Problems of Place: Paths to Transition

Transitions are a part of life. We transition from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, and so on. As I enter the beginnings of my most recent transition—from postdoctoral scholar to tenure-track Assistant Professor—I’d like to pause and reflect upon how I got here.

In 2005, I started my bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh in engineering, specifically aerospace engineering. I’d always had a love affair with the idea of space, as well as physics, astronomy, and elementary functions. However, moving to Pennsylvania from Pullman, Washington was quite the challenge—socially as well as academically. I floundered academically in a way that I had never floundered before.

In my first semester, I was talked into taking chemistry, biology, and calculus. simultaneously. Though I had an aptitude for physics and astronomy, biology and chemistry were not in my wheel house. Taking these classes, failing these classes, made me feel as though I was a failure, that STEM was not the place for me to be successful. I struggled with how to communicate my feelings of inadequacy not only to myself, but also to my family whose expectations of me had always been high—or at least that’s what I imagined. So after a poor academic first year, I sat with myself and reflected upon what I actually wanted, what I felt compelled to pursue. 

After a lot of reflection, I made a decision that dramatically altered my academic trajectory. I decided to transfer from the University of Pittsburgh, and forgo the pursuit of aerospace engineering. So, in 2007, I chose the University of Northern Colorado for three main reasons: 1) I wanted to be closer to my dad and younger sister (my dad had a kidney/pancreas transplant the year I decided to transfer); 2) they had an Africana Studies major; and 3) they had a McNair Scholar’s Program. When I decided to leave aerospace engineering behind, I had to ask myself what truly interested me–not what field of study would make my family happy. In the end, what I wanted was an interdisciplinary approach to the study of race, and I found that in Africana Studies. Furthermore, I found the McNair Scholar’s Program. 

The McNair Scholars Program is a federal TRIO program designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through research and other scholarly activities. McNair Scholars are either first-generation college students with financial need, or members of a group that are traditionally underrepresented in graduate education yet have strong academic potential.

For me, this program represented both a second chance and a purpose: to prove to myself (and others) that I was still capable of academic success (whatever that means). As a McNair Scholar, I examined topics that I had been passionate about since childhood—race in general, and issues of colorism in particular. I got a chance to present at a national conference (The National Association of Ethnic Studies) and also won an undergraduate research award (The Cortland Auser Undergraduate Student Paper Award). During the course of working on my McNair research, I stumbled into another transition—from Africana Studies to Sociology.

Many of the women whose research drove my scholarship earned their PhDs in Sociology, which led me to consider if the questions that interested me were indeed sociological. With a little prompting from my mentors at the time, and a deep dive into sociology graduate programs, I made up my mind that the world of sociology could be another location or place in which I could thrive. So, with the support of the McNair Scholars Program, the Africana Studies Program, and my cadre of mentors, I applied to graduate programs in sociology.

I had two years of undergraduate research and two sociology classes (Intro and the Sociology of Emotions) under my belt when I walked into the PhD program in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010. Texas presented yet another transition—and a challenge. I’m the first person on both sides of my family (save an aunt by marriage on my mother’s side) to pursue a PhD in any field. It was, and still is, daunting. Yet I went into the program with an open mind, and an open heart. I felt overwhelmed by my lack of knowledge of things sociological, as well as the entire graduate school process. McNair trained me well, but even that couldn’t prepare me for all that I would face.

In the course of my graduate study, I lost two grandparents (natural causes), a godfather (suicide), a sister-cousin (suicide), survived an attempted sexual assault, took classes, wrote articles, battled depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, tried my best to eat and sleep… Graduate school often felt like a black hole—one that I would never be able to transition out of. But I had a village, both familial and chosen. My village supported me when I couldn’t see the hand in front of my face—let alone the light at the end of the PhD tunnel.

Yet, in 2018, on the heels of losing my 13-year-old sister-cousin, I found myself on the academic job market while finishing my dissertation. I was grieving, something that I had done over the course of my academic journey but not over the loss of someone so young, someone who always made me see the best in myself—especially when it was hard. I was hanging on by a thread—thin and worn. Yet, that thread got me through two campus visits, one phone, and one Skype interview. In the end, I found myself accepting a Presidential Pathways Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship at Virginia Tech University.

Since becoming a McNair Scholar in 2008, my goal had been to earn a PhD and transition into the world of academia. Along the way that seemed like an impossibility—a pipe dream. Yet here I am, one year removed from my postdoc, about to begin week four of my journey as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech University.  The transitions that I have undergone in the past 11ish years have been significant. Each one taking me to a place I never thought I would—or could—go. I am grateful for each one. I am grateful that I have found my place, among this home of scholars at Virginia Tech University in a department that supports me in ways I didn’t truly know was possible until I was living in it. Transitions are a part of life, and though they have not always been easy for me, I am grateful for everyone.