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Why Am I Doing This? A Dangerous Question During Exam Time for Graduate Students

Published August 17, 2014 by harleyquinnly

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I am a Ph.D. student in History. I am having an existential crisis. This can apply to people in any type of situation when it gets tough and makes you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Sometimes you don’t have an answer. 

To earn a Ph.D. in history at my university, you must take so many semesters/credit hours of coursework, earning a grade no lower than a B. That is not enough to prove your worth, however. You must take three, six hour long exams over three days, known as comprehensive exams (comps). The three exams are your general field (US history), secondary field (American West), and a minor field (Public History). 

Why are these so daunting? For me personally, I am not good at tests. Sure, I know the information inside and out but when I am handed an exam I can’t even remember what name to put at the top of the page. I will do reviews, projects, or write you a frickin’ book but don’t give me a test. In addition, I am aware that the exam can ask anything that happened in the United States from 1492 until the 1980s. That’s roughly five hundred years of stuff. And you must know what every historian has written about each era as well. 

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Yes, I’m aware it’s a form of academic hazing. It’s weeding out the lesser, supposed to be humbling, etc. As if taking (and acing) history courses for about ten years isn’t good enough. And humbling? What about surviving the professors that routinely made your colleagues cry and whose classes required multiple all-nighters (not from procrastination either). 

What I’m getting at, besides being whiney, is today after I found out I must also submit a dissertation proposal during the exact same time as I’m supposed to be studying (and getting signatures from my committee is like herding cats). I made the mistake of asking myself, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I even getting my Ph.D.?”

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Most people go to graduate school to get degrees required for higher jobs. I went for my Ph.D. because I had just gone through a divorce, wanted to avoid a personal life, and only knew of adulthood through the lens of a college student. I genuinely love the classroom and reading, any academic pursuit really. If I had unlimited scholarships I would be happy doing nothing but being a perpetual student. 

But then there’s real life. The place where I had to quit my dream job I went to graduate school for in the first place because it didn’t pay enough for me to survive on. The place where I work a horrid 40+ hours a week job with a verbally abusive boss before going home to stress over these exams. I’m proud to say that through hard work, scholarships, help, and luck I have no student loans, but I’ve paid dearly for that in other ways. Because I work, I am unable to dedicate myself to publishing (which is the only means to employment, if you can even find it). So why am I doing this?

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In addition, where I live, having higher education makes you more unemployable than a felon. I often lie and leave off my higher education on resumes or I don’t receive interviews or are flat out told I am over-educated, over-qualified, etc. Smart people need to eat too. (I’m serious about the felon part-I know of a registered sex offender that has a job that pays three times as much as mine)

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I wish I could end this post with an enlightened, ‘This is what I reminded myself of why I’m doing what I’m doing’ but I’m not there yet. I don’t have an answer. Maybe I’m doing this because I’ve already worked for three years to get this far into the Ph.D. Maybe because school was the only thing I felt I was ever good at and base my sense of worth upon it. 

Perhaps this is why you seldom see sober Ph.D. students when they’re studying for comps.

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Twenty-One Things Academics Hate

Published February 11, 2013 by harleyquinnly

‘Professor, why are we doing this?’

While every job has their annoyances, this post includes those specifically encountered by graduate students and those working in academia. Unless you actually work in this field, do not automatically assume we all have cushy, easy jobs and just like to complain about the lack of coffee packages for our Kurigs. Like others, we also face extreme high unemployment and debt, low salaries, and underappreciation. There have been several articles released lately on how Ph.D.’s are facing reliance on foodstamps due to unemployment or low salaries despite earning four college degrees. So why do we endure this craziness and suffering? Because we love it…and we are slightly masochistic.

Madison Moore, “21 Things Academics Hate,” Thought Catalog, January 13, 2013 (accessed February 11, 2013).

1) Being unemployed. Not that other people don’t hate being unemployed, too. But unless you’re a lucky person who has already secured that coveted mirage of a tenure-track job — and even then you’ve only got six years to get it together — being in academia means that, at some point, you could be an unemployed person with a lot of degrees!

