After my article, "How Assimilation Helped Me Find My Latina Identity" was published in A Woman's Thing, I received a lot of comments from people saying they could relate to my story of trying to navigate a line between whatever being an American means and being true to your roots, as a first generation U.S. citizen. I was happy that people could connect to this story because it is a common one among Latinx. But what I didn't anticipate was for my non-Latinx friends to see and read my story and get so emotional about my "struggle." It took me aback simply because writing it was done with more objectivity than emotion. I look back at my youth analytically, piecing together a complex puzzle so that I can move forward with more clarity. And while I appreciate all the love and support I've received after it was published, I hope the takeaway was deeper than, "poor Karen." No pity needed here, just an understanding of one of many Latinx narratives that color our perspectives. But since the story connected with so many, I wanted to zero in on and expand on an important part of it which forced the timeline of my education, controlled where and when I would go to school and how I thought about pursuing a higher education. I hope that through my honesty, we can begin to understand one aspect facing people of color who have found themselves struggling to succeed with no help up.
My parents emigrated to the United States in the early 80s. They came with little to nothing, knowing no English, but soon finding middle class success. My dad became a real estate agent and my mom a hairdresser (even owning two of her own salons). Because of their parental desire to give their children better opportunities than they had, they did a good job of shielding me from many responsibilities. I was allowed to be young and naive and that lasted until my third year at the University of Maryland.
In 2008, I began the spring semester of my junior year. That same year, the economic crash hit and to make a long story short, I had to leave school and begin working full time. For the first time in my life, I truly noticed my parent's sacrifice in a way I had never truly noticed or appreciated before. I had no idea, prior to 2008, how important money could be until I didn't have it. Not that we had an abundance of it before, but like I said, my parents didn't want me to worry about these things and so without question, I didn't.
Now, much can be said about my ignorance and yes, I was ignorant and so incredibly naive. I make no excuses and have no regrets about that time in my life because I learned so many important lessons. But what truly hurt me was the realization that I had ignored the sacrifices they'd made for the success a college degree could bring their child. My parents wanted me to have the privilege of not having to think about money and I felt bad for having overlooked so much just to try to fit in with everyone else. For the first time, I took the blind fold off and saw the work behind what I was given.
After dropping out of school I began working full time and was absolutely certain that I wouldn't go back. When I was at UMD I really didn't know what I was doing. I went in as a government and politics major and switched to studio art soon after, and was still just as lost about what I was supposed to be doing. Perhaps college just wasn't for me. Throughout the next few years it would linger in my mind and I would look up information, see what I needed to graduate, what other options might be available. Since I had taken so many art classes I figured maybe I could at least get something out of it and get my associate's degree at my nearby community college instead. So I took a few classes at the community college, including my first art history class.
I have always loved art but something about the way the professor taught the class just hooked me to its history. It was in this class that I decided I had to go back to UMD to finish my bachelor's degree but this time in art history. So at the end of the semester I spoke to the professor hoping to receive advice and guidance, expressing my worries about juggling full time school and work, explaining a little bit about my situation and waiting for her response as she sat quietly for a moment to think. Then, after a short moment, I remember her calm but confident tone, explicitly telling me that I shouldn't do it.
This was not the answer I expected at all. She was a professor, wasn't she supposed to encourage her students to continue their education? She didn't mince words when she said it would be tough and with all I have going on, I wouldn't be able to do it. I felt myself get hot and suddenly I had no words to debate the issue so I just said okay and left. I expected to be told it would be hard to balance, I expected to hear that it might take me longer to complete. But I did not expect someone, a professor no less, to look me straight in the eyes and tell me that it was something I should not do because I won't be able to do it. Maybe she said it because she expects little of her community college students, maybe she said it because I am Latina. Maybe she was just trying to be realistic because after all, I constantly hear people say that it is hard to go back to college once you've dropped out (although wasn't I already back?). I don't know why she said what she said but I left that day feeling deflated.
