Graduating Eyes Wide Open: Owning Who You Are and Your Achievements
By Dr. Mel Melendrez-Vallard
Instructor of Biology
Anoka Ramsey Community College
May 18, 2022
There were about 20 people in attendance at my PhD dissertation defense; peers, professors, and of course my committee. The presentation went well, I even made the room laugh. To this day I cannot remember what I must’ve said but I do remember eliciting a collective laugh from the audience and I took that as a good sign. Following the presentation came the “defense” where I, a 29-year-old candidate, was put in a room with five PhD level scientists and proceeded to “hold my own” during a committee-to-candidate question and answer session while going through the contents of my 281-page dissertation. As far as rites of passage go, it’s quite traumatic. After a rather charged session, they released me into the hallway while they deliberated if my seven years of efforts and productivity, despite my deficiencies, merited awarding the title of doctor of philosophy in my field (ecology and environmental science, microbiology focus). I walked out, straight to the bathroom and threw up.
Let’s back up. It’s been 21 years since my undergraduate experience. Neither of my parents attended a four-year college. I was the first child in my family to attend college and graduate, I’d double majored in biology and Spanish. I figured if I failed at biology, I could go be a translator or Spanish teacher. Like many first-generation students I had no clue how to navigate my collegiate experience. I almost gave up and went home after my first semester, because after holding a full schedule of classes and working 30 hrs/week to pay for school I had only earned a 2.7 GPA. In high school I had graduated as one of six valedictorians, so you can imagine the blow this low GPA gave to me. I envisioned my parents' disappointment, the mantra of “an education is your only way up, out of your circumstances toward success, prosperity, and prestige.” There were no support mechanisms in place, or that I was aware of, in college for students like me; first-generation, low socioeconomic status (hence having to work), biracial woman in STEM. College felt very “sink or swim”. So, I did not thrive in college, but I did survive. At graduation, I went through the motions, I made my parents proud, but I felt dead inside. Less than a year after graduation, I burnt out, had a mental breakdown and went home.
Two years later, I entered my PhD program at Montana State University. I loved the state, the people, the classes, my peers and my professors were so knowledgeable and generally cool individuals that you could catch a beer with after hours of running experiments in the lab. I hiked, ran, joined a cycling team, processed thousands of samples, ran hundreds of assays and got to spend days in the field collecting samples in Yellowstone National Park. I got to study the complexity of cyanobacterial niche differentiation on a genetic level and how that contributes to the ongoing debate of what species are microbiology. OK, maybe not that riveting for you, but I loved it. I was being paid to get my education so there was less stress with having to support myself in my educational endeavors. Over the next several years (seven to be precise) I was alternately elated with what I did, where I was, and who I was becoming and incredibly frustrated feeling like I was good, but not “good enough.” Why did I think that? Comments, passing, well-intentioned comments. “I’m impressed with how far you’ve come given your disadvantaged background.” “I know you’ll succeed in science, not because you are particularly smart, but you have so much energy and you persevere.” Why do compliments have to be “qualified,” backhanded? Why can’t they just be compliments? Instead, I got the message that I'm good… “considering who I am.” Over the years, the frustration chips away at you, feeling like you should say something, but petrified if you do, you’ll lose one of the best opportunities you have had to date. Feeling utterly powerless, not knowing if you have rights, not wanting to anger anyone, wanting to be a team player, wanting to fit in, wanting to assimilate… be all-American apple pie… brown apple pie but apple pie, nonetheless.
It wasn’t until later in my PhD process that I found my first female mentor in my educational career. She didn’t teach at my school and yet I bothered her nonetheless and she supported me seamlessly and never made me feel like an annoyance. Up until my first bona fide job I’d never really encountered educators or scientists like me; how different my experience might have been if I had been able to find that relationship earlier on? However, one thing all of my mentors and advisors in graduate school and post-grad school, all older, white, prosperous men, had in common was privilege; and the one thing they were all willing to do for me, was risk it. As someone who clawed her way into privilege, I can see how difficult it would be to risk something as precious as privilege or perhaps it’s easier to risk if you are born into it? Nevertheless, they did it without a second thought. They fiercely (surprisingly sometimes) defended me and my work. During my postdoc, they encouraged me to speak my truth while staying in the background to ensure I was not trampled. I also gained more female mentors and I developed professionally. They tasked me with never apologizing for who I was, but rather to own myself, proudly.
In case you were still wondering, I did pass my PhD defense, but I didn’t walk in my graduation ceremony. I had to fly shortly after defending my dissertation to my post-doctoral fellowship and, honestly, I had no drive to walk. Just like in college, I knew I had accomplished something big and yet I just felt tired inside. Reflecting 12 years later it took me a long time to realize, I don’t have to force myself to be apple pie, I can be me, and that’s enough. I’m enough. Graduating college while working part- to full-time is remarkable. Earning your degree, whatever degree it might be, is remarkable. It took me a long time to appreciate myself, believe in myself, and know I deserved the degree I had worked so long to achieve. When my dissertation was published in the archives, it had a dedication page with a quote from one of my favorite books:
Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist.
God is hard to believe, ask any believer.
What is your problem with hard to believe?
~Yann Martel, Life of Pi