2) REVISIONS. (Everything that is done must be redone at least twenty times before it comes close to being good enough)

3) Ratchet departmental politics. There are always office politics in any career. But in academia, everybody’s heard the story about how so-in-so didn’t get tenure because the department chair kind of hates her or thinks her research is silly. Or has been on a search committee where somebody thinks a candidate who works on anything after 1832 is totally irrelevant. Or how about why we can’t have the department holiday party at Stephanie’s house because Stephanie and Blake do NOT get along.

4) Being in debt — credit card debt — from all those broke ass years in graduate school.

5) “The Administration,” because it seems like they get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make things as complicated as possible, for everyone, at all times.

6) The “heterosexual matrix” and/or patriarchy.

7) When people ask how the dissertation/book manuscript/article is coming along and you honestly don’t know because you haven’t touched it.

8) Formatting academic articles to the exact specifications the journal requires. And you thought academia was just about ideas — HA!

9) When Word freezes when you’re in the middle of a streak of brilliance and you forgot to save your stuff.

10) Feeling anxious about every interaction with a senior scholar, because senior scholars are the GATEKEEPERS. Do they like me? OMG do they think I’m an idiot?

11) When someone asks a long-winded question during the Q+A that has absolutely nothing to do with what your talk was on, so now you have to maintain your composure, smile and respond WITHOUT seeming like an A-hole.

12) When student papers begin with sweeping claim like “since the beginning of man.”

13) Going on the job market.

14) Tenure reviews.

15) Being underpaid for the amount of work you do. You’re teaching four classes a semester, plus you’re on 12 committees and you have a book manuscript to work on. And if you don’t find the time to finish that, you’re gonna get fired!

16) Overly negative reviews from blind, peer review publications. Because the reviewers don’t know who you are, that means they get to be even meaner.

17) When students email you about the grade they got at the end of the semester, instead of putting the work in DURING it.

18) Anxiety and the diverse medical issues associated with it.

19) When someone has ripped several key pages out of a library book.

20) If someone says that academia isn’t a “real” job.

21) BEING TOLD THEY HAVE THE #1 LEAST STRESSFUL JOB IN THE COUNTRY.

I am working on my fourth degree, have a professional job, and still eat ramen at least once a day

What It’s Like to Be Me…a Ph.D. college student with three jobs…and more

Published January 22, 2013 by harleyquinnly

Contrary to what the title may suggest, I am not writing this to complain about my lot in life. I am simply venting in an attempt to create an understanding of why my life (and potentially that of others) is the way it is.

This post has been a long time coming. Since beginning college at age 17/18, I have lost many friends and had several conversations/arguments of why I’m never around, always busy, or too tired to live a life similar to that of my peers. I have been accused of avoiding people, not truly living my life, giving up my young age, etc. Recently, out of frustration I told someone to please attempt to imagine what it is like to be me. He replied, “Does anyone know what it’s like to be you?” Good point, maybe this will help.

When I, often regrettably, tell someone I can’t go out because I’m tired or have homework it is because I am tired and have homework. Any single mother, serious college student, workaholic, etc. has been/is there. For example, I attend a university as a full time student to earn my Ph.D. degree. I concurrently work a forty-hour-a-week day job and teach two courses at a nearby community college. I also sell books online. Lastly, I am researching and saving maniacally to buy my first house this summer. This doesn’t leave a lot of time (or money) for going to movies, clubbing, or that elusive free time everyone keeps talking about. At the same time I am suffering from a couple of chronic illnesses and fighting a potentially life-threatening situation. Don’t you think all of these things are constantly in the back of my mind? This hinders me from being your beck-and-call girl.

Oh and I choose to be here? As in you’re insinuating my crazy schedule is completely my fault? Well yes, it totally is but excuse me for pushing myself to fulfill my ambition and dreams. How hard are you willing to work for a dream? Am I to be punished for success? (That happens but that will be another blog post later).

Despite my complaints, I do have a few very wonderful people that understand when I have to disappear at the end of each semester. They patiently wait for me to clear my schedule and resist the resentment resulting from believing I don’t want to see them. I love you guys, you rock.

So if you have someone that has been a ghost in your life lately, maybe they are actually busy or have something going on you don’t know about or don’t understand. Talk to them. Please, at least try to understand. How would you feel if you were going through that? It sounds elementary but it is amazing how many people lack empathy. Don’t immediately become offended and defensive because you feel you are no longer that person’s patron saint. Be supportive and they will definitely notice and love you for it.

