Student Guest Post: 10 things I wish I knew in my first semester as a first gen student

Editor’s Note: This post was sent to use by one of our Anthropology Honours students, Brieal M-T (@mxmoireabh for the Twitter savvy), who has been very open with us and with their classmates about the challenges they have faced in university as a result of multiple factors of their identity and experiences. Because they are a helpful soul, they are passing on what they have learned through several years of hard work here, and this is a great resource to send along to incoming students. In discussing academia, academic life, and things like the “hidden curriculum”, we often implicitly or explicitly exclude undergrads from the discussion, but in fact the challenges to accessibility and the hiding of the curriculum certain affect them, and deserve to be addressed in the conversation about how to support first generation scholars and otherwise marginalized folks.

If you’re into Academic Twitter you’ve probably seen the #hiddencurriculum hashtag making its rounds, but especially this past weekend. The first time I personally saw the hashtag was in reference to this Tweet:

https://twitter.com/travisclau/status/1021442146459684864

I was, uh, a bit salty about the language used that (to me) assumes horizontal networking begins in grad school, and immediately sent the Tweet to a group chat I’m in with some other anthropology students with the caption “Anyways I’m constantly frustrated by the idea that undergrad work isn’t academic work, thus we’re usually excluded from hidden ac talks, but anyways this is important.” Finding people with whom I can connect to as fellow students has been fantastic, and while the majority of this post was written as a personal exercise over a year ago I’m only able to share it now because I’ve been able to speak with other students and refine what all may be useful to others. While having friends who aren’t students is important as well, being able to connect with people who are experiencing some of the same stresses is invaluable!

Some backstory on me: I’m a white, queer, disabled, first-gen university student (there’s a lot of trades tickets and technical diplomas in my fam, but I’ll be the first to get a university degree), and I almost wasn’t even that because I dropped out of high school 3 semesters in primarily due to illness. While I eventually got my GED in order to attend a local technical institute, the entry requirements for the program I wanted to apply for (bakery sciences) changed literally the year I went to apply, and I’ve never actually been able to use my GED for much of anything except being proud that I eventually did get it (which is useful! I’m not knocking it!).

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s/o to my local WalMart for somehow having robes that semi-sorta fit me  [Editor: Aw, baby BMT!]
As a first-gen student hidden academia and hidden curriculum begins the moment we apply for university (ex. I applied to 3 universities between my first semester and the time I got into my BA program, and didn’t know those fees could have been waived/reduced had I contacted the respective registrar’s offices prior to my application). While there’s always going to be things I feel unprepared for moving forward in my academic career I can’t thank the mentors in my life enough for helping me wade through the muck. Being aware that there’s always going to be something I can’t be aware of is an unbelievably important skill that was unfortunately hard-won. Like the title of this post implies, here’s a few things I wish I knew before starting my degree/have subsequently stubbed my toes on a few times in order to learn…

Planning ahead:

  1. Assume that you’re going to get sick, and try to coordinate assignments accordingly.
    • Basically: sit down at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and plan out how and when you plan to complete assignments. This is… honestly a slog… but it’s a slog that’s absolutely invaluable when it comes to actually getting your work done. Make sure you choose a calendar that you’ll actually look at regularly! I plan my assignments out using the default calendar app on my phone, in addition to in a bullet journal.
  2. Pick profs who you know aren’t assholes (this can be tough, especially if whatever you’re passionate about happens to be a department filled with assholes, BUT there will always be kind profs in any field–find them and stick with them as much as possible). Be mindful that not every prof fits every student, and speak to as many people about their experiences in someone’s classroom as possible!
  3. If your institution has an SSD (services for students with disabilities) office then go! to! them! Even if you don’t think your disability is “severe” enough to require accommodation it’s still a good idea to be assessed by a learning specialist and have them provide suggestions of how you may be better set up for success moving forward.
    • Sometimes people/things who are meant to help us end up hurting us, so can’t stress enough how important it is to find other people with similarly marginalized aspects of identity who have taken classes with specific professors (and also subsequently worked within your university’s structures) and talk to them about their experiences. Take them out for lunch, or grab a coffee together! Even if they can’t help you, at least you’ve made a friend!
  4. Campuses are awful! All of them! I would be shocked to learn of a campus that unilaterally supports every student’s transportation needs. To that end: When you settle on your classes each semester take the time before Day 1 to walk (as slow as is physically possible) between said classes to make sure you know where they are/will have time to get to where you need to be even on the worst days.
  5. Don’t live on-campus? Invest in a fucking locker. Yes, seriously.
    • In my first year out of campus housing I used my locker all of, maybe, 5 times? but those 5 times were so helpful that the locker cost was 100% worth it. I can’t stress enough: books are heavy, and your back WILL eventually revolt. If you can’t afford a locker on your own find a buddy to split the costs with! Apply for a remittance! Anything! Just save your back the trouble!

