The Emotional Work of a PhD: Why I cannot forget my first meetings as a PhD student.

(A longer entry than my usual)

COVID Update –

My last entry was a short reflection about life during the pandemic. Although many folks have been vaccinated, there are still many people across the world who are still dying from COVID, particularly in India.  See this article from the BBC that tries to account for numbers all around the world.   It is important to note that these numbers will not include every death due to COVID not does it show all the emotional and physical toll on families worldwide.

The Beginning of My Doctoral Journey –

Dear readers, you are all probably wondering why I waited this long to write about my first days a PhD student.  Last year after the murders of Mr. Floyd and Ms. Taylor, UD like many schools called for groups of professors, staff, and students to have conversations about the systemic inequities faced by students of various backgrounds. Many of these efforts seemed performative but many of us joined them anyway in hope of spurring change and making lives different.   It turned out that joining these groups was fruitless because some of the members managed to diminish the perspectives of students of color while using our emotional labor and presence.  This experience angered and upset me so much that I must share it with others.

The GRE –

I started my PhD journey in the summer of 2017 when I moved to Delaware to study at University of Delaware.  My coursework started at the end of August, but my emotional journey started much earlier. 

Applying to a PhD program required many steps before I even completed an application. In my case, it also meant taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and relearning algebra, geometry, and other quantitative skills that I have not touched since my high school and undergraduate years of college.  The GRE exam and any current prep materials, and courses also cost money.  I was fortunate that I had money saved to apply to these costs and had the time to prep for the exam.  The day I took the exam, I can tell you that I was praying just to pass.  I knew that my PhD application would be incomplete without passing GRE scores. I was also realistic about my test anxiety and inability to test well in these situations.   When I completed the exam, I got my score, and it was low.  But I did not care; I passed.   I could check the GRE off my list. 

Once I assembled my application with my writing sample, letters of recommendation, transcripts, and résumé, I sent it off with a prayer.  We must put so much faith in the admissions committee.  Will they see us as whole people or only as a GRE score?  I know with such a low GRE score I many only be seen as that – a low scoring individual.  I even had a conversation with a professor who told me I would not be a good candidate for the program because my score was so low.  I told this professor that in my professional capacity I had no problems working with my multidisciplinary colleagues even when I did not fully understand their areas of study. I had the ability to collaborate and learn with and from my colleagues.  Since the GRE is just a test of arbitrary quantitative, qualitative, and typing skills completed in limited time frames, it could not measure my actual work or my future potential

In the end, I was accepted into the disaster science PhD program but still placed into the “less than” category because of my abysmal GRE score.  In fact, during my first two meetings with UD professors, I was told how I could be a better graduate student.  One of those suggestions included joining the school chapter of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM).  I thought that was a remarkably interesting suggestion. As a reminder, these meetings happened in the summer of 2017 and I had just spent the last five years (2012 to 2016) as the chairperson of the IAEM-USA conference committee.  Did either of these professors look beyond my GRE score and read my application?  I wonder.   Maybe they would have noticed that I was a Certified Emergency Manager and have been a practitioner in my field since 2008. How about that I was a medic in the U. S. Army or that I completed the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard? 

Being Useful –

I met with both professors separately, and both independently suggested that I join the IAEM chapter. When I told each of them that I spent the last five years as the conference chairperson for IAEM, they were both quiet and perhaps, a little embarrassed. What was worse was that both professors told me that I would be “useful” for their students.  I realized at this point that I was not an individual to them.  I was acceptable because I could serve as a resource for their other more important students. After those appointments, I was extremely disappointed and disheartened, but I did not realize that my journey was just starting.   Being “othered” in this situation by two separate professors within an hour of each other was one of the first indications that my doctoral journey was not just an intellectual pursuit. At that point, I did not know if I was being “othered” for being a non-traditional student who came from emergency management practice, for being an older female student, or for being non-white. Unfortunately, it took months before I realized the emotional toll I dealt with as well as the typical challenges of a doctoral program.

Can’t Be Quiet Anymore –

As I mentioned in my quick intro, I joined a diversity and inclusion committee to reduce the social inequities and found myself surrounded by accomplished individuals who were still unable to see how their privilege and power were advantages that non-white individuals will never have access to.  After four years of staying quiet about my experiences, I can no longer ignore the willful ignorance of the role of privilege and power.    As a woman of color, it is time to bring my concerns forward in a space where they will be heard rather than invalidated as “just my perspective” and “not the whole story” from individuals who are not people of color and who are unable to acknowledge the differences in lived experiences.  

Many of us suffer because of the imbalance of power where we relive or experience trauma regularly in the classes we take or in exchanges with other students, professors, or staff. The imbalance of power exists because of hiring practices, implicit bias, and where some white professors/staff are unable to acknowledge the privilege (and power) they hold in being white.

