Bread for the Journey: A Mini-Reflection on Life in a Doctoral Program

Clarity comes from conviction.

Thus far into a doctoral program I’ve learned that sometimes the hardest part of it is not the coursework but feeling worthy of the post and feeling capable of doing everything that is required and expected of me. I confess that more often than not I feel inadequate because of the sin of comparison and even because sometimes it feels late in the game to be on such a journey. But hearing the aforementioned quote—and a few other words over the past few weeks—is helping me push beyond those feelings.
The quote came from someone interviewing for a position within the school and he shared it as a word of encouragement to a group of doctoral and masters-level students. He told us that the work is not about having the right answers or all the pieces in place but a conviction and a passion for doing important and necessary work for our communities and the world. This is easy to forget in the midst of all of the requirements and the rigor of a doctoral program but I’m thankful for the reminder because I do have a conviction about this work which leads me to clarity about this vocational path I’m on. It’s hard work, my God it’s hard work. This work seesaws between giving me life and dealing me death in all areas of my life, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world and I never want to forget what leads me to this work and the blessing or being able to do it in the first place.
So thank you to that candidate for the timely word, thank you to the professor who put the bug in my ear to be present for the candidate’s talk—and to another colleague for the invitation, and lastly thank you to God who keeps finding new ways to keep calling me to this work. I hope this is also a note of encouragement to other doctoral students. We made it this far for a reason, now it is time for us to believe in the gifts within us, trust that those gifts will make room for us, and believe that through those gifts we are bringing something particular and special to the table that no one else can bring. We’ve got this!
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And It Begins: The Genetics Journey via 23andMe

As a person adopted at a young age I’ve lived most of my life with a lot of unanswered questions. I don’t know much about my birth mother except for the fact that social workers claimed that she would have made a good mother, she had hay fever allergies, and she was quite pretty–this according to a description of her, I don’t know what she looks like. For most of my life, thus far, I’ve been ok with not knowing much about her but I am growing increasingly wary about not knowing the things about her that effect me such as ancestry, carrier status, wellness, and traits. I’m tired of filling out medical forms and primarily answering “No” to questions about all manner of illness and disease. Tired of telling various people “No” when asked whether I’m Somalian, Ethiopian, or Eritrean. Tired of a general lack of knowledge about where I come from and how that impacts who I am. Hopefully, I’ll receive some answers through the DNA collection service, 23andme.

IMG_115723andme is the first and only genetic service that delivers reports directly to clients through an FDA-approved system. Once they receive this vial of my spit–yes all it takes it a vial of your spit–they will run tests that will yield information about my ancestry, carrier status of certain diseases, wellness, and other traits. I will finally know a little bit more about who I am, what I have, and what I may pass on to the next generation. This feels like the beginning of knowledge. It’s the key that will unlock information about myself that has been unknown for the better part of 35 years, information that I’ve increasingly become interested in knowing over the last five years. I’ve found that in my 30s, the greatest challenge of living with an adoption narrative–aside from the pervading issue of abandonment and being chosen, which are still pretty big–is not knowing some of the intimate details that make me who I am.

I have no problem with my inherited narrative of being adopted at eight months old by a married couple, the woman from New York and the man from Jamaica, who came together to give me a chance at this thing called life. They instilled in me a strong value system, raised me in a religious tradition that has imparted its own value system, and loved me and protected me from the moment they set eyes on me and still maintain that same level of love and protection to this day. I’m thankful they adopted me into their family which is now my family, a family that has made me a cultural Jamaican, a fighter, and a strong lover if not always by word, surely by deed. But at 35 it feels like I need to know more. More about who I am, the science and biology behind who I am. I want to know for me but also for who might be…

It dawns on me that these questions are important not just for myself but for my future children–when I decide to have them. I don’t want them to have the same life of filling out forms in which they answer “No” out of ignorance. This is why knowing my carrier status is so important. I also want them to know where they come from and not just to assume that because their mother is a black woman of Jamaican cultural heritage, that is their story. This is why knowing my ancestry is important. In general I want them to have a rich narrative about their life filled with the love, care, and compassion I came to know through my adoptive parents but also filled out with the knowledge of who they are because I know who I am.

That any of this filling out of a life narrative could happen from me spitting in a vial might be wishful thinking on my part, but I hope that I will come at striking distance of fuller knowledge of myself. Stay tuned as I start this journey on the verge of becoming knowledgeable about myself…

PS: A big thank you to my parents for two great gifts; first the gift of adopting me into their lives and now for this 23andMe kit.

 

 

He Knew Me: A 35th Birthday Lectio Divina

Him: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you a prophet to the nations I appointed to you.

Me: Ah Lord God! I do not know how to speak. I am too young!

Him: Do not say I am too young. To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you–oracle of the Lord.