Oh What a Loss and Resulting Void: Goodbye to an Old Friend

Published October 11, 2012 by harleyquinnly

Yesterday afternoon I lost my bearded dragon, Gimpy. I had had her since I was nineteen years old and she was about six or seven years old. I’m grieving similar to those who have lost a family member or close friend, because I have. For many of you, you may not know what a bearded dragon is or say, “big deal? It’s just a lizard. It’s not like it was a dog or something.” Gimpy was more than “just a lizard,” and this is why.

I got Gimpy for my nineteenth birthday from my now-ex boyfriend’s parents. We drove to a pet store in Shawnee, OK and I picked out the adorable five inch bearded dragon. I loved her instantly, with her inquisitive eyes. On the car ride home, I noticed she was very still in her too-small box. So I opened it and let her sit in my hand. She was calm and seemed to enjoy both being out of the box and looking at me. I noticed she was missing her back foot and part of her tail. It was an old wound, with no bleeding or sores. The pet store owner had said she wasn’t taken out of the cage with her mother in time and they tend to nip babies. I had a rough childhood too and could commiserate with her. I was asked if I wanted to take her back and exchange her and I felt that would have been like taking a baby back to the hospital after giving birth. Yeah, I was that attached and protective from just the car ride home.

At the time, I lived with the now-ex boyfriend, sharing his bedroom at his parents’ house. I held her and played with her every single day at multiple times. She loved to run on the bed and climb the blanket mountains I’d make her. Eventually, she became part of how I coped with stress and bad times. I’d simply pick her up and carry her around, which always made me feel better.

Another thing that hit me when I lost her was how much I’ve gone through since I was nineteen and that she was with me for all of it. I’m not saying I didn’t have family and friends to lean on, but I often don’t vocalize my feelings, and she was right there in every bedroom I lived in from then on. She was the one I held, snuggled with, and cried with. She saw me at some high points and some of the lowest in my life. She never talked back or told me how stupid I was being but she did sometimes give me the stank eye.

She saw me through three college degrees, often running around on the bed while I did homework. She’d then tire herself out and sleep in the bend of my elbow when she was small or against my neck as she grew. She saw me through five moves and always viewed new surroundings not with fear but curiosity. She saw me through the departure of my now-ex, planning a doomed marriage, and the long and torturous process of abandonment and divorce. She saw me pick myself up and move on my own. She saw me to the happier time in which I now reside. And now she’s gone.

 In a lot of ways she served as the last bridge between now and my nineteen year old self. She reminded me of how much I had survived through, in a good way. So full of personality, I always loved how she never wanted me to put her down. How she tolerated other people in my life (despite always giving them the stank eye) but always loved me most, unconditionally. I will always remember her strong character and the wonderful memories. But the best people, and bearded dragons, leave the biggest voids when they leave us. Goodbye, Gimpy.

Things to Never Ask or Tell a College Professor

Published October 5, 2012 by harleyquinnly

Working as a college professor while attending college has opened my eyes to both sides of the roles/experiences of professor and student. To me, I tend to have a better understanding of my students because I can still relate to them and know what it is like going through classes. On the other hand, sometimes I catch myself almost attempting to take control when a discussion in a class I’m taking is lagging. Sometimes a double edged sword, but I love every minute of it.

While I can relate to them and understand what they are going through, sometimes I get caught off guard by s**t some students say. I’m excited that my brain-to-mouth filter works much better than in the past but instead of blurting out whatever my cynical and tactless brain comes up with, I have been rendered speechless with a blank stare at the student. (I’m trying to work on my poker face but so far have just been able to prevent a stank-eye) There are some things I’ve been told/asked or my colleagues have been that I could never imagine having the guts to ask or tell a professor. I’m sure a lot of it is that they don’t think before they ask or realize what it means to us but on the other hand, some of it comes from the self-entitled spoiled little special snowflakes.

This list is by no mean complete or encompassing everything college professors experience. It is also not meant to be an insult against all students as an “all students are stupid” rant. I really, really enjoy teaching and love my students. Yes, there are days I would like to throw a book at them, but for the most part, they are quite lovely. I see myself as their instructor, guidance, and cheerleader. I WANT them to succeed, and I see myself as teaching them how. I try to teach them not only a basic understanding of my field (history) but also skills to succeed in other classes and life in general.

