunities for students of color, language minorities, women and students from low-income backgrounds.  I also think for the first couple years at Stanford, this has meant that I’ve censored myself, I’ve been silent in times when I should have spoken up, and I struggled to re-find the strong voice I had when I started school.  To me, it wasn’t so much the university itself, it was a combination of my own insecurities as a new graduate student and wanting to show that I belonged there.

I became a mother right before my 3rd year of graduate school.  When I first found out I was pregnant, I was scared of the consequences in my career, even though I had a supportive partner.  I was scared that it meant that I had to give up graduate school and disappoint so many people who had helped me get to Stanford.  My advisers helped me navigate how to make it work and so we did.  At times when I was pregnant, I worried about other professors thinking I wasn’t taking my schooling seriously, but at the end of the day, the people who supported me the most (my family, my husband, my advisers, and friends) they got me through it and I was happy and grateful for my son.

My son is now two years old and over the past year and a half I’ve been doing field research with Latina immigrant mothers and families.  Becoming a mother and leading my own research project at the same time has fundamentally changed me and how I inhabit masks in the academy.  I feel like I’ve become less guarded about my views and more self-assured.  I feel like I owe it to the women I work with, to me son, and to other Latina students and graduate students to share who I am. 

There are too few academic spaces with women of color, let alone mothers of color—or Latina mothers.  I want professors to know that I’m doing my dissertation while taking care of my son at home.  I want people to know it’s hard, but I’m making it work thanks to my husband, family, and advisers.

I also want people to know that other women have even harder struggles.  Like the women I work with who had to cross deserts to get here, face injury and deportation to support their families and give their children a better life.  I want the academy to know that these women and other women like them who fit all the categories we call “at risk” (poor/working class, language minority, immigrant, person of color, etc) are our future because they are raising our future.  In my field of education, how we talk about people that we study impacts how we study them and our results.  It’s a weird place to be when you read papers about all the deficiencies of Latino families when you yourself were raised in one just like the ones in those studies.  Or how someone like you (or similar to you) “a young Latina mother” is expected to help or not help her children.  You realize that, although I can’t speak for the families I study because my journey and life has been different, I have to share my story alongside theirs too.

As Latina women and mothers, we can wear masks to protect ourselves and our families.  But, we can’t be silent.

3. Do you feel “presumed incompetent”?

I have this vivid memory of the first time I ever though people might think I’m incompetent or less smart because of the color of my skin: When I was in 5th grade, I remember one time during P.E. class, a boy in my class came up to me and asked: “what are you?”  I didn’t understand him and he said “are you Italian?”  And, I realized he meant for me to explain why I was brown.  I said “no, I’m Mexican.”  He said, “no, you’re not Mexican.”  I said, “yes, I’m Mexican.” He insisted, “No! No! You aren’t Mexican! You are too smart to be Mexican.”  Then he ran away and I stood there dumbfounded thinking “why did he say that?  Are Mexicans dumb?”  I never told my parents, but held this memory close to me.

Of course, the boy was basically telling me I was smart—something I already knew and was a huge nerd about.  But, I never ever thought that Mexicans were dumb because they were Mexicans.  It just never occurred to me.  After that moment, I saw it everywhere—how people thought certain types of people were dumb or less competent.  And, I live with that moment whenever I’m in situations where my competence is tested, like undergrad or graduate school.

It’s like Claude Steele’s notion of “stereotype threat.”  The idea that 5th grade boy put in my head “Mexicans are not smart” lives in my subconscious.  The stereotype threatens me and I need to make sure I face it or it will affect my performance.

I have never felt “presumed incompetent” by any professor in either graduate school or undergrad.  Other students have made me feel this presumption and need to prove myself.  In the more challenging classes, there have always been a group of individuals who think they are smarter than everyone else and act like it.  In undergrad, it was more pronounced—they were the ones who went for the big fellowships and always seemed more serious and intense than everyone else.  I never even considered going for programs like the Rhodes or Truman because I wasn’t one of those guys (yes, there were all male students in that group).  A female history professor and an advisor had to convince me to apply for the Fulbright—I never thought I had what it took to get something prestigious like that.  Thankfully their persistence and our hard work paid off and I got it.  It was a transformational moment for me—I felt like I could belong in the big leagues.  I would never have applied for Stanford or the other graduate schools I did for my Ph.D. if I hadn’t gotten the Fulbright or been encouraged by my Seattle University professors.

In graduate school, I have actually felt pretty supported by fellow students.  On rare occasions have I felt other students testing me—and it came at the beginning when people were trying to show off about where they went to undergrad or talking really wonky about policy issues in education.  It’s hard to take it seriously now, but I was intimidated then and I definitely needed some boosting from my advisers about why I belonged in graduate school.  I can see how over time as these classmates become professional colleagues, that the forms of discrimination might get more implicit and insidious, especially as we compete with each other. 

4. What do you think women of color need to be prepared for when considering entering academic spaces for higher education? (I am mainly interested in higher than BA).

I think we need to prepared to feel isolated and to deal with self-doubt.  In my second year of graduate school, I struggled with finding my voice and the larger reasons why I came to graduate school.  When I presented my qualifying paper at the end of my 2nd year, I remember one of my advisers saying, “where is Katherine in this?” 

I felt that I kept trying to fit into a “graduate school mold” because I didn’t know how to be myself in graduate school.  If I write this way or talk about this topic, then I will fit in better.  I would constantly question myself and I kept comparing myself to others students—worried about what I was not doing and what I was not studying.  This self-doubt was my biggest struggle.  It was perpetuated by feelings of isolation: I was one of 7 students of color in my doctoral cohort (out of about 35).

I didn’t realize how isolated and alone I felt until I had other people of color around me.  I found this in the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE).  Being at the CCSRE was a breath of fresh air.  Though we all came from different backgrounds and disciplines, it was a place where we could talk critically and productively about issues of race and ethnicity. 

I think key to succeeding as a woman of color in graduate school is to find the people who are going to support you—both personally and professionally.  I have a core group of friends who I’ve confided in, cried with, and that I can trust.  They have kept me sane and helped me through all the transitions.  I also think finding mentors is key.  Finding people who have gone through the trenches who support you and can help you find a way to navigate academia.  Also, remembering that you were accepted for YOU—not for a whitewashed version of you.  Yes, graduate school helps build skills and knowledge, but not forgetting the strengths I bring has been something I’ve had to remember and something I have to keep reminding myself of.

For me, stepping away from campus as I do my fieldwork with families has also given me energy to remember the world outside of graduate school.  My research has invigorated my passion for improving our schools and making education accessible for all people, especially people of color, language minorities, working class families and people living in poverty, immigrants, and other people living at the margins of our society and schools.  My first two years on campus felt like a bubble—a very beautiful campus bubble—but I felt I lost myself a little and going back to the people I want to serve with my work helps me see graduate school as a stepping stone towards the goals I have: to do good research, to be a great professor, and hopefully make a difference.

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