Graduate Students

Here's Smarty-Pants, Home for the Holidays

Matt Roth for The Chronicle

Melissa Boone, a doctoral student at Columbia U., at Thanksgiving: "Even though I'm part of the family," she says, "I have one foot out."
December 03, 2012

When Melissa Boone visits her family for the holidays, she is enveloped by the clatter of pots and pans and the smell of collard greens, ham drizzled with maple syrup, and pumpkin cheesecake. For the first few hours, she revels in what she describes as the "comfortable chaos" of her relatives' townhouse, in Sewell, N.J.

Everyone talks at the same time, kids run and play, and football is on the television. Inside the small kitchen, the women stir, bake, gossip, and laugh.

But in many ways Ms. Boone feels like a stranger in her own black, working-class family. Not only was she the first one to attend college, but she is now a fifth-year Ph.D. student in sociomedical sciences at Columbia University.

"I don't know where to find my place," she says.

Sometimes she's allowed to mix batter, cut vegetables, or wash dishes. But her aunts and cousins often tell her to stay out of the way, saying that despite her years of higher education, she doesn't have "common sense." She says she feels pressure to "dumb down" to fit in. With family, her mannerisms aren't polished, and she uses nonstandard English. If asked about her research, which is about the role of social cognition in people's sexual behavior, she says she gives "the most basic" answers.

Her younger sister, Caitlin, calls her "big brain." Others call her weird and a geek. Caitlin considers her a role model. But her mother, who has a nursing diploma from a community college, doesn't understand her academic goals, and her father, who finished high school, doesn't understand why she's still in school. When she came home for Christmas last year, Ms. Boone says, he suggested that she leave her Ph.D. program and get a "real job."

"Even though I'm part of the family, I have one foot out," she says. "Their comments are not malicious, but it feels like they're saying to me, 'You're different from us.'"

The disconnect with family that Ms. Boone experiences is not uncommon among graduate students home for the holidays or any other occasion, especially when they are first-generation graduate students or from a working-class background.

Tensions, misunderstandings, and awkwardness can leave them torn between cultures and identities, amid family members who are envious or angry that their loved one has gone off and come back changed.

In The Chronicle's online forums, doctoral students have written about how they must put up with family jokes—one Ph.D. cited something along the lines of, "Hey, I hear you are a doctor now! Hey, doctor, I got this pimple on my butt, would you look at it for me?"—and how they have just stopped talking with relatives after being accused of lecturing or "talking down" to them.

"My family was proud of my education when I went to the community college," one person wrote. "When I was accepted as a transfer to a prestigious four-year university, they thought I was putting on airs. When I went on for an M.A., they figured I was too lazy to work. The Ph.D. was just a bafflement."

Many graduate students coping with those kinds of family dynamics are frustrated because they feel devalued and disrespected, says Mary Ann Covey, a psychologist who is associate director of student-counseling services at Texas A&M University at College Station.

"Graduate students are in an environment where they are respected, encouraged, and fighting hard to gain that respect from their faculty and colleagues," she says. "Then they go home and are back in the role of being treated like a little girl or boy. It happens to undergrads, too, but for first-generation graduate students it's especially confusing, because they are looking for that acknowledgment of what they're doing, and they're not getting it."

'Why Do It?'

Ms. Boone grew up in New Windsor, N.Y., and suburban Atlanta. Her father works for the Atlanta transit system, and her mother occasionally worked at Walmart and McDonald's before becoming a nurse. Ms. Boone's research, involving the risk among gay men of contracting HIV, creates a further divide with her parents, who are Jehovah's Witnesses and hold conservative beliefs.

"People from working-class backgrounds understand going to work," Ms. Boone says. "They understand salaries. They don't understand the nature of graduate-school life: researching, writing papers. When you're face to face, there's a disconnect between them and you."

Nick Repak, founder of Grad Resources, a nonprofit group that serves "the practical and emotional needs of graduate students," and the 24-hour National Grad Crisis-Line, often hears from graduate students who feel alienated from their families.

"The home folks are not going to understand what it's like being in grad school," he says. "They have no idea why it's necessary to put in a five- or six-year investment into a program."

Graduate students often love the thrill of their work, of research and discovery, but parents are often more focused on what's next, he says. "Their parents know there's a good possibility they might get out of school with a Ph.D. and not have a clear opportunity to teach and do research. So they ask, 'Why do it?'"

Pablo José López Oro, a first-year doctoral student in the African-American-studies program at Northwestern University, says he feels a "major disconnect" with family and friends at home. The youngest of three in his family, he grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was the first in his family, and the only man on his block, to go to college.