Anyways, unlike the exhaustingly cheerful highly-caffeinated cheerleader, I have sore spots. This list covers quite a bit of them. The first ten are from the article “10 Questions You Should Never Ask Your Professor,” by Jill Rooney, Ph.D. and the rest are from me or other professors. Keep these in mind before you ask a professor a question and never forget you can always ask questions from other students!

1. “Did we do anything important when I was out?”

This is my least favorite question in the entire world. I have heard many answers to this from my colleagues, everything from patient explanations of the course content to “ask your classmates for their notes.” The smart ass part of me just wants to say, “No, we couldn’t possibly get on without you here and prayed for your safe return.” I just tell them to check the syllabus and get someone’s notes. A better way to ask is: “How can I get the material I missed when I was out?”

2. “Why do we have to learn this?”

(Insert fingernails on chalkboard sound here). *Shudder. When a student asks this, I mostly hear “This is stupid and I shouldn’t have to be here.” Especially since in all of my lectures, especially in a freshman class, I explain how it’s relevant to today and thus, why it’s important. I have yet to really come up with a professional and polite answer to this question. It’s mostly a brief stare and repeating why whatever I’m talking about is relevant to today or can translate into a life skill or “because it makes you into a well-rounded educated person.”

3“Do we need the book?”

Are you really asking this-or do you think we professors just randomly pick books off the shelf and assign them because we find it amusing to watch you read a book you don’t need? Of course you need the book. Sometimes you need it for actual use in class; sometimes you need it to read on your own as a supplement to the course content. A good rule of thumb is that if it is listed as required on the syllabus, you need it. If you have a financial difficulty with purchasing required textbooks, as many students do these days, talk privately with your professor, who can direct you to the appropriate resources.

4“How much work do we have to do in this class?”

This one is another temper point for me. I just want to immediate retort, “Get out.” As a college student by choice, you don’t have to do anything. But as you chose to take the course, you should be prepared to do the required amount of work, which is outlined on the syllabus. You can try to skate through it like some students, who only do the minimum amount of work, but that’s risky-and one thing I can guarantee you is that having to take the course all over again when you fail is really quite a lot of work. A better way to handle any concerns about the work load is to ask your professor for tips on how to handle the work load. We’re always more than happy to help out with such suggestions. And, at the end of the semester, if you have a 59.99 and I know you’ve purposely been doing the minimum, I’m not going to round up your grade because you don’t deserve it. Professors will help way more if you are actually trying and being a productive human being. (Thank you to a couple of science and math teachers for sympathy As).

5“When will final grades be posted?”

This was contributed by the folks over at Profology on Twitter, who added the related question, “can you email me my final grade?” This is an interesting one, because as a rule professors of course don’t mind sharing your grade with you–it’s our job! They are your grades and you are entitled to them. But there are certain things we cannot do, based on federal law-including e-mailing your grade or publicly posting them-because that violates student privacy laws. The real problem here is that you already know when your grades will be available because the syllabus usually explains that. This question is related to one highlighted as a no-no by Florida Gulf Coast University: “Do you have our grades yet?” The answer is always the same: “No, I don’t. I’ve been too busy eating bon-bons by the Jacuzzi to grade your papers. But I’m sure that Jeeves will be through with them forthwith.” Grading takes time!

6“How many footnotes/sources do I need?”

The answer to this one is also always the same: You need as many footnotes as you require to appropriately cite your sources and to support your argument. There is no other measure. I’m pretty sure you’ve been told this before.

7“Do we need to know this for the exam?”

Similar to the “why do we have to learn this?” question, this one is always a joy for professors to hear because it assumes that only the stuff that will show up on the exam is worth your time. Educator Gabriella Grossbeck (@ggrossbeck on Twitter), told me that she usually replies, “Where were you?” because the student is responsible for following course content and instructions. The answer I always give is “I don’t know,” because I never re-use exams and create new ones every semester. That’s also a useful answer to hold onto in your head, because a good exam answer brings in as much material as possible and demonstrates thoroughness.

8Do you have a stapler?