This was one of the scriptures from my morning devotion, apropos because it is pretty much what I imagine a conversation between me and God would be like. God would tell me how he formed me and has chosen me for a particular role in the order of life but I would respond, “But I’m too young, too unknowledgeable, too quiet, too…” I’m good at being too logical. I can be chosen and still question my worthiness for the position. I have no problem with talking back and asking questions that I, deep down inside, already know the answers to. But the aforementioned scripture from Jeremiah reminds me that even in the midst of our doubting our capabilities, God still entrusts us with big work that someone is depending on. Even when we think we are too young–as Jeremiah felt–God wants us to walk boldly in the direction God is sending us in with the knowledge that God will be there to protect us and catch us if and when we fall.

This scripture involving Jeremiah’s doubtful response to God also reminds me of a film I saw recently called “The Giver.” The film is about people living a seemingly utopian life that is actually rather dystopian because they are living within a social system which has removed war, pain, suffering, difference, and choice. Their lives are engineered for a version of perfection down to their “family unit” in which dinner conversations include feelings moments and a phrase I found intriguing, “precision of language.” This phrase is used when a citizen is perceived as using the wrong language to describe a particular feeling and is meant to sharpen their language to exclude all unnecessary words. For me, “precision of language” means that I exclude all language that would suggest doubt and uncertainty in that which I’ve clearly been chosen for. My first response can no longer be, “But I am too…” Instead my first response will be, “Yes and yes,” casting belief in what is possible before I consider the ways it is impossible. I’m going to trust God more this year and trust the gifts of the ultimate giver, God, for God is with me to deliver me.

These are the promises I’m making to myself on my 35th birthday: To trust God more and to speak well of myself and my capabilities.

Oh yeah, and welcome to my new blog, another promise I’m making to myself to write more, for me, this year.

Promises to Myself on the First Day of My PhD Program aka The First Day of the Rest of My Life

Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I know that sounds cliché and probably a bit dramatic, but it’s true. Today I begin doctoral studies at Emory University. It’s almost unreal to me that this day is here. I’ve prayed about this, put in the work, had a small community of family, friends, and colleagues helping me through the process and this moment has finally arrived. Yesterday evening as I was with some of my cohort at a picnic, one of the faculty members said, “Enjoy your last night of freedom.” I hated the sound of that but I recognize that in many ways I’m losing the freedom I’ve known for the last few years. I’ve taken a drastic cut in compensation to pursue this degree. I’ve moved out of my nice one-bedroom apartment to share a house with some good friends–which I must say is actually nicer than the apartment I left. I won’t be able to go out as freely, eat as lavishly, and spend as much money on any one thing as I’m accustomed to because of this journey that I’m embarking on. Yet for all of these sacrifices I’m still thinking a lot about promises I want to keep to myself for myself, my family, my friends and this city that I will call home for the next 5-6 years. I don’t want to be one of those people who makes graduation the target at the expense of livelihood, health, friends, and family–because there are apparently people who will sacrifice all of that in pursuit of this degree (see below).

I recently saw this posted on a groups for PhDs and was disturbed by the amount of people--most of the respondents--who thought this was a good thing.

I recently saw this posted on a groups for PhDs and I was shocked to find that most picked graduate over everything else. 

This can’t be life. It can’t be my life. I didn’t decide to doctoral work so that I could lose all sense of self and the world around me. I’m not interested in doing this work  in isolation–although I know the work can be isolating. Yesterday I sat through an orientation where one of the students said, “You will be destroyed, and you will have to rebuild yourself.” I have everyone else’s advice and cautionary tales but now it’s time for me reflect. I decided to create a list of promises to myself as I begin this journey and am sharing it in hopes that family and friends who’ll read this will hold me accountable over the years and that someone else starting a new chapter in life might be encouraged. So here goes:

  1. Put God First: When I first wrote this list I actually had something else first, but when I wrote it again I decided to put God first, even if only for semantic reasons. But really, I don’t just want God to be first on a technicality, I want God to be first on purpose. I believe that I didn’t get here on my own and I don’t think I will get through this without grounding myself in God. My goal is to recover my relationship with God and get God back to the number one spot by getting back to the spiritual disciplines and committing to worship every week.
  2. Do Your Best, Not Anyone Else’s: What great temptation there is to meet everyone else’s expectations or compare yourself to others. To meet the expectations of faculty, of the people who recommended you, of friends who believe you’ll do everything exceedingly well, of family who are rooting for you…But this is not for any of them, not totally. No, my job is to do my best and not anyone else’s. To not drown myself in everyone’s expectations nor to get pulled into the sin of comparison. My goal is to do my best every single time. I will read as much as I can every single time, ask the questions that are important to me, risk sounding stupid if I just don’t understand something, write with courage and present with confidence. And if I ever fail to do any of those things, I won’t beat myself up, I’ll just do my best the next time.
  3. Take Good Care of Yourself: I know myself. In my first graduate program I was notorious for keeping late hours. I drank a lot of caffeine–albeit healthy caffeine (Shot outs to Guayaki Yerba Mate!). I sometimes ate garbage foods. I didn’t make much time for exercise. I had a one-track mind. But this time around I don’t want to do that nor do I think I can afford to do that. My goal is to keep the same exercise routine I had before the program started which means I will exercise 2-3 times a week. I have to do this because I can’t afford to gain any weight–literally, because I don’t wear cheap clothes–but also because–and more importantly–I believe that a healthy, fit body leads to a healthy, fit mind.
  4. Eat Well: If you know me you know that I love to eat. My ex-boyfriend once said that I eat like it will be my last meal. This doesn’t mean I eat like the food is running off the plate but that my meals are sometimes too lavish and opulent. I’m like the Marie Antoinette of food. I have no problem spending a lot on a meal with friends–granted I won’t be able to do that often given my new graduate student status–because I love a great food experience and great company. But, in keeping with my new status, my goal is to still find ways to eat well by simplifying ingredients, buying fresh food, and treating myself dining experiences on occasion–maybe once a month. I want to get to a place where dining out becomes special, an incentive even, rather than just this part of life that I feel I’m obligated to because I can afford it. So eating to live will be my first priority and every now and then I’ll live to eat.
  5. Keep In Touch with Family & Friends: I sometimes drop off the face of the telecommunications earth and the only way I can be found is on social media. When I have a lot on my plate the last thing I want to do is pick up the phone. Maybe I’ll text you, maybe I won’t. Maybe you’ll call me and I won’t pick up or call back for days/weeks on in. I first hope that no one takes this personally and charges it to my head not my heart. But I also hope to just be better about keeping in touch with the people I love–and even those I just like, moderately. My goal is to communicate with family and friends regularly. I honestly can’t say what the frequency of this will be because I know it will vary, but If you don’t hear from me for more than two weeks, and we communicate regularly, reach out.
  6. Make Time for Love: When I first found out I got in to this program I joked that I was going to start a new blog entitled, “PhD or Mrs: Which Will Happen First?” Right now I’m almost willing to place my bets on finishing my dissertation first before I get married. The former seems so much easier to me. I’m also just happy being single and recognize that I can get a lot accomplished as such, but I don’t want to be single for much longer. There are so many amazing things happening in my life that I want to share with not just family and friends but also a partner who can sojourn with me and I with them. I want nothing less than someone who knows their purpose and is actively working to manifest it because that is what I’m doing. I want someone who’ll sit in a coffee shop and read with me when I’m reading–their own book of course, cook dinner when I’m on the verge of starving myself, whisk me away when I get too wrapped up in all of this, and generally be a confidant and co-conspirator in living on purpose. I say all of this not to sound completely self-interested in what someone can do for me in a relationship, but to be clear that I need a partner who will support me. I’ve never had a problem being a man’s cheerleader, support system, confidant, chef, Kleenex, but it’s time for Nicole to also receive the same. But none of this will happen if I’m always in the library, my room, or the corner of a coffee shop–well actually I guess he can find me in the library or coffee shop. My goal is to be intentional about making time to date truly interesting people and be open to the package the truly interesting people come in. I wouldn’t mind a neuroscientist or chemist, just putting that out there.
  7. Be Yourself and Grant That Self Grace: Truth is, I may fail to keep all of these promises. I may wake up with just enough time in the morning to shower and get out the door. I may compare myself to my colleagues. I might stop exercising for a stretch out of necessity or straight-up exhaustion. I may go back to eating BBQ rice because that might be all I can afford. I might go into an isolation so deep that only my housemates can pull me out–and that will only be because we live under the same roof. I may remain single for the next six years because, hell, it might really be easier to complete a dissertation rather than navigate these dating streets. A lot can happen, but in the midst of it all I want to remember two things, 1. I want to remember to be myself and be gracious to myself.

Just this past Sunday I had a friend jokingly greet me saying, “Hey doctoral student!” I replied, “Nicole is sufficient.” I’m not interested in being called “Doctor” or “Professor,” especially not before I’ve rightfully earned those titles. I want to be Nicole through all of this, the woman with a good sense of humor, a healthy appetite, a high-sartorial sense, a lover of God, cupcakes, and dresses. A good daughter, loyal friend, distant but lovingly consistent family member, a civically-engaged citizen, and a grounded child of God. I know I will change through the years, but don’t let me change too much.

So if you read this and we are friends, either in real life or just virtually, will you hold me accountable? Periodically ask me how I am doing–please don’t assume that because I look or sound like I have it together that I actually do. Ask me when last I prayed and encourage me to do so–maybe even pray with me if you are feeling inclined. Ask me about the last good meal I had; if I’ve exercised lately; if I’ve met any handsome, brilliant, wonderful men; ask me if I feel like myself. Ask me anything. I know that I am because of many of you who have nurtured me up to this point. I will continue to be because of that as well.

So off I go to begin this beautiful journey…