I have found my thoughts and my feedback are questioned for its validity or quality because as a woman of color, I must be “angry”. I am also speaking out since I find white centering or misappropriating our experiences problematic, and it is still happening too often. 

I will continue to write about these experiences from a place of growth and a desire for change.  In my practice as a disaster manager, I often said that I would speak for those who could not speak for themselves, and I find myself doing that again.  There are many students and professionals around the world who cannot speak their truth without consequences. 

Lastly, I am not entirely free of retribution.  I am still slowly working on my dissertation proposal now and hope to be done with it in the next year.   The political fallout for a doctoral student can be terrible, but I feel so strongly about speaking out anyway. 

I thank you for sticking with me.  Stay tuned for more. 

Blessings,

Susamma

 #PhD #DoctoralJourney #Other #Othering #BIPOC #GRE #Diversity #Inclusion #Perspectives #Power #Privilege #PhDStudent

My PhD Journey – Getting back on track.

I started this blog back in 2017 with my travels in India and continued as I started my PhD.  As my studies got more intense and life got more involved, I did not write anything for my blog. I had so much that I wanted to say and today I decided it was time to get back to it. 

Sometimes, the journeys we take are not physical. We do not need to cross continents to figure out who we are. Sometimes, we need to sit still in our own spaces and look out of our windows and commune with our neighborhood birds (for weeks) to figure out exactly how happy we are and that we have achieved so many of our dreams in spite of living through a pandemic. 

2020 was a horrible year and I do not know anyone who has not felt any of that sadness.  As I write this today (Feb 21, 2021), almost 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States alone. 

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/interactive/2021/500000-covid-deaths-visualized/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_national

As I said above, I spent a lot of 2020 looking at the birds of my Maryland neighborhood because contemplating the death and disaster happening all around the country was too much to handle.  At some point in the summer, I developed debilitating headaches and was ready to leave my dissertation behind forever.  Thankfully, my wonderful doctors at the Wilmington Veterans Medical Center found out what was wrong with me by the end of December. 

After a couple of CT scans, a lumbar puncture, a new medication, and lots cussing at my aching head, I was feeling a bit better by the beginning of February.  I still have headaches, but I can function.  Hallelujah!

I am excited about my dissertation again and those of you who are on my holiday card list should be seeing some cards this spring.  Now that I feel better, I can finally start sending them out. 

I will continue to write about my favorite topics and my research.  Send me comments and thanks for sticking with me! 

Peace and love,

Susamma

Lessons from Bob

B ob Bohlmann, CEM, was known and respected by many in emergency management. In 2016, we lost him to pancreatic cancer. He was my friend and my mentor. I think of him every day and rely on the lessons he taught me with his wisdom and perspective. To truly honor the impact of his mentoring, I must share what he taught me.

1. You are never alone. Bob always ended our calls by reminding me he was there to support me. I cannot call him anymore, but I can call other colleagues and friends for help. Leverage your relationships and connections to help you through your journey. Do not forget that you can also answer the phone for others.

2. Do not be afraid to start with “I don’t know.” Everyone starts at the beginning with limited information. We are all searching for greater knowledge and competence. Recognizing that we have gaps in our knowledge or skills is the first step to improving ourselves.

3. Always look for the history. This was an important lesson for me. Whenever we talked about failures, challenges or potential policy decisions, we discussed the relevant history of that issue and the people involved. Bob also explained appropriate background details about institutional relationships or connections. Dale Carnegie taught us that people will help you achieve your goals, if you help them achieve their goals. Bob Bohlmann taught me to seek out the nuanced details from the past to better achieve all our goals.

4. Keep asking questions. Sometimes we have questions that are not easily answered. Perhaps we are not asking the right person or considering the best angle. In some cases, we are asking questions that make others uncomfortable. Discomfort is good. Discomfort leads us to discoveries about ourselves and our areas of research and practice.

5. Do not forget why you are on your journey. When your journey gets difficult and you are struggling to move forward, think about why you are here. What is your purpose? If you do not know why, maybe you need to think about it. Once you know what it is, write it down.

6. Do not settle. There are times in our lives when we take what is offered because it is easier than putting up a fight to get exactly what we need. We all have those days and those battles. For the most important issues in your life, do not accept what does not meet your most fundamental identity. No one in the world will fight harder for your identity and goals than you. If you need help, see number one.

7. Be kind. Bob was such a gentle man and a gentleman. He taught us that we lose nothing by treating others with kindness and respect.

8. Sometimes people will not like you. This is not easy to hear. However, if we think back, we will remember people whom we did not like. Bob taught me that being respected was more important than being liked. I also have learned that sometimes my dislike is more about me than the other person.

9. Check yourself first. You probably do this already, but just in case, check your biases and prejudices before you assume it is the other person who has a problem. Bob was good at this, and with his example, I learned to find other trusted friends and colleagues who would help me check my biases and prejudices.