What am I, a walking office supply store? Being prepared for class is your responsibility, not mine. Also, stop asking to borrow my pen! Show respect for your class, your professor, and yourself by taking your responsibilities seriously. Besides, these are special teacher pens, and if I loan you my pen, I will lose all my professor powers, like Samson and his hair.

9“Can I leave early?/Is it OK if I go to my club meeting?”

Sure, you can do both. You can do anything you want because you chose to take this course and it is yours to do with as you wish: pass, fail, whatever. This question is much better asked as, “Will I fail the class if I don’t take it seriously and value my social life and extracurricular activities more?”  I think you already know the answer to that question.

10“Are you sure you that’s right?”

Yes. Yes, I am. I’m the professor. Unless you’ve gone to graduate school and have developed an expertise in this field since enrolling in the course, you would be advised to ask this question in a better way: “I’ve heard/read/been told by another professor something different from what you just said. Can you explain this a little more?” That gives us an opportunity to really delve into the issue and help you link together the material you may have learned in other courses, which helps create a general body of knowledge for you. Also, it’s not an insinuation of incompetence on our part. It’s an invitation to academic debate. We love that!

My additions

1. Asking anything you already know the answer to

I get this somewhat often. I’ll have the one student that is not only an overachiever (because that’s perfectly awesome) but an aspiring teacher’s pet. It doesn’t work in college the way it works in high school. I can tell when a student asks a question he/she already knows, just to be speaking in class or to appear smart or to be doing extra work. It doesn’t impress me and it just annoys me and the rest of your classmates. Yeah, they know when you’re doing it too.

2. Can’t you just give me an A?

This one was asked of me while passing out a study guide. I’m serious, and so was he. Again, my filter stopped the knee-jerk response of “get out.” You EARN grades. You (or your parents, scholarship foundation, government) are paying to BE there, not for the grade. And honestly, I get paid the same whether you pass or fail. It’s much more frustrating when I get asked this in a class with several other students that attend every class and put forth real effort. What does he think I’m going to say? “Sure! See these students that have been working their asses off all semester? I’m just going to throw them all under the bus and give you an A for gracing us with your presence once every three weeks because you’re just so special.” If this question ever occurs to you, you need to go away and really think about why you’re even in college in the first place.

3. Can I get an extension on this assignment? I’ve been really stressed lately.

Disclaimer: if there’s a serious, real emergency, such as an emergency room visit or death of close relative, yes I do consider extensions or assignment substitutions. Otherwise I take absolutely no late work whatsoever. You have deadlines in the real world (job) and you will here too. In addition, that means I have to do more work to grade your late work and get it posted instead of doing it with all of your classmates. No, not happening.

4. I didn’t have time to study for this test. I had a lot of math homework this week.

I got this statement written at the bottom of a test. I simply wrote back, “time management skills.” It’s college, you’re going to take multiple classes at once. If the workload is too much, don’t take so many courses. College is also a great place to learn multi-tasking. I will not shape my courses to what other professors are teaching. That’s your problem, not mine.

5. The student who never stops talking…ever.

This one isn’t really a specific question or statement but a common problem. I’ll have one student every semester that while a perfectly fine person and student, will constantly interrupt class with inane commentary. Most of the time they don’t realize they’re doing it and it’s hard to stop them without seeming rude. But it is the professor’s job to keep charge of the discussion and class time. By all means, participate and contribute to class, but is your statement relevant and provide information to the class? Also, keep your comments short and get to the point quickly. I think this annoys other students more than it does me. This person will always sit as close as possible and when they start speaking, I can see immediately see twenty sets of eyes roll. I’ve been in classes with these types of people and when the professors failed to keep the class moving forward, as soon as the interruption started, I’d start balancing my checkbook or something to keep from strangling them. (I’d like to thank a certain graduate from UCO who kept a certain person from interrupting my thesis defense because you were sure I would kill him/her. You’re a hero).

6. Asking me to explain what I just finished explaining

I understand that sometimes our minds wander, mine is no exception. It is one of my pet peeves to be interrupted by someone asking something I had just said because they weren’t paying attention. If your mind has wandered, ask a fellow student or wait until the end of class to ask.

7. What are we doing today?

Trying to find Narnia. As innocent as this question probably is, it’s still slightly grating. I outline in the syllabus the topic of discussion and chapters for every single class. Check the syllabus. It’s always in the syllabus.