I received my associate's degree in studio art and soon after, despite her advice, was re-admitted to the University of Maryland to complete my bachelor's degree in art history. There I met some of the most wonderful and supportive professors who guided me throughout my only year there. I owe so much to one professor in particular whose guidance I will forever be grateful for. She got to know me personally and understood what I was after. Despite all the obstacles I'd have to get through, she encouraged my ambitions and guided me when I had so many questions about what path to take. In fact, I would have never applied to GWU's museum studies program had she not recommended it.
But that first art history professor was right about one thing. Going back to school was difficult because this time I was juggling more, living almost an hour away from campus, and taking a university bus to save money on gas and parking. And although I loved every art history class I took, what I would do after was still a grey blur of questions and confusion. But as difficult as it was to navigate, I was proud of myself because this time I was doing it with more clarity and purpose than when I first entered UMD's campus years before.
I am thankful for the first three years at UMD my parents gave me because they would be the last where I would be care free without a real worry on my mind. I am blessed to have parents who gave me the opportunity to experience college this way but I am also thankful that I was jolted out of the perceived privilege I was living in because it opened up my eyes that I'm not like all the other students. I never quite fit into any of the college archetypes and I only ever pretended I knew what I was doing because it made things temporarily easy, on the surface anyways. The reality is, the university setting I was stepping into was one neither me nor my family were familiar with, and the career I would later pursue was a complete mystery to me. No one ever told me networking was a thing, no one ever taught me how to take advantage of college for more than just the classes, and museums as a place to work was definitely not an option I knew to explore. Despite trying to blend in my first three years, there was no other thing for me to do than flounder because there was just so much information I didn't know I didn't have.
I had found one anchor in the UMD professor mentioned, who helped steady me as I prepared for what might be next post-graduation. During the time that I met her, a lot of things pieced itself together in my mind and growing self-awareness. There are many kinds of support and each one of them is important in molding a person's life and career. Communities of color often lack one or many of the kinds of support needed to venture into careers such as those found in the museum field and because of that we are at a disadvantage. TL;DR everything above? Then the take away should be this: Communities of color need more than just collegiate financial support, they need the privilege of information and guidance from those who understand how to navigate college, what a degree can do, or explaining different careers available. Sure, the economic crash may have hit my interests harder than others but what tripped me up more was being in a space as a pre-requisite to success but not understanding much else about it. Communities of color need to be able to make informed decisions for themselves to do more than just exist in college but make the most out of those years there.
Communities of color also don't need people like the professor at the community college to disparage the potential of its' students no matter what their background, good student or bad. Had I met her coming out of high school, aged 18, who knows, I might have listened to her because my sense of self-worth wasn't as strong and unshakeable as it is now. Who knows if she's already had that effect on a young student before or after me. Who she encountered was already a little bit older, wiser, and not listening to her shit (even though it upset me right after for a moment). Communities of color need professors like one I encountered later at UMD, who was more than happy to not just talk about her class but to expand on everything else and take the time to explain the choices. By that point I had done my own research but still had so many questions about my questions that Google wouldn't be able to answer and for that, she was available. In this way, I was able to continue building my own path and move forward.
I hope that Latinx students nowadays are more strong-willed and determined to craft their careers with more information at hand than when I was 18 all those years ago. But for those who have fallen backwards into a college environment with no clue what to do, I hope there is that professor, that advisor, someone who can help you take that first step in figuring it out. At the very least, I hope anyone in that situation reading this can feel comfort knowing they aren't the only one.
I graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor's degree in art history in the spring of 2013, almost six years after having dropped out. It took me a little while longer to gain the confidence to apply for graduate school but I did and graduated George Washington University with a master's in museum studies in the spring of 2016. It was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and often I questioned whether I was making the right decisions. It is all still a struggle but looking back I know it was a beautiful one I don't regret. Sure, the path could have been a lot smoother had I been better informed and more prepared but I hope what I've learned can now serve younger Latinxs to find an easier path to their own success.
And to the professor who told me that I definitely shouldn't get a degree in art history? I got a degree in art history and work in an art museum so bye. ✻