10. Be a mentor. This is Bob’s most important lesson. Our profession is only as strong and knowledgeable as we all are. Our failures are important – and by sharing details and lessons, we could prevent others from making the same mistakes. As you consider my suggestions, remember that you are not limited in the number of mentors. Seek out the people who will help you become the stellar person you are meant to become.

This article originally appeared in the IAEM March 2019 Bulletin.

The Importance of Personal Milestones – 1978 to 2018

2018 is of great significance to me. I have three milestones, which I will discuss briefly. When we talk about milestones, they mark the passage of time but for me, they also represent small victories laced with grief.  I arrived in the United States forty years ago in 1978, fresh and new.  With my clean slate and new opportunities, I could accomplish anything.  Or maybe that’s what I think now as I look back.

The 28th of October makes the third quarter of every year the most difficult to get through. Twenty years ago, my husband, Anthony James Seeley, killed himself in front of me with a colt 45 handgun.  I write these words without any tears today because I have already shed an ocean of tears. However, I cannot tell you how much I will cry in ten minutes, tomorrow or the day after that.  I never thought I would survive the first year after his death, but in 2018, my husband has been dead for twenty years. Of course, I am now crying because suicide leaves its mark on those left behind.

I should mention that his death came just ten days after my 25th birthday.  I will forever mark my life by the date of his death.  However, I remember him every year and honor him. I do this not because he killed himself but because he was alive. We had shared a life, no matter how brief.  Suicide robs everyone of that life and those of us who are left behind need to talk about the consequences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.  The Veteran’s Administration indicates there are anywhere from 20 to 22 suicides a day among Veterans, National Guard, Reserve, and active-duty service personnel.  This is a mental health issue but also a public health issue.  Twenty years ago, when my husband was suffering, I did not understand what was happening nor did I recognize the signs.  Please take the time to inform yourselves. Here’s a link to the Mayo Clinic for suicide prevention material.

Before you think I am going to leave you all with just the sadness, let me tell you about my shortest milestone so far.   I am a second-year doctoral student in disaster science and management.  Back when I was a young immigrant to this country, I did not know what I wanted or what I could do.   I also did not know how I could serve others.  I have these answers today and as a Ph.D student, I feel almost as fresh and new as I did back in 1978.  Thankfully, I have my 2018 knowledge with my years of experience, but I am grateful for living long enough for these milestones.

Thanks for reading and be blessed.

What Sridevi’s Death Really Means to Me.

This weekend, Sridevi died of a heart attack. We lost an icon. For many of the women of my generation, she represented our younger years and the transition to adulthood.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sridevi, she was the first female superstar in the Hindi-film industry better known to the world as Bollywood.  In Indian films, the stories are driven by male characters or heroes and often experience poor box-office sales without the strong or favored male hero.  Sridevi needed no hero to sell a film. She was a powerful woman, immensely skilled and led the way for the women who came after her.   As an Indian woman, I am very affected by her death.

I am a Malayalam-speaking girl from Kerala, India who grew up watching Hindi-language films in America.  When I was a painfully shy and confused pre-teen and teen, it was Hindi music and movies that gave me solace and confidence.  Sridevi was a significant part of the movies I watched and the songs I listened to repeatedly. When she was on the screen, she completely captivated me.  Her songs from Chandni and Lamhe, are still among my favorites.

During my time in India last year, I was working on improving my Hindi, so I downloaded some of the songs and dialogues from Chandni to listen to during my morning walks.   Sridevi’s Hindi film debut was for the movie “Julie” in 1975. While I have watched that movie a few times, I have listened to the songs hundreds of times. I cannot even count how many times I have listened to the songs from Chandni and Lamhe.  Her films literally span my entire life and Sridevi is just as relevant now as she was in my childhood. I am such an Indian woman that I cannot imagine my identity without the Hindi songs of my youth. This weekend I have been listening to many of her older songs and thinking about the first time I saw them.

Although, I have never met her, I mourn her loss.  We will never get to see another movie with her. Peppered throughout the weekend were the thoughts of mortality looming for all of us.  Sridevi was only ten years older than me.   I certainly know firsthand how quickly life changes.

From now on, as I listen to Chandni, I will see Sridevi in that role eternally but I will also take it as a reminder to take joy in the life and the blessings I have.  I urge all of you to do the same.

 

Hamaara Sridevi Chale Gae Hain (Our Sridevi is gone).

Bollywood's First Female Superstar, This Chandni Left The World Too Soon

Can you believe it’s already February?

 

How many of you can believe that tomorrow is the beginning of February?  I am struggling with it.  It feels like I have lost the last month and those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will know that I have been sick for most of January.  I had my first ear infection and I am pretty sure that I had a bad bout of bronchitis.  Fortunately, classes do not start until Monday, so being sick for most of January had a silver lining after all.  To say that I was grateful for that small favor is understating it.  For those of you who took care of your families and worked through being sick, you all are amazing!  I was happy to just have my cat, Sunny, with me.  I don’t think I could have handled more, but I had plenty of time to think.

