Updated: Jun 18, 2019
A friend and fellow University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) alum Tim Alexander said it best:
“We don’t need it to be easy. It just needs it to be possible."
One thing that I’ve learned, is that life is not easy. Overcoming is not easy. Resisting is not easy. Loving is not easy. And yet, they are all possible.
While some people on social media see a newly turned 26 year- old black woman in a Ph.D. program, traveling the country; they don’t see what it took to get there. They see confidence and passion in my eyes in The Food Truck Scholar videos, but they don’t see all the years I hated myself. They didn’t see how insecure I was in elementary, middle, high school and college. They didn’t see how much I wanted to be “normal”, to look, dress, talk and act like my peers. I tried it, but it never was a fit. I felt awkward.
I spent all my life being singled out, feeling rejected and at times unappreciated. To me then - being different was a curse. For years, I tried to “cure” myself. I played down my strengths, ignore my interests and fake interest in what was popular. Bend and renegotiated my beliefs and values for likes, shares, and inclusion. And, for a while, I got just that. Until the rubber finally hit the road. If no one else is going to die my death, why have I allowed so many others to live my life? Why have I navigated my life seeking another’s approval before I make a move? Before I believe I’m beautiful? Before I think something needs to be said or done?
I remember the first time; I came to this realization. I had just graduated college and was finishing up a year with AmeriCorps VISTA. All my plans had fallen through. I was feeling like a public success, but a private failure. Here I was, magna cum laude honors college, a person who just gave a commencement address about pursuing your passion and I had not one inkling of my own next steps. Frantic, I started to settle. I looked for jobs that I wasn’t ecstatic about but were jobs I knew I could do. Maybe you’ve been there too; applying for a job that you were qualified for on paper, but not one that put a twinkle in your eye. Just one you “could” do.
I applied for an undergraduate admissions counselor position for several reasons. One, I knew I was qualified (if not overqualified). Two, it was in my hometown and within walking distance from my apartment. (I didn’t have a car or a license at that moment. Poverty and generalized anxiety disorder are real). Three, I could get a Master’s while working there (even though it wasn’t the career path I wanted) and it would take three and a half years to complete full time. Lastly, I would have friends and family to be there. It was a comfortable and safe option.
At the same time, as I’m applying for this undergraduate admission counselor position, I see an ad for a Master in Education Program at Vanderbilt on Instagram. It was for one year and covered all the topics I was interested in like race, gender, economics, gentrification and so much more! I didn’t know anyone except one friend who had recently moved to the area. I had no idea if I would be accepted or how I would finance my education and the move to Nashville. Still, it was something about the program itself that excited me. I talked to the program director and knew that this was it for me. Suddenly, I found myself less excited about the position I knew I could do and more excited about this potential opportunity. By early February 2016, I found myself in the second round of the interviews with UAB and finishing up my Vanderbilt application. I was running through my head what I would do if I got both? What would I choose? Taking the job at my alma mater seemed the most logical, but going to Vanderbilt seemed to be what ignited a flame in me. I decided to ask friends about their opinions on the situation. I was disappointed when they leaned towards taking the job because the latter seemed too uncertain and impractical.
At that moment, with everything in me, I just didn’t agree. Normally, I would be all about practicality, but something told me that if I took that route, I would be settling. When I expressed my thoughts to my friends they became offended, choosing to distance themselves from me: rain checking on plans and ignoring my texts. That lesson while painful was a necessary lesson. I learned that it’s one thing to seek wisdom, but you should never look for validation and affirmation in others. Which was exactly what I was doing with my friends and mentors. I had given them the power they never were supposed to have. The isolation proved to be a blessing. February 4th, I learned I didn’t get the job. Fourteen days later, I was accepted into the program at Vanderbilt with a partial scholarship and work-study. It was official; I was leaving Birmingham, AL.
Without my closest friends around, I ate out less and started saving for the move. I picked up another job on top of the two I already had, sometimes only making $ 25-night parking cars. It was rough, earlier that year I filed for bankruptcy. So, looking for an apartment to rent was impossible, many places were hesitant to rent to me. Current students looking for roommates would go ghost when they saw that I was Black. I had no car, so it was hard looking for places to stay. I needed something close to campus or on a bus line. Of course, places with those amenities were out of my minuscule budget. On top of that, I broke my elbow one month before moving. During that season of my life, nothing was easy. While social media celebrated my Vanderbilt acceptance. I was doing clinical trials and youth day speeches at a mentor’s church just to pay the $250 enrollment deposit. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible. The lease for my place in Birmingham ended on July 31st, I didn't find roommates until July 14th but still could move to Nashville on July 30th.
The apartment was on a bus line and was a 39-minute walk to campus if it came down to it. (Which I had to do a couple of times in 95-degree weather.) It wasn’t easy, but possible. Four days before I moved in, despite anxiety and failing the first try the day before, a friend took me to get my driver’s license. It wasn’t easy, but I finally knew it was possible. Even when I arrived in Nashville, the challenges continued. I had no furniture, not even a futon bed to sleep on.
An alumna of the program heard I had just moved and came to see me. In tears, I told her how stupid I felt moving there with no idea how it would all come together. She told me, she went through the same thing when she came here. It wasn’t easy, but it worked out for her and the same would happen for me. She drove me around the city, looking for futon beds and cheap dressers for my clothes. No luck. Finally, as she’s about to drop me off, she points to a brown futon bed propped up in the front lawn of an apartment complex with a sign that read “FREE!”
We quickly scrambled to get it. I cleaned it, bought a little memory foam mattress from Walmart, threw a black comforter on top and that was my bed for the whole year. I ended up working multiple jobs to make it. There were days where I was depressed, stressed, frustrated, aggravated and felt like nobody else was going through all I was going through in my program, but I kept pushing. Going backward was not an option.
People thought I was crazy when I said I was applying for Ph.D. programs when I had just got to Vanderbilt, but I knew where I was just a stepping stone. I loved the program, but it still wasn’t a fit. I wasn’t at home yet. My department chair didn’t think I would get accepted or have funding. New friends in Nashville questioned if my GRE score was enough. But my program advisor made one thing clear to me: “Don’t ever let someone tell you what you can’t do. Go for what you want.” And I did.
I got into Purdue University, American Studies program with 5 years of full funding. Now, I’m researching a topic that truly makes me come alive and I’m closer than I’ve ever been to figuring out my purpose. I’ve grown confidence in myself, my intellect, my resolve, my appearance, and my dreams. Do I have some moments where I waver? Yes. I didn't write this as someone who says “It wasn’t easy, but it was possible because I have MADE it.” I write this to say:
“It wasn’t easy. It isn’t easy. It won’t be easy. But, it was possible then, it’s possible now. I WILL make it”. And guess what? So, will you.