The guilt in pursuing a Ph.D.: The familial obligations of first-generation people of color

Talking to your family as a graduate student can be a struggle because they can ask some tough questions. I’m sure we all get stumped from time to time by questions about our work when presenting a poster or giving a talk, but getting stumped by family is different because so much is riding on those questions. Why is that?

When I decided I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., my family was very supportive, and remain so today. In my family, I represent the first generation born here in the states. Education was one of the top values held by my parents, as it was a means towards a better life and a stable career. Going to college meant I wouldn’t have to work in a warehouse for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

For my family, the idea of college means going to school for four years, after which you get your degree and can find a job. You can imagine my mother’s confusion when I told her I would be applying to go to more school. I had already been in school for some time (a story for another time), and of course, she understood that more school was necessary to become a lawyer or doctor. But I wasn’t doing either of those; I was going to a University for a doctoral degree. I explained that it was a means for me to pursue something I enjoyed, which was neuroscience research at the time. She understood but back then she asked me, and still does to this day, questions like: “How much longer are you going to be in school? When will you be getting a job?” or “Why is it taking so long?” When I go home and visit relatives I always get, “Pero mijo, when are you graduating?”

These are valid questions, they are tough to answer, and they bring me tons of anxiety when I consider them. Of course, I hope to finish my dissertation soon; I hope to have a decent job lined up afterward, at which point I will be working and making money. And sometimes I don’t know why it is taking so long. And on top of all of that, I feel a pang of guilt. My parents, like the parents of other first-generation U.S. citizens, invested their lives into my education. In many ways, the decision to go to pursue a Ph.D. instead of something more practical, like becoming an MD, seems incredibly selfish.

To understand why is to know that it is an unspoken rule in Hispanic/Latin American culture (as well as many others), that with adulthood comes the responsibility and obligation to take care of your parents, who labor their lives to give you better opportunities. I strive to take care of my mother, who raised me on her own for most of my life. We recognize and honor this sacrifice by returning the gesture. We succeed so that we can go to our parents and say “Thank you for all you’ve done. I know you’re tired, but you can rest now because I will handle this from here on out.”

Where I grew up in Southern California, the people in my communities looked like me, and my peers in school had similar backgrounds. But when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for grad school, I experienced a significant culture shock. Having parents with graduate degrees was common, students held a sense of entitlement I didn’t understand, and parental support extended into the college years and beyond for many. My white Midwestern colleagues saw this sense of obligation to support my mother as ridiculous and inverted; she should be helping me out!

What eased the culture shock was meeting and befriending other people of color, and bonding over our struggles and guilt towards our family while we pursue graduate degrees. We all get those questions from our families about why are we in school for so long and when will we get jobs? Some of us will get calls from family who straight up ask for money because they need it. We may get the same stipend as other members of our cohorts, but we make do with less because we send money back home to hold up our families. My white colleagues interpret this as my family taking advantage of me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hell, I bet most of us wish we could give more. We don’t feel upset about taking care of our families; we just feel frustrated.

Not all the questions are financial of course. I am currently involved in biomedical research, so I often get asked my opinion about what to do about specific diagnoses. Although I’m not in a medical profession, I do my best to help and answer questions. My wife will get phone calls from her mother, who believes her daughter is going to med school. My mother-in-law will spend an hour listing symptoms and ask for medical advice. My wife has pretty much given up on trying to explain grad school to her mother and resorts to googling symptoms while on the phone to help meet her mother’s medical needs. While it might be more efficient just to say, “I don’t know, I’m not a doctor,” it feels shameful and selfish to do so. Maybe we didn’t become medical doctors, but we’ll be damned if we’re not going to use all this biology I spent years learning to help our family.

Even though I am working towards advancing my families position in the world, I still feel shortcomings. Being a parent myself, it is hard not being able to provide all the things that their peers at school have. And I’m not talking about toys. No, I mean the day camps and music camps my daughter’s friends go off to for days or weeks, which typically costs up to 4 figure amounts. This speaks to exactly what I feel my parents wanted for me, which is opportunities and experiences they couldn’t afford to give me. And this is what is on my mind every day. Rising from the humble immigrant roots my parents set down, it is a long process until my family gets to that level of privilege and opportunity that only wealth and income can grant to minorities—it’s a transgenerational process. My parents, both Mother and Father, worked their asses off. Growing up, I didn’t see my father except for a few days a month. My mother worked the graveyard shift for years in a warehouse, going from packing boxes to loading trucks. You know those cute stories about people coming to the United States with only the clothes on their back and 20 dollars in their pocket, and living 20 years later as happy, wealthy business owners? Those stories are not reality. Not for us. The payoff from hard work tapers off for most people, and from there advancement depends on what you can provide for your kids.

I will continue to work towards supporting my parents and my own family. Those folks that grew up more privileged than me working alongside me at the bench might not get it, and maybe they never will, being unable to relate my experience and upbringing. But there are plenty people like me out there working in science, succeeding to help their family, and they are not alone.