Students sometimes ask me if my Ph.D. was “worth it”—the financial, psychological, and physical sacrifices I made to earn it. For years, I answered honestly with, “It depends on the day.” Over the past year and a half, however, as I have settled in a new place and taken on a new position, I feel lucky to be able to more often offer a confident “yes.” Still, I remain aware of the cost of a dream fulfilled.
I grew up technically below the poverty line, raised by a grandmother who worked as an inspector at a factory and a grandfather who managed properties for a realty company. As for my employment history, I evolved from a pizza maker to a babysitter to a daycare worker to a tutor to a professor, along the way becoming a first-generation college graduate. And so I have come to occupy a blurred space between blue-collar values and white-collar privileges, a space written about by others in works such as Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano and This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class by C.L. Dews. My subject positions produce an abundance of complexities that others have a tendency to oversimplify by either writing me off as privileged or putting me on a pedestal for my journey through hardship. My varied subject positions, then, allow me to feel as though I fit in anywhere—and, yet, nowhere.
Indeed, “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” is a narrative I, and many of us, have lived. But throughout my life, I have spent many days wondering how to afford groceries or come up with the money to repair a vehicle. I have relied on unreliable public transportation and credit cards. I have faced many medical issues, without medical insurance. And I have used pillows to muffle the sobs created from the strains of doing it all alone. My current circumstances cannot erase more than a decade’s worth of student loan debt or cure me of the physical consequences of being overburdened for just as long.
While I love the life I now live, I cannot in good conscience encourage people to take the path I took. It was painful in every way imaginable, and it created, in some ways, a lifetime of detriment, despite my current happiness. I was faced with two options: 1) pursue the degree and suffer both short- and long-term economic, psychological, physical, and social consequences or 2) don’t pursue the degree and forfeit my dreams of having a career. It was a decision I should never have had to make, and that no one else should ever have to make either.
I call for us, then, to be mindful of who and what we praise. For the recipient of our compliments, it can be problematic to receive praise or admiration for a life that one, in some ways, didn’t necessarily choose. Making statements such as “I couldn’t do what you do (or did)” implies that someone else is better suited for hardship and that, therefore, that person should be the one to endure it. While we should celebrate those who overcome challenges, our praise implicitly romanticizes struggle, romanticizes the structural violence and systemic oppression that places people in the position of having to overcome certain challenges to begin with. Regardless of our definition of what it means to be privileged, we must be mindful of oversimplifying others’ life stories with our assumptions. We must recognize that triumph comes in a variety of forms, which does not always include advanced degrees, lucrative careers—or even economic stability, and social support networks. And, finally, we must recognize that stories about overcoming injustices may be inspiring, but the ultimate goal is to make at least some of them unnecessary.