Do you have questions you hate to be asked as a teacher or as a student?

Conflict between Academic and Public Historians

Published August 31, 2012 by harleyquinnly

This is more of a blog for my colleagues or new professionals who are wondering why some historians do not like or sometimes even speak to others. This probably applies to anyone’s work place. Quickly: historians are classified as either academic historians (work as professors in universities or research and write several books) or public historians (work with the public, mostly in museums, preservation, etc.)

This post originates from public history books I have had to read for my public history minor. My boyfriend is currently taking the same class and asked me if academic historians are really assholes and as full of themselves as the authors stated. As I started to get a small twitch in my eye, I started to explain why there are those perceptions. Then it hit me: I have never read a published work in which an academic historian spends an entire book, chapter, or even a mention of a dislike of public historians. (If I am wrong, PLEASE send me the title of the book).

With the highly biased dislike, almost hatred, of academic historians, in the public history book, I think that a more complete description of the friction between the two is needed. As I tried to explain the differences to my righteous boyfriend, I created this post.

I will try to be as unbiased as humanly possible. I professionally “play both sides of the field.” I started my career and have two degrees in public history and still currently work in public history as well as an academic professor as well. I don’t think one is better than the other; both are needed and contribute to the field. Since public historians are the only ones I know of that actively post against academics, this blog is to kind of explain the tensions academic historians have since public historians have published their side. I don’t wish to offend anyone or try to sway that one side is better than the other. I’m just pointing out some of the thoughts.

-Public historians have published and spent chapters or at least a couple of paragraphs stating that academic historians are arrogant, pompous, assholes. As far as I know (I fully admit I could not know) academics have not published how they dislike public historians. Being attacked in publication probably doesn’t make academics happy. I’m sure public historians have received scorn or ridicule while in college, and that isn’t right, but I don’t know of anything actively published against them.

-Public historians often insinuate that academics are unimportant and spend all their time locked in ivy towers and do not contribute to the field. They mostly ignore that academics spend their time preparing lectures, researching and writing history. If it is mentioned, public historians state academics write only long, boring, useless monographs that no one reads but the author.

-Public historians often are clueless about citations and copyright restrictions, sometimes intentionally. Not all, I’m aware. Often when one is putting together a public guide or project, they will use the original research/writing of an academic historian without giving them any credit or citation in the article or in the bibliography. Yes, if used to educate others there is a “Fair Use” clause to copyright laws but that only goes so far and it is still professional to add a citation. This is called stealing and understandably makes people a little cranky after putting blood, sweat, tears, and Taco Bell into this work.

-Without academic historians, public workers would not have new interpretations or information about different aspects of history. Public historians are busy working with the public and do not have the time (or sometimes training) to research and write as much as academic historians.

-Public historians are trained by academics. Before they earn their professional experience from internships and public history courses, they are taught the field of history by academics. A little appreciation would be nice.

-Some public historians are not professionally trained. That is phasing out as more universities are building museum studies/public history departments. The ones who are not trained, however, are constantly butchering what academic (and professional public) historians are working hard to create and correct.

-Both public and academic historians are important and the work of each contributes to the other. Academic historians research, write, and teach history while public historians take that knowledge and training and disseminate it to the general public.

Historians of both types are horrendously underpaid and underappreciated. This factionalism does not help. How can people like us and think we are important if we don’t even like each other? I understand both have offended the other, but it doesn’t help anything. Until historians are appreciated by everyone, pay is raised to at least a comparative level of people who did not work near as hard to get to their job, politicians stop butchering history to use for their purpose to their campaigns, and all high school students know who the president is, we need to stick together. Those things will never happen, but all the more important to unify, to be stronger and better at what we do.

From Homeless to Harvard: What It Can Mean to You and I

Published August 3, 2012 by harleyquinnly

The movie From Homeless to Harvard is Liz Murray’s story, her journey, from drug addicted parents, group homes, to school, and eventually, Harvard. Everyone has a journey to college or wherever they go in life. Murray’s is an extreme example of what hard work and iron will can accomplish regardless of environment. (This gives away some details of the movie, but due to the title, I can’t really completely call spoiler alert).

