Chapter One: Leaving Home
Once I had finished completing applications in November of 2012, I reserved myself to thinking that I would not be accepted into graduate school. All I had ever heard about Ph.D. programs was how great they were — if you could get in. With less than impressive GRE scores and a general disillusionment with academia, I convinced myself, and at least tried to convince others, that I had only applied to graduate school because everyone thought that I should and because I had nothing better to do. Moving away from Chicago meant leaving my family, friends, colleagues, and mentors at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). It meant leaving the place where I had finally, in my early adulthood, felt a sense of belonging. It was not a choice I was sure I could make willingly. Reluctantly, however, I took the advice of the director of the McNair Scholars program, and applied to several out-of-state programs, anyway.
I had not finished completing my coursework and with a full load of classes, my job as program assistant to the director of African and African American resources at an intercultural center, as well as preparing to present my research at several conferences, I decided that moving away for graduate school was either too distant or too unrealistic to consider seriously; but there I was, in early February of 2013, sitting at the front desk at my job, reading an acceptance of admittance letter from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
My initial reaction was disbelief. I thought I had, somehow, read the email wrong. After quickly rereading it, I forwarded it to both of my mentors. Their reactions confirmed that I had not been mistaken. Mike, a mentor, called immediately:
“Holy Shit! Congratulations, Alexis. This is so exciting. I am so excited for you. How are you feeling?”
I cannot recall my response to Mike. I only remember feeling excited by his excitement. I felt vindicated. The feelings of insecurity about what would happen to me after college subsided in that moment; I now had choices. As we talked about the last few months we had experienced together, his seeing me through the research project for McNair and helping me to figure out the grad school application process, I remembered an exchange we had back in December. We had argued (though he would disagree that it was an argument) about my refusal to retake the GRE examination:
The fall semester was coming to a close. I had taken the GRE a few weeks prior and though I felt like a failure, I also felt a sense of freedom. I had done what my mentors, peers, and McNair had encouraged me to do; I submitted the applications, took the tests, passed my classes. There was an end in sight. I began thinking about what I would do next, after graduation. Mike, a middle-aged white guy, was a proud feminist who devotedly wore his union button to each class he taught.
We met when I took his theory class almost two years earlier. I took a class with him every semester afterward and would debate with him about ideas and theories in and outside of the classroom. The mentorship relationship developed out of a mutual respect and trust. I looked to him to speak with me frankly and honestly. So, when I came to him the week after taking the GRE to express my disappointment, I trusted his initial reaction of, “You really don’t want to join a program that would reject you on the basis of GRE scores, anyway.” A few weeks later, however, he called me into his office,
“I have been giving this a lot of thought. Alexis, I think you should retake the GRE.”
“No,” I replied.
“Look, I think the reason you don’t want to take it again is because you feel humiliated. But I think given what happened[the computer had shut off in the middle of the first essay and I had been made to wait for 30 minutes while the testing staff figured out what happened. Once I returned to the room, the clock was still going on the exam and the staff were unable to reset the exam], if you took it again, you would do a lot better. I know you would.”
“No,” I replied again shaking my head emphatically. “I refuse to put myself through that again. If that means I don’t get into graduate school. So be it. I can not, will not do that again.”
Mike sat silently.
“You said just a few weeks ago that it shouldn’t matter. Now it does?” I said to him.
“It shouldn’t. But I don’t think I would be being a good mentor to you if I didn’t say this to you. So, I’m saying it: I think you should take the GRE again and your refusal to do so, I’m afraid, is indicative of how you will do in graduate school.”
He looked at me. A tear fell down my face. I walked out of his office and went to see the chair of the department, Brett, who I had formed a relationship with through our collaborative work with the Sociology student group. Brett, a white, queer, activist-scholar sitting at his desk, looked up as I walked in without invitation, with Mike following close behind me. I repeated to Brett, Mike’s suggestions to me,
“He says (I pointed in Mike’s direction, who now stood close to the entrance of the office as I sat on a low-sitting couch) he thinks that it is indicative of how I will do in graduate school.”
“No, I said I am afraid that it is indicative of how you will do. That’s not all that I said, either.”
Brett sat and listened as Mike explained his concerns about my refusal to retake the GRE and then, my response to Mike’s concerns.
“We (I was taking a class with him) have a class in two minutes,” Mike stops.
“Is it okay if I chat with Alexis for a few minutes?” Brett asks.
“That’s fine,” Mike says softly as he walks out of the office.
Brett let me cry on his couch and then told me that “No.” would never be a good enough reason to not do something asked of me in graduate school. The GRE was only the beginning. I didn’t retake the GRE and at the time I was sure it solidified my rejection into graduate school. Later, as I moved through my first and then second year of graduate school, I would begin to really understand what Mike and Brett meant.
We (Mike and I) now spoke briefly about what it meant for my academic and professional career to attend an elite grad program. Before exchanging farewells, he reiterated:
“Graduate school is going to be fucking hard but it is exciting. You are going to learn so much in such a short amount of time. The training you will get there will mean you can choose where you want to work. I am so happy for you.”
I placed the cell phone back on top of the desk, looked at my computer monitor, and drifted, for a short while, into a daydream. I thought about all of the black women scholars whose work I had read and loved. I wondered if they felt what I was feeling right then, afraid and lonely. I realize now that my fear stemmed from at least two uncertainties: First, the thought of having to leave friends, colleagues, and mentors that I had come to rely on for support and had used as mirrors through which to see myself. What would happen to me, my sense of self, when I left? Second, the thought of what would happen if I chose to stay. What would my friends, colleagues, and mentors think of me if I decided that graduate school was not for me? Would the scholars who taught me and believed in me think less of me if I stayed? After all, it was through my academic endeavors that these relationships were realized. I decided I couldn’t stay. They expected me to go as far as this opportunity would take me. I couldn’t just walk away now.
