In this inaugural post, I begin with personal reflections on my academic and professional journey to, through, and beyond Princeton University. I wrote this piece nearly two years ago for my then-colleagues as part of an annual staff writing contest. Ignoring the prompt entirely, I used it instead as an opportunity to share my fraught relationship with an institution where, as a first-generation, working-class, woman of color, I had also been a graduate student, a lecturer, and finally an administrator.
At base, it is simply a piece in which I try to make sense of my place in an institution where I spent my 20s and first launched my career. It is about growing up in “higher ed,” about youthful striving in the context of academia and administration, about the elusiveness of “home” and my yearning for community – community that I never quite found, or that the circumstances of academic life made it difficult to hold on to.
Given the sheer scale of the issues that I now address as a higher education diversity consultant, I admit that the text now strikes me as embarrassingly narrow in its concerns. Indeed, my “journey” (such that it is/was) pales in comparison to the quite difficult experiences many students and faculty that I work with at various colleges face every day.
That said, I nevertheless believe it is fitting to launch this site – and to introduce myself to you – with a frank display of my own struggle to resolve the tension between my perpetual outsider-ness and my striving to become an insider. On the eve of my return to California, I’m still “foolish and hopeful enough” to think that I can find Home by making home, for myself and for others, once more and again.
Home: Capital “H”
In college, I used to wonder at the way my roommates would pine for warm meals cooked in a mythical place with seemingly powerful restorative properties (“Home”). It never made sense to me, this constant looking backwards. Unlike them, it seemed, I sought to throw myself forward, ever-forward. I wasn’t so much adventurous as I was stubbornly curious and determined to press onward, upward, always away.
It was that reckless yearning that brought me to Princeton as a graduate student. I was drawn to the pulsing world of the academy and sought a PhD in order to join it. I craved that lurching, soaring, light-headed sensation that came with every sparkling idea, the way my mind seemed to catch fire when I learned something new. It was 2007. I was 22 years old.
Like most graduate students who exile themselves to far-flung corners of the country in pursuit of Knowledge (capital “K”), I wasn’t looking for a home. I had no need for such a thing. I was young and the world opened up before me, awaiting conquest. What arrogance it would be to refuse such a calling.
For most of us, graduate school is a revolving door of faces and friends. If you’re foolish or hopeful, you’ll keep planting seeds in the world’s shallowest soil never really considering how places constructed as sites of intellectual transit rarely make for proper homes. To be fair, many of us know the deal when we sign up for it, this so-called Life of the Mind. That is, we may forge friendships with one another but one day sooner or later those ties will be severed by the miracle of a post-doc, a professorship, or some other professional boon that arrives to ourselves or to those closest to us.
In the humanities, especially, these bonds are made and unmade constantly throughout our graduate careers. For years on end, our peers alight in this or that new town or foreign country to conduct research. We learn not to heed at the time what, much later, we might eventually recognize as the lasting damage that years of voluntary separation have had on our relationships back – somewhere. Not “home,” but almost.
And so I knew the deal. I stayed and I watched as all my closest friends left, predictably, one by one. As they dispersed to far-flung parts of the globe, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before it was my turn, too. And I day-dreamed about what fateful opportunity would serve as my springboard out of “the orange bubble,” to launch me to wherever I was trulydestined to be. I worked and I waited and I worked some more.
Then a job I’d never considered but was perfectly suited for opened up at the University in 2015. It was a brand new position working to create programs for first-generation and low-income students who arrive in this strange place, who imagine they will make it theirhome. I jumped at the opportunity and was selected.
But creeping doubts soon surfaced: what irony that in my new role, my sole responsibility was to create for others what I never managed to make for myself? How could I pretend to have been anything other than an outsider on this campus, a campus that, at times, seemed to expel me like some foreign body from its system? Would it be possible to forget nearly a decade of being refused, and of refusing to belong in turn?
For their sake, I would have to pretend to see what was not there, or what had never been there for me. I forced myself to bring a lightness and a sparkle that I admit I did not always feel in order to make them feel welcomed. Pouring my creative powers into every encounter, I pretended there was a glittering home all around us, nurturing us, nourishing us. Maybe by enforcing the relentlessly uplifting norms of a community I myself had imagined into being, perhaps I could cause the outsider in each of us to dissolve, to make it melt under the dumb grinning glare of white-hot optimism, foolish and foolhardy.
Even after all that, I admit: I’m still an outsider but I’m fighting to see myself, to see my students, to see what I love and care and value every day on this campus as something other than “other.” That fight requires that something inside me shifts. After all, if I don’t see myself as someone who belongs here, how can I possibly pretend that my students do? And they do.
Maybe there hasn’t been a Home for me here. Maybe instead I create Home every day, for others, and in so doing, I’ve come closest to making Princeton Home for me. I’m both foolish and hopeful enough to think that that’s enough for now. Maybe Home is just within reach.