Find the things that help you succeed:

  1. Use whatever tech helps you, and don’t let profs tell you you’re doing it wrong.
    • I get wicked migraines, and have found that using a red screen overlay is an unbelievably simple (but effective) tool for preventing migraines/something that sometimes allows me to work throughout a migraine! Amber tinted glasses work in much the same way (thanks to Jamie for this suggestion)!
    • I use my phone for all of my digital readings, and on days where I can’t use my laptop for whatever reason for drafting as well (actually this entire post was written using my phone). Programs I find helpful for phone-study are Foxit PDF, Microsoft OneNote, Google Drive (suite), and both of my uni’s apps. I’ve also bookmarked the university login portal to my homescreen in case the app doesn’t work. Generally I download readings, then upload them again to my Google Drive for easy access.
    • I’ve found that sometimes writing just isn’t possible. Investing in a decent speech-to-text program can be invaluable. The program I use primarily is Dragon Naturally Speaking Home Edition 12 (my dad and I split the cost of an OEM edition so we could get multiple product keys at a discount), but honestly I’ve used the Android speech-to-text function on my phone and it’s functionable once you get used to it!
  2. If you study better with background noise: make a huge-ass playlist to turn to on the regular so you’ve got tunes on-hand and don’t always have to look for things to put you in a good studying headspace.
    • My current “Studytime” playlist in Spotify is almost 13 hours long, and primarily made up of intrumental video game OSTs, for example.
  3. Audiobooks are great, and an absolutely fantastic way to experience texts. Librivox is useful for public domain things (check Project Gutenberg for text versions), and Audible is worth it (ime) for novels. On occasion articles can be found being read aloud on YouTube from conference presentations (sometimes this means you’re missing some of the article, but in a crunch it works). Also don’t be afraid to contact the library about ordering materials in for you! Librarians are there to help!
  4. Talk to profs about handing in alternative assignments. This is something that goes with “research your prof”/”stick with who you know” but honestly if Twitter essays/podcasts/blogs/whatever are easier for you and allow you your highest chance of success then the risk in asking is worth it.
    • I’ve found that when I provide a portfolio/reference of my previous work in a medium profs tend to be more willing because they can then see how I’ve succeeded in the past. Keep track of your old notes and assignments! You never know when they’ll come in handy!

Finally:

  • Don’t give up. Or do. Sometimes people are unwilling to work with you, or your body really can’t take anymore, or whatever. Knowing your own boundaries/limitations is important! Listen to your body!
    • Note: I’ve unfortunately had to drop (without refund) an incredible number of classes because I tend to think with my good day brain instead of my bad day brain. The financial fallout from that has been fucking terrible, but overall it’s better than burning out and having to drop out entirely sans-degree. A few semesters ago I finally spoke to a case worker through my school’s mental health services office who was able to help me better plan my resources (including time!) going forward, and while the success rate with that isn’t 100% I’m still better off today for having accessed that resource than I would be if I hadn’t.

If you have the time and energy I can’t recommend reading through the #hiddencurriculum tag on Twitter enough. I’ve seen a lot of GREAT threads offering reading suggestions, and so many people offering their own personal narratives as insight (like I’ve [hopefully] done here!).

University is unnecessarily complex most of the time, so regardless of what you find works for you stick to it!(!!) Don’t be afraid to reach out!(!!) Kick ass!(!!) I believe in you!(!!)

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to proofread this post for me, including: a few people who would rather remain anonymous, my friend Jamie Elyse, and my Mum (yes, really)!

 

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Eight Years Later: Report from the Field #1

Iringa town

It has been eight years since I’ve been here – here is Iringa town, Iringa Region, Tanzania. Suffice to say much can change in eight years but things also stay the same too. For example, eight years ago I was still trying to finish my PhD and I had *only* left my husband behind while now I have not only finished my PhD but have a tenure track position at an incredible institution. My husband is the same but the arrival of my kid five and a half years ago has made me a mom. The last time I came as a student, this time I have brought along my own student to mentor (Editor: you’ll hear from Dr. Biittner’s student in a future blog post).

Upon arriving in Dar es Salaam – the City of Peace, or just simply “Dar”, after three long flights (Edmonton to Toronto, Toronto to Zurich, Zurich to Dar via Nairobi), I was happy to see the airport was pretty much the same. The line to get visas stretched long but we could bypass it having already secured our visas from the embassy in Ottawa. The lines through passport control were short but progress through them was slower than I expected as it was here I had my first sign of real change – finger print scanning technology wasn’t used the last time I passed through. The air outside the airport smelled and felt the same – different from Edmonton but still home.