When he's back home, he hears all kinds of things: "'You went off to college and forgot about us. You're not here for us,'" he says his siblings tell him. His friends call him "college boy" and "white boy" and accuse him of selling out. Sometimes, though, they also express pride.

His parents, who are from Honduras, became U.S. citizens in 2010 after spending many years as undocumented workers. Mr. López Oro believes he is fulfilling their dream of success by pursuing a higher education. But they are more focused, he says, on day-to-day finances.

"So many bills are piling up," he says. "Here I am pursuing a Ph.D. and trying to convince them that this is going to pay off. Their idea of a successful degree is a lawyer or doctor who is going to make a certain amount of money to get us out the projects."

Thanksgiving is a festive time in his family's cramped apartment. Relatives crowd together to enjoy turkey and pork, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, rice and beans, yucca and pastelillos.

The talk about his studies is always short. "They ask, 'How are classes going?' It's a two-minute conversation," he says.

There's typically a much longer conversation, Mr. López Oro says, about his older brother's construction work and his trips to jail, or about his sister's marriage and five children.

He wants to talk about the rigors of graduate-school life, about the many hours of reading and writing. He wants to explain his research on the socialization of young immigrants from Honduras, on how the girls are taught to retain traditional cultural values while the boys are encouraged to become Americanized.

"I want to share this with them," Mr. López Oro says, "but my family doesn't value intellectual labor. They value physical labor."

His sense of disconnect is heightened by the fact that his culture places a high value on parenthood, he says. "They see me as a school addict. It's difficult being the only one in your family doing what you're doing and having to go back into that space where everyone else's lives stop in terms of ambition and desire."

'A Real Fear'

Weston Welge, a doctoral student in optical science at the University of Arizona, pursued his education to separate himself from his family.

"I knew I didn't want to follow in my parents' footsteps," he says.

His parents, white and working class, are divorced. Both of them seem proud of him, he says, but send mixed messages. Mr. Welge's mother, who worked as a bartender and is now unemployed, pushed him to go to college so that one day he could make a lot of money. She bragged about him to others, but she also put him down, he says. "You're just book-smart and I'm street-smart," he says she told him. "Street smarts are what really matter."

Mr. Welge's father, who works at a Coors brewery, often complains that his bosses, who are recent college graduates, just sit in offices and drink coffee, while he does three times as much work as they do. "My dad doesn't think that a recent graduate should start at a higher salary than him after working for 25 years," Mr. Welge says.

When he decided to pursue a Ph.D., his mother told him he was avoiding "the real world" and his father worried about what the payoff would be. Recently, Mr. Welge says, his father has started to ask thoughtful questions about what he's doing in graduate school. "He asks how my research on cancer imaging can be applied to society. Sometimes he'll ask me to explain my research technique."

Mr. Welge thinks his father regrets not having gone to college. "I wonder," Mr. Welge says, "if now he gets to experience what college would have been like through me."

To bridge the gaps created by educational disparities within a family, graduate students should try to be more empathetic, say Ms. Covey, at Texas A&M, and Mr. Repak, of Grad Resources.

Underneath the homecoming gibes are fear, insecurity, and a lack of understanding that graduate students should recognize as reflecting on their family members, not themselves, Ms. Covey says.

"When you are more educated than your parents, there's going to be an element of insecurity that gets played out at family gatherings," she says. "There's a real fear that you're smarter, going to be more successful, leave them behind, stop visiting them, or you're going to cut them out of their lives. To them you are becoming a person they can't connect to intellectually or financially."

Those dynamics, she says, are not unique to first-generation graduate students or those from working-class or minority backgrounds. Even if a student's parents are professionals, with bachelor's or even graduate degrees, sometimes there's still a disconnect.

"I see the same dynamics play out with students who have parents that went to college and underachieved," Ms. Covey says. "If a student's performance is off the scale, then sometimes their parents' own self-worth is challenged. Parents who are comfortable in their own skin aren't threatened by their child's achievements."

Mr. Repak advises students to do a better job of acquainting their relatives with the world of graduate school. "Share the passion of what it's like to work with brilliant collegial folks," he says. "Talk about your opportunities to teach. You have to help your family care about what you do, because they won't get it unless you help bring them along."

Correction (12/6/2012, 10:40 a.m.): The original caption for the third picture, of Ron Brown and Melissa Boone, misattributed a quotation to Ms. Boone. The quote was actually from Mary Ann Covey, a psychologist. The text has been corrected.