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Am I Too Diverse for Academia?

When I turned 7 years old, my friends found it rather strange that my family cooked a pig underground for my backyard birthday party. In high school, my friends were shocked to learn that only one of my parents had a high school diploma. And, in college, I had to explain to friends that it was an endearing greeting when my relatives closely sniffed their cheeks.

Growing up with parents who immigrated to the United States had its unusual moments compared to my surrounding peers, but I never felt disadvantaged. All I knew was that my parents worked really hard to pay for all that we had, including my education, so I owed it to them not to waste any opportunities. That’s why, when my college advisor recommended I apply for McNair, a predoctoral program for first-generation students of color like me, I said “yes” to pursuing graduate school before even knowing what it was.

Doctorate of Philosophy. The name didn’t sound all that exciting, but research intrigued me. The research opportunities in McNair were challenging, but overwhelmingly wonderful. I was surrounded by people like me – colorful, first-generation researchers striving to navigate and succeed in academia. I felt invigorated.

That changed when I started graduate school. Many of the people around me weren’t like me anymore – fewer skin shades, more prior academic and professional experiences, and a long line of postsecondary degrees filled their family timelines. I quickly changed from openly embracing my diversity to feeling embarrassingly too diverse. Could it be that I was too diverse for academia? I began questioning when the university would realize I didn’t belong there. Will they know based on all the questions I ask? Do they already suspect it based on my classwork? “It’s just Imposter Syndrome. Fake it till you make it,” friends would say. But, how do you fake belonging to a world you know near-to-nothing about?

Dr. Melissa N. CallaghanDr. Melissa N. Callaghan

I persisted. Not by faking it, but by “confessing” to things I found challenging and by asking countless questions. While I still felt somewhat like an outlier, I realized peers and faculty shared more similar experiences than expected. Those five years of graduate school flew by and, before I knew it, I was filling out a job application for a postdoctoral position at Harvard University. Even saying it out loud made me chuckle. Work at one of the most elite universities in the world? Feeling too diverse for academia would escalate to a whole new level! I only told my graduate school advisor and my husband that I applied. My logic: the fewer people I tell, the fewer people I’ll have to admit to about not getting the job.

The day I received my interview invitation, I cried. A month after graduation, I was on a plane across the country to begin my postdoctoral position at Harvard University. Its historical significance was clearly reflected in the old red brick buildings and white column entryways. Every movie, published writing, and person told me incredibly smart people attend and work at Harvard. And there I stood at the front steps of my building, intimidated, with little idea of what was to come or how to prepare for it.

I was one of a handful of ethnic minority individuals on our 50-person team. I felt like the second darkest-skinned person in most meetings and the only first-generation college graduate to my knowledge. I felt the need to prove myself, to show those around me that I deserved to be working alongside them. So, I took on challenge after challenge. As I worked, I regularly noticed issues of diversity and wondered what my colleagues perceived. Did they notice the gap between themselves and the low-socioeconomic status populations they were striving to assist? Did they notice the distance between my upbringing and theirs? Oh dear, there was that feeling again: too diverse.

But, I had to be brave. If not for myself, then for those like me who didn’t have the same opportunities. If not for them, then for my coworkers who may not realize what it is like to feel too diverse. So, I shared my story. It was nerve-wracking to open up, but I felt it was important to casually insert snippets of my background into conversations. Too much build-up could create a one-sided conversation. Keeping it casual opened the conversation for others to share their stories too. And, when they did, I found myself surprised by what they had to say. This exchange opened possibilities for understanding one another. It didn’t define us, but instead painted our complex pictures. Do we share our stories within the academic community often enough?

There is great value in sharing where we come from and what makes us diverse, whether you’re Black, Brown, or White, the first college-graduate in your family, or the fifth. We need to know each other’s stories to learn from, value, and respect one another. If we hide our stories because we feel underprivileged or over-privileged, we limit the growth and progress we can make together. Through openness, we can help surface reasons behind differing perspectives, create a comfortable setting for others to ask questions and share ideas, and form equal partnerships for everyone to be and feel involved. It starts with sharing a story. What’s yours?

Dr. Melissa N. Callaghan is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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