One message I see through her story is that your environment does not have to make you. YOU make you, you make your own decisions, and you get yourself wherever in life through fight, work, stubbornness, and sometimes sheer luck. Murray’s parents were drug addicted, spending their welfare checks on heroin while her and her sister starved. Yet even after becoming homeless at age fifteen and stealing food (and self help books) to survive, she never did drugs. She never fell into that never ending cycle of abuse and dependency. Sure, I can see how if that’s what you see when you grow up, you may be more likely to repeat those actions. But it doesn’t automatically mean you have to. It is YOUR choice. As a child of a parent with an addiction, I almost become livid when young adult addicts, murderers, domestic abusers, etc. say none of their actions are really their fault because their parents weren’t the best role models. You still made the choices. It’s not about oh poor me, give me everything. It’s about being able to be proud of how far you’ve come. Break the cycle, be the change.

Murray’s story also tells of the power of encouragement and how the fact that someone cares enough to push you can mean the world to you and help you keep going. When she was a little girl there was an older lady, who was as poor as her family, who would dig in the dumpster to give Murray tossed out encyclopedias and books to read. The lady would tell her that she better go to school if she didn’t want to be an idiot. Whether it be that one special relative, an attentive teacher, or encouraging friend, that person who gave you the initial push to pursue your goals serves as probably one of the best gifts in life. I was so lucky to have several of these supportive people. In elementary and high school, I had those teachers who used to give me harder and different work than my classmates, offered to send me to science camp to get me away from my home life, filled out college scholarships for me, and gave me the approval and encouragement I so desperately craved. In college, it continued with supportive professors who took the time to praise my work, had me read my essay test answers aloud to the rest of the class, informed me of scholarships, and spoke brutally honest regarding my work. While much of this sounds like I’m a little narcissistic and an academic snob, it wasn’t about that at all. I started college on my eighteenth birthday and as an insecure, shy, timid, worried girl, I had no sense of self, nor what I was capable of. That encouragement gave me the first inkling that maybe I could do something great. Like in Murray’s story, after encouragement from her teacher she began to think of bigger, grander  goals, asking herself, “what if I worked harder?”

Murray wasn’t always the model student. She rarely showed up to school, often because she took care of her ailing mother and because she didn’t know how to learn in a classroom setting. She never really thought of school, telling her terminally ill mother that she’d go back to school when she got better. But then her mother dies, and Murray calls it the slap in the face. She talks about how she always waited for her mother to get better so she could take care of her, like a real mother-daughter relationship. But instead she was always taking care of her mother, who was like her baby. After her mother dies, her teacher tells her “now it’s time to take care of yourself.”

Everyone has a reason, that one driving force, for them to go to and graduate from college. Whether it be that you truly love learning, don’t want to work in retail/food service jobs, or you know the harsh reality of a non-educated life (for some), always hold on to that reason. That reason will be the key to your dedication. When you’re tired from working multiple jobs to pay your tuition, you’ve pulled three all-nighters, or you’re just emotionally drained, remember your main reason for your goals, for your dreams. If that thought isn’t enough to keep you going then it isn’t strong enough and you need to do some intense soul-searching to find the real reason to keep going.

I had a professor in my first or second year of college, after realizing that I hadn’t taken the traditional route to college, said it was probably an interesting story of how I had gotten there. I had never thought about it before. I knew my previous life experiences were probably different from my classmates, after hearing them speak all semester but I never thought of my journey to college as “work.” I was so excited to be there, happy and eager. Now that I’m a professor, it astounds me to hear how much people not only hate being in school, but they hate physically being in a learning environment. It makes me so thankful that I had a little bit of a rougher journey so that I can better appreciate the opportunities and experiences I have had. I’m sometimes told that I make things in my life harder than they need to be. After thinking a bit, I replied that if anything is easy, it’s not worth it. After Murray’s teacher learns of her overload of courses he says, “You’re going to kill yourself.” She replies, “No, I’m gonna live.”

There are several messages that can be learned from Liz Murray’s story in Homeless to Harvard (which is based on a real person with those real experiences). Overall, it serves as an example of taking control of your life, working as hard as inhumanly possible to achieve your goals, and appreciating the journey along the way.

“I knew at that moment I could make excuses for the rest of my life. Or I could push myself and make myself good.”

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