I was travelling with my student Keyna and a PhD student from the University of Alberta, Jeff, who is part of our research team. We arrived at night so we did not see much of Dar as we made our way pole pole (slowly) to our hotel. It was a familiar drive as traffic was heavy (yes even at 11 pm at night) and vendors and piki piki (motorcycles) wove through the cars and dala dalas (city buses).

We checked into the Heritage Motel – a new place for me as the hotel we’d stayed in previously was unsafe to stay in any more – and the familiar greetings slowly crept back in. Hujambo (Hello). Sijambo (Hello). Karibuni (You are welcome). Asante sana (Thank you). Habari za usiku? (How is your night?) Mzuri sana (Very fine/well). Pole za safari (Sorry for your trip). Asante sana (Thank you very much). My swahili is not very good but greetings are well rehearsed and practiced.

Our rooms were clean and comfortable. I remembered that first night to let Keyna know about the call to prayer so it wouldn’t surprise her. Hearing it again first thing in the morning – as the sun rose – only reinforced my feelings of being back home. Breakfast at the hotel (included!) would trigger my other senses – delicious smells and tastes of chapati, plantains, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, donut-like pastries, and chai.

My place memory kicked in as we walked around Dar to recover from jet lag our first full day. We bought SIM cards to be able to stay in touch (though it looks like most hotels have wifi – another new change). I was able to remember the way to the kanga market at Uhuru Street, to the City Center market, and then to the National Museum. We walked every where – so I could remember again and so Keyna could experience Dar for the first time. We got caught in the rain and that was ok too. We bought snacks at the supermarket – loading up on goodies from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and South Africa. We stayed up late to try to get on local time but hit our beds hard as we’d successfully tired ourselves out.

The second day in Dar we connected with my dear friend Dr. Pastory Bushozi. It had been eight years since I’d seen him in person and I was so happy to give him a hug and share news of our families. Bushozi introduced us to our driver Nico (we’d arranged transportation through Bushozi), and then he was off to do other work – as the head of his unit at the University of Dar es Salaam and a collaborator on several international projects, Bushozi is incredibly busy but he promised to join us in the field shortly. Nico took us to a famous tourist shopping spot – the Slipway – to try to stay busy in the most relaxing way possible as we’d be heading to Iringa in the morning.

In the past we would drive straight through to Iringa but the drive often extended to eleven hours or more and for safety sake we’d decided to stop over night in Morogoro. I was surprised at what a busy city it is; we’d only passed through before so I hadn’t realized its extent. We had a pleasant night (even without water and power for most of the evening – definitely a familiar experience in Tanzania!) at a small hotel run by the most pleasant woman (we’ll definitely stay with her again on the way back).

To get to Iringa we have to drive through Mikumi National Park – my favourite part of the drive. We were treated to seeing giraffes, baboons, warthogs, zebras, wildebeest, and so so many antelopes; they were grazing on the fresh shoots of grass growing out of the recently burned landscape (note: this is prescribed burning done to address wildfires; it ensures the burn is controlled versus wild, protecting the park, people, and animals).

Following Mikumi we begin the long slow grind up into the mountains. As much as I love the animals of Mikumi, I really start to feel at home once we begin our ascent. Iringa is in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania and it is truly beautiful. Baboons frequently line the road way and it is not surprising to find men roasting full cobs of corn at small turn offs along the highway. The stands in villages sell onions, tomatoes, and green peppers but the bucket full. One valley is full of baobab trees, which are beautiful and haunting – I love them so much they are on my list of tattoos to get. The air is cooler and drier here too – much cooler than the high temperatures, high humidity of the coast.

Finally we reach the turn off to Iringa town – the highway splits with one way heading further south to Mbeya (and eventually the southern most extent of the East African Rift Valley) while the other way heads up to a flattened playa of sorts upon which sits Iringa town. The number of piki piki and boda bodas (passenger trikes) surprised me as a new development as did some of the new buildings but mostly Iringa town was the same. I was able to direct our driver to my home away from home – the Isimila Hotel. We’d been booked into the newly upgraded rooms (including a larger bed and bed nets, hot water on demand, a mini fridge, and a tv!!!). I couldn’t believe that we would even have free wifi during our stay; in 2006 we relied on internet cafes while in 2008 and 2010 we had internet sticks and plans we could purchase for our laptops.

Home and yet not-home. Same and different. It feels good to be back. Karibu sana.