Then, there was my mother. We lived together for my last two years of college. We spent that time getting to know each other as women and as human beings. We had developed a system; a routine. I would go to class and she would go to work and we would talk briefly about our day in the evening. I don’t think she ever really knew what I studied. I remember the day I learned how she saw me. It was a long day and I had just arrived home and began talking about an event I had facilitated at my job when she said to me:
“I was telling one of my coworkers about you today. You are going to be somebody important, Alexis. You are an activist. I knew that about you when you was little.”
When discussing her own work, my mom would often talk about the way hours were distributed. The early 2000s brought about significant changes for my mom, youngest sister, and me. My mom was attending community college. She talked often about the classes she was taking and her excitement at working toward becoming a substance abuse counselor. I had moved closer to her and enrolled in a community college close to home, where she both attended and worked. My youngest sister, who had been living with her father, had just moved back with our mother and began attending high school. It was the closest in proximity the three of us had lived to each other in seven years. Our mom looked forward to graduating and talked about changing the course of her life as an example for her children. Reflecting on her decision to go back to school, she once told me,
“Being afraid is a part of life but sometimes we have to do things while we are afraid.”
Circumstance, however, would disrupt her plans. With my sister now living with her in the small studio apartment she rented in Rogers Park, my mom began looking for a bigger place. A few months later, they moved into a two-bedroom apartment just a few blocks away. Soon after, my mom lost her job at the community college. That is how she came to work in retail. With rent past due and renewed custody of her youngest daughter, she hustled for as many hours as she could work each week. There was little time for much else. She didn’t return to college but instead was proud that I decided to attend and encouraged me to continue.
My youngest sister eventually graduated from high school, moved out, and as time went on, there were less and less hours available at work. Living in my own apartment a few blocks away on a meager income, I had little money after paying the rent and electricity. That is how we came to live together but we never really talked about that. I knew that by deciding to attend graduate school in Madison, we would need to finally talk about it. We would need to talk about us both making difficult adjustments. It was then that I realized, my acceptance into graduate school had not only changed my life but hers, as well.
Classmates, cohort members from McNair, mentors, all talked about going away. Whether it was recommending that I go away or expressing their own desire to relocate, one thing was certain; major changes were happening in the lives of many people I knew. Peggy, a middle-aged Mexican-American, community activist, and fellow McNair cohort member, would often tell me to, “Quit your whining and do it!” whenever I expressed my doubt about graduate school. One day after giving me similar advice, I yelled at her outside of the Sociology department,
“Don’t tell me to quit whining. I am telling people that I am tired and no one is listening to me. You don’t know what I am going through…”
“Don’t tell me I don’t know what you are going through! I understand more than you think I do. You think it’s easy for me? I am 50 with a kid I gotta take care of. I’m tired, too but you don’t see me givin’ up.”
We later apologized and celebrated her receiving a fellowship to join the Education Administration Ph.D. program in Iowa. We celebrated again when fellow cohort members and friends were accepted into University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Southern California, and Northwestern.
With Peggy, other close friends, peers, and me receiving acceptance letters to graduate programs, we all prepared to bring a significant part of our lives to a close and I began to feel, more than ever, like I was running out of time. In my late twenties, I still felt like a teenager in many ways. Among my friends, I was the only one who had yet to learn how to drive or swim. I didn’t want to leave Chicago without overcoming those basic fears. So, I dared myself to take risks that I had been either too afraid to take or couldn’t take during my adolescence. I invested part of the stipend I had earned through the McNair program and a student loan and purchased my first car. I later enlisted a friend and a professor of Women’s and Gender studies at NEIU to teach me how to drive. I also decided to learn how to swim. However, as the winter months arrived and I became more focused on completing papers and applications, doubt set in and my car was left to sit parked in front of my mom’s apartment and swimming became a distant thought.
In late April, after coming to terms with leaving home, learning how to drive and (later) buying a swimsuit became priorities again. Eventually, graduation arrived. The summer months raced by and I practiced driving as much as possible and took a swim class twice a week at the university gym. By mid-August, I had learned to float on my back and had parallel parked on my own. On my third try, I passed the driving exam and held an Illinois state driver’s license in my hand. The next day Rinah, my 8 year old tabby, and I were on our way to Wisconsin.
Other than the occasional drive down a residential street and practice in a Costco parking lot, I didn’t have much experience driving. I spent weeks offering to pay people to drive to Madison with me; no one was available. I questioned the community I had once felt so a part of; where were they? I cried as I drove away from everything I had ever known. In the first hour, I resented them, all of them, for leaving me to do this by myself. By the second hour of driving, I was deep in farmland and memories of those last few months in Chicago came to me. I cried at the thought of some of them and laughed out loud at the thought of others.
I am not sure when it happened, but at some point, I held more confidently to the steering wheel and I stopped feeling so alone. I thought about my friends and family, all the people who cried, laughed, and celebrated with me. I thought of my friends who had confided in me that they too, were afraid. For the first time since applying to graduate school, I realized that I had been preparing to leave long before the acceptance letter arrived. I realized that this was the process; this was the process of moving to a new place, of leaving one’s community in search of a new one.
For my mom and sister
For NEIU Sociology and the friends I made there
For NEIU McNair Scholars Program, Cohort 10
For the Women of Project NIA
For the love of my communities.