1.9%. That is the percentage of Chicana/os that receive graduate or professional degrees at the time I entered Graduate school. According to research from the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center report (2006), only 46 out of every 100 Chicano students who start elementary school will graduate from high school. Of that 46 only 8 will get a bachelor’s degree, and of that 8 at best 2 will receive a graduate degree or a professional degree. While more recent studies have shown an increase in high school graduation rates and undergraduate enrollment, the rates of attainment at the post graduate attainment are still low. 1.9 % is inclusive of JDs, MFAs, MBAs, MAs, and Ph.Ds. It has been years since I first looked at study and I have never forgotten that number. I hate it. I hate how low it is, I hate how I feel defined by it. I think of all of the people who were pushed out, alienated, or who simply could not see graduate school as an option.
Yet at the same time that number explains so much. To me, that number highlights just how efficient the culture of the academy is at producing and disciplining a majoritarian white space. It explains how lonely the process of graduate education can be for a Chicano/a. It explains why I feel unsettled in my choice to work in the academy. It explains why I feel at odds with the dominant values, as in what constitutes “good” research. It also explains why I feel so excited at the prospect of meeting other Chicana/os at conferences, why I feel invigorated after a good panel on race and the borderlands, why I find myself volunteering to help out with the Diversity Scholars Cohort. When I see a graduate student of color I see a fellow survivor. I see comrades and allies and role models.
At the time of this writing, I am days away from taking my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D. and I cannot help but think about where I fit in that number. It must be a fraction of a fraction. I feel perhaps more anxiety about my exams than I should. I worry about the fact that I have come so far, but that in order to go further I must relinquish control of my educational future, I must trust in my own abilities to pass the text, but more importantly (and this is what frightens me) I must trust the process. It might seem to many a strange thing to be concerned about. The people who comprise my committee are dedicated teachers, I have a strong working relationship with all of them, and I trust and respect them.
However, that does not mean that I trust the academy. In order to survive this institution long enough to become one of the 1.9%, you have to be savvy about navigating the structures and the people that make the space what it is. I had to learn many of those lessons the hard way. I have experienced the academy as a place that is both hostile of difference and also a home. This is a place that produces truth in service of hegemony, as well as a place that gave me tools to resist marginalization and oppression. I have been silenced and also found my voice. Even as the educational pipeline attempts to get rid of us it also makes us stronger.
I was discussing my feelings of alienation with a friend, a radical woman of color, who is in the dissertation phase of her Ph.D. I told her that despite my good grades, the praise and support of my teachers, I was unsure if I had made the right decision in getting my Ph.D. She told me not to let “Them” do that to me, and then she shared one of her experiences. She was speaking with one of her mentors, a Chicano who had just received tenure, and he said, “Academia does a really good job of making people of color and radicals feel like they don’t belong. It does this because it was designed to do this; just play their game, pass this stage, and the rest is yours.” The process and the structure insure that only the most useful, or the most skillful, or the hardest headed make it into a position to be called an expert, to be an authority. And I do not want to play their game. Like many of you I realize that the academy is an important site for the production of truth, that the government will fund most of us. The state invests in us because it has something to gain from our presence in the academy. Call it tokenism, call it interest convergence, call it whatever you like, but the 1.9 % were not brought into the fold accidently.
I fought my here because I love to learn, I have questions that no one has answers for, and because I believe deeply in the radical potential of educators (teachers and scholars) to change lives. I know this because they have changed me. I don’t have the stomach for games. I want my work and my time here to mean something. I want to overthrow or at least challenge the structure that made me part of the 1.9%. We have been losing a war of attrition but if it is true people of color and radicals don’t belong in the academy, then every one of us who makes it is an act of defiance. So my question and challenge to you is this, what can we do to change the processes, to challenge the structure, to make a home for ourselves? More importantly, to those of you who are (like me) still in the process of your education, how can we help each other?