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Tension By Choice: Reflecting on Code-Switching and Living Two Lives

Do you ever return home and sense that you are vastly different from the person your hometown friends and family know you to be?

I couldn’t stop thinking about this phenomenon during my commute to Midtown Manhattan and then back to the Bronx over the weekend, when I attended the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual conference in New York City. More than 15,000 educational scholars from all over the world convene at this conference to share their research and network with colleagues.

As a New York City native currently living in Philadelphia, I was relieved that the conference was close by. It was a lot more affordable given that I was able to stay at home with my family in the Bronx and commute daily to conference activities.

However, during the 40-minute commute, I am reminded of the “double life” I constantly feel like I am living.

As I enter the graffiti-stricken subway station in the Bronx, I encounter  a group of teenagers arguing over the tension between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. I look at the billboards on the train cart and see that it is filled with advertisements of for-profit colleges in New York City. As the train travels further downtown, the occupants of the cart change drastically, and I am one of very few persons of color on the train.

“Why do these kids care so much about this celebrity gossip?” I thought. “I wonder how effective these ads are given that many low-income students enroll and never earn a post-secondary credential at these places.” As if I wasn’t a naive teenager, consumed with celebrity gossip and thinking that these schools were a good option for me. I begin to feel hypocritical as I find myself reading posts from Instragram accounts like @theshaderoom about the same celebrity drama that these kids are consumed by.

As I walk through Times Square to one of the many conference hotels, the imposter syndrome starts to kick in. I need to turn my “scholar self” on. As I mentally prepare for the roundtable I am a part of, I begin feeling my stomach drop for the session. Although confident about the material I am about to present, I begin to worry I might be asked a question I cannot answer. Will I be taken seriously?

I encounter one of my friends and mentor, Dr. Andrés Castro Samayoa. Immediately, I feel relieved. He is one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know and he has such a calming nature when he speaks. I realize that even if I mess up or cannot answer a question, I will be with supportive colleagues who lead by example.

As we make our way to our presentation, we catch up on our lives — mostly talking about my time at Penn and what I am working on. As I tell him about all the projects I am working on, I notice that I am at ease as I explain to him what I study. Why can’t I speak about the work that I do as easily with family?

On my way back home to the Bronx from the roundtable, I think about how I code-switch. I begin to realize that I am more concerned about my friends and family not caring about the work I do or, more than them not understanding, not seeing it as grandiose as they might believe it to be.

Later that evening, my stepfather asks what I am teaching this summer. Instead of saying “I am teaching administration of student life, a course for students interested in learning foundational skills for student affairs practice,” I say, “A class for students interested in working in a college” and immediately change the subject.

I could have gone on to talk about the class and given him more of an understanding of what student affairs is and the types of activities I have planned so that he could understand it better, but I am purposely general to avoid further conversation.

What I realize  is that the tension I experience between the “two lives” I am living is rooted in apprehension that what I study is less valuable than the thought of me pursuing a doctoral degree at an elite institution like Penn. Although I recognize that many first-generation students experience code-switching and feeling out of place when visiting home after having gone to college, the tension I feel now is a choice I am making.

Until I become more comfortable speaking freely about what I study to my family and friends, I will continue to feel this way. I recognize that engaging in these conversations with my family and friends will help alleviate this tension that I feel, and will help me articulate my work in more accessible ways.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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