Tuesday, November 29, 2005
No One Can Take That Away From You: Another Personal Story
Here we go again with another personal story. This story profiles my friend Alisse. I knew from the beginning that there was something very similar in our backgrounds and to some extent in our personalities. I met Alisse many, many years ago when we were both in school. We were both so shy and vulnerable then. I know, hard to believe. Since then, it seems we've had a number of similar life experiences. One thing I really admire about Alisse is that she can be comfortable in almost any group of people. It sounds simple, but it's not. The socio-economic, race, gender, academic, global environment doesn't matter. I have met only a few people who have that gift. I suppose it's because she's been pushed so far out of her own 'normal,' that those things have lost their meaning. She also has this quiet strength that several other friends have noticed and admired too. Here is her story.
My mom grew up on a farm in Clarksville, Mississippi. She is the second of six children. My mother’s older sister introduced her to my father, who is also from a small rural town in Mississippi. My mother left the farm when she got married at 17, but didn’t have kids until she was 20. During that year, both of my parents moved to Syracuse, New York. Neither of them had family there. They just moved to have a better opportunity. Eventually, all of my mother’s brothers and sisters moved to Syracuse.
My twin sister Anita and I are the youngest of seven children. The next oldest sibling is three years older. Our two other sisters had kids by the time they were 19. My brothers were all over 25 when they had their kids. We were a surprise. My parents divorced when Anita and I were born. The divorce didn’t affect us. You don’t miss what you never had. The divorce had a bigger affect on my brothers. My mother was working, and was always gone. My dad came back 4 or 5 times a year. My mother worked all day and came home and went to school at night. She knew she had to pay bills. She got up even though she didn’t feel like it, because there were other people depending on her. There are other people who say, “I don’t think I will go to work today,” or “I’ll just spent this money on education, but I think I’ll flunk out.” I think, “You have got to be kidding!” When things are given to you, you can have this lazy mentality. My mother had to get up and had to keep going. During the day she was key punching and tried to go to school part-time at night. I remember her always taking classes when I was a kid. When my mother was around, she was tired as heck. She would work until 3:00pm. Then, she would go to school. From about 4:00pm until 8:00pm, she took classes. I don’t think she finished her Associate’s degree.
We were raised on public television: Dr. Who, Mr. Rogers, Evan Seven, 3-2-1 Contact, Nova. I liked to read a lot. My brother went to the army when Anita and I were 7. He would ship us books. RIF also came to our school every year. I remember being in the 2nd grade reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In 4th grade I remember reading Cricket in Time Square.
We had great teachers in Syracuse, New York. If they thought we were good at something, they would steer us in the right direction. One teacher in high school was Mrs. Valerio. She had known Anita and me from 9th grade on. We were ‘the twins.’ We didn’t know anything about the honors society. It’s not like our mother told us about it. She sought us out and made sure we were involved in the honors society and things like that. Mr. Myers was our English teacher. His description of Crime and Punishment made me want to read it. He assigned college level books in class. He didn’t have us read the whole thing, just parts. Mrs. Kirkland suggested that I read Nikki Giovanni’s book about her life. One teacher pushed us to take Algebra in 8th grade. Most students took algebra in 9th. In our senior year, we were able to take the Calculus pre-qualifying exam to place out of Calculus in college. We both had high enough scores to place out of college level Calculus.
I had a brother who went to Rochester Institute of Technology, and we started talking to him about college. He said to us, “If you like math, you can do this. If you like chemistry, you can do this.”
Anita and I ended up getting scholarships at a small, Jesuit college in upstate, New York. It was a small school of about 1200 students full-time. We left there owing about $2000. I enrolled in one of their 3-2 programs. You spend the first 3 years studying physics and last two studying engineering. After three years, I decided to just get the physics degree in 4 years. Anita and I worked through undergrad. I had a summer job from 14 until I finished graduate school. We were in upstate New York. A lot of people had never ever actually seen a black person – only on television. It was a white world for them. It didn’t affect me as much as I realized other people were affected by me. They would look at you weird when they met you. I would wonder what the problem was. You can get passed people trying to hinder you because of that though.
I wasn’t going to go to graduate school. I decided to work in a national lab. My sister was applying to graduate school at the University of Maryland. She kept trying to get me to apply. She finished up my application for me. I ended up going to her interview with her. I really liked the campus. I looked at the programs. I thought, “Why am I trying to get into a national lab when I could stay in school?” I ended up talking to the acting chairman of one of the engineering schools for an hour and a half. We hit it off. After talking with me, he wanted to give me a try.
Once I started graduate school, I think I was dealing with a lot of things at once. The school was a large research institution. The [engineering] courses were very different [from physics courses]. The class sizes were very different. In college, I had a nuclear physics class where I was the only student. Here, there were students from all over the world. One professor in graduate school gave unlimited hour tests. They were open book tests. He would test your understanding of the material. For his first exam, I sat there for six hours. During the second exam I was there for four hours.
When you are going through a graduate program like that, you are no longer number one. You are competing with students from all over the world, students who have done the best in their schools. You start to learn that you are very small in the scheme of things. I was competing with students who had experiences far beyond what I ever had. For example, there was this student, Amit. He told me once, “My father was an engineer. My father’s father was an engineer. And my father’s father’s father was an engineer. Here I am a first generation engineer. I just kind of chose something that I thought I would be interested in. I felt like I was disadvantaged. I didn’t’ have a mentor to guide me through. A mentor might have told me how to make up for not having the engineering background. A mentor might have given me advice about avoiding pitfalls. I kept saying to myself, “I have got to get out of here by the time I’m 27.” I was focusing on the wrong thing. A good mentor will be a sanity check.
What is the value of a PhD in engineering as a Woman of Color? At the end of the day, I have my credentials. No one can ever take that away from you. It’s an indicator of what you can do, of what you can take on. I know. I have heard people say it doesn’t matter. I know it does from the response that I get. No one can say, “We won’t give her that challenge because she can’t do it.” If you apply for a job and people don’t know you have a PhD, they’ll assume certain things about you. How many black women do you know that have a PhD? The people that I work with don’t come across that very often. How can I put this? They put women, and in my case black women, in a box, and put PhDs in a whole different box.
When we were growing up, my twin sister, Anita and I were always together. We are fraternal twins. We lived together until I was 29. I always had a companion. We read books together, we watched television together. If I didn’t have money, Anita had money. In graduate school, Anita was having a tough time. I was having a tough time. [Anita ended up getting her PhD in molecular cell biology.] We would study together. We went to school together everyday (we had one car). We went home together everyday. She would meet me in the engineering library. We thought things through together. When I wanted to quit, she told me, “You’re so close, why would you want to quit? What you will gain? What you will lose?” It helped me put things into perspective. After graduate school, I chose to go to Michigan for a few years. She chose to stay. When I came back, I lived with mom again. Anita was there for 3 months until she got married… Then Anita had my son. (That’s what I call him, “my son”.) I was in tears when I saw his face. My nephew (Anita’s son) will be 16 months on December 9th. We are really trying to develop a love for books early on so it is not such a challenge later. He needs to know that he has many options, not just basketball. I would like him to develop a desire to be the best. And I would like him to have a sense of competitiveness, but not so much that it gets out of hand.