Allow me to share three lessons I learned from my little bout.

When you live alone, you must tell other people how sick you really are.  Thank goodness for one of my dearest friends who asked me if I had eaten anything. For the record, mango juice does not count!  I was sick when I came back from my vacation and I did not get to go grocery shopping.  By the time she was asking if I had eaten anything, I was so sick that it did not even occur to me to order food.   The food she had delivered got me through the next few days.

Embrace being sick.  I know that sounds silly or counter intuitive, but I was sick for weeks. Therefore, I will need at least that same amount of time to recover.  I mentioned to one of my professors that I regretted being in forties for the first time.  When I was in twenties, I would have bounced back after a few days.  Not this time!

I am a pet person; I had my kitty, Sunny, right by my side.  This might be the most important lesson of all.    I remember waking up from naps to find my cat snuggled against my back or my shoulder.  As someone who lives alone, I was grateful to have him with me.  Our pets are so important to our well being.

Stay tuned for more posts.  Happy February!

 

Being truly grateful, every day

 

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and I’ve seen so many beautiful posts about what and whom everyone is grateful for in their lives. I was going to make a Thanksgiving post on Facebook to everyone when I realized I had something more to say.

I’m grateful every day. There are so many things in this life that I would not have had if I lived in another country.  I don’t take my freedoms lightly: The freedom to move about in clothing of my choice; the freedom to speak about my convictions; the freedom to live alone; the freedom to be unafraid to be who I am; and to stand up for myself as I need it.  I also have the freedom to continue to educate myself and to choose my friends.

I take none of these for granted because we know in other places and spaces in this country and in others, the rules are different for different folks.   I practice being grateful every day –  especially, on my worst days.   I’ve been open about my story and the struggles I’ve experienced and continue to experience but I have always told myself that someone else may have it worse.

With that perspective in mind, I take joy in everything I have.  I work on that every day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Yes, I am a Brown Girl and a Veteran too

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Yesterday was Veterans Day and I was traveling to Long Beach, CA for the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Annual Conference where some of my friends and colleagues are veterans.  I was reading their posts on Facebook about respecting our Veterans and I realized that respect extends as far as the other person’s perspective.  In this last year, I have had my U.S. Veteran status challenged because I do not look like everyone else.

During a Memorial Day weekend family trip this year, my family and I went to a magic show at a children’s park in the Lake George Resort area.  When the magician asked about veterans in his audience, I was the only one who raised a hand.  He took one look at me and asked if I fought for our side or theirs.  Who was he talking about?  What choice does he give me but to assume he meant anyone but the Americans?    Was he talking about my brown skin or my large frame?   Since the magician was not a Lilliputian from Gulliver’s travels, he was casually remarking that my brown skin made me a foreigner.

Last month at my local Veterans Affairs medical facility, I entered a room for an orientation to behavioral health and the nurse leading the orientation stopped his presentation to ask me if I was a veteran.  Let’s keep a couple facts in mind here. To receive care at any VA facility, you must be a veteran and they fully authenticate your eligibility. The room for the orientation was not a room I could have found accidentally. One of his colleagues led me to this room and said this is the room for you, veteran. At the end of that session, a veteran speaker came in to share his experience with mental health with us. At the end of his talk, he went around the room to ask everyone’s service.  He skipped me. I guess I was invisible.  He left the room for a minute and then came back.  Somehow, he could see me this time to ask my branch of service.

The final straw came when I checked into my hotel room last night  for the conference and asked about any related events for veterans.  The front desk staff asked me if I was a family member or a friend of a veteran.   I really wanted to scream because I had just handed him a credit card that had “Army”  and the USAA logo embossed on it.

What the heck does it mean when the folks at the VA facility cannot even believe you are a veteran?  How is a person supposed to react when she is constantly told she does not look like someone who could have been a United States service member?      It’s frustrating.  It’s maddening.  I’m tired of it.    It happened more in the last year than in the entire time that I’ve been a veteran.     I want to scream it out:  yes, brown girls can be veterans too.   In fact,  I did not get my U.S. citizenship until after I left the Army.  For those of you who think immigrants cannot faithfully serve this nation, you are wrong. We do.  Every day.

We brown girls  can do many things. Those of you with the limited perspectives  and the prejudices can either do something about your ignorance or you can get out of our way.  Your ignorance will not stop us.  It will not stop us from serving our country in any capacity, then or now.

 

Standing, Kneeling, and Doing Deep Work

 

Before you report me for having pornographic content, allow me to offer you some context.   I am a month into a disaster science and management Ph.D. program and there have been hurricanes, flooding, torrential downpours