Losing and Finding a Sense of Belonging in Academia – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here. Today’s post is by Dr. Jessica Owens-Young.

Dr. Owens-Young is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Studies at American University. Her work broadly focuses on social and economic inequities and its impacts on health among Black communities. Prior to American University, Dr. Owens-Young worked as a Program Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Dr. Owens-Young completed her PhD in Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, specializing in Health and Public Policy. When she is not teaching, Dr. Owens-Young is at the gym or at home painting, cooking, spending time with her wife or scrolling for pictures of houseplants on Instagram.

I’m feeling an unprecedented sense of loss these days. Sure, the semester is ending. That always makes me feel a bit untethered. I am beyond ecstatic that summer is coming; days of writing and reading are somewhat promised to me as a faculty member on the tenure track. But I always grieve a little at the close of classes. I’ll never have this group of students in a classroom meeting every week again and that makes me a bit sad.

My grief is different this time. This semester, I’ve also lost the sense of a collective, a family of sorts whose members are facing the same challenges and doubts the tenure track, and academia more broadly, throws at me. Since I transitioned into academia from philanthropy in 2016, I’ve been a part of a network called New Connections made of underrepresented and marginalized scholars like myself. Rolling along the tenure track as a Black, queer woman whose work centers people like me is not easy. Having a group of people who look like me, speak like me, and sees the world, and its potential and challenges, like me is a lifesaver in academia.

Voice and representation matter in academia. Being able to commiserate with other people who face the same issues and navigate similar waters is a gift. But it is more than just a gift. I did not realize how much I rely on connecting with other scholars like me and how much this connection, this sense of belonging somewhere, is necessary to survive and thrive in academia. I am learning that now.

The network I was a part of is evolving. It’s no longer going to be a separate program, but is being absorbed throughout the large foundation that supported this program for 11 years. The logic behind this decision is sound. It makes sense to integrate the principles of supporting underrepresented scholars throughout an entire organization’s practice rather than placing the responsibility for diversity and inclusion on only one program. But it also makes sense to keep and maintain a sacred space for scholars who may not have such spaces on their own campuses to tell them that yes you are valued and that you do belong here.

The need to belong is critical for underrepresented scholars. Many of us on our journey to becoming academics have trained in places where faculty members, institutions, and even syllabi did not reflect us or our experiences. We’ve become uncomfortably accustomed to being one of the few, or the only one, of us in our classrooms, school events, or professional conferences. And this trend becomes even more acute in making the transition to academia.

Constantly feeling like an “other” is not healthy. It takes its toll. This feeling can lead to imposter syndrome, manifesting itself in self-doubt every time you place your hands on the keyboard to write or stand up in front of a classroom. It comes as anxiety when you’re getting ready to go to campus or feelings of guilt when you’re spending time for self-care and not writing. It is a barrier to doing what needs to be done to earn tenure. It can be difficult to share these feelings with other faculty members who are also building a career but do not face similar challenges in the academy.

Networks like New Connections matter to faculty like me. It is a sacred space where I can be seen, heard, and validated. I can share my struggles related to my multiple identities with no sense of shame or judgment and learn about how other faculty members are working through and managing similar challenges. At events, we are reminded that we are not alone and that there are ways we can navigate the academy and work through its unwritten rules and expectations. So, when I learned last year that New Connections will no longer exist in its current form, I was, understandably, saddened.

New Connections held its final symposium, an event where network members gather to discuss professional development, work on grants, and connect with other scholars, last month. I think that everyone, including the New Connections staff, felt the heaviness that was behind our smiles as we reconnected with old friends and met new scholars during the symposium. We talked about how to keep the feelings of belonging that we found in New Connections as we move forward. I savored each moment I had in the presence of other scholars like me, and, in a way, am still running on that energy as I wrap up another semester and academic year and move closer to tenure.

I hope another network like New Connections emerges. These spaces matter. The energy in networks like New Connections is often an underrepresented faculty member’s lifeline. It was definitely mine.

Like the semester coming to an end, I will never experience having all of the same scholars in the same place at once again. I will grieve the network as it was. But I will take what I’ve learned to help students and junior scholars coming after me find how they belong in academia. In that sense, the space created by New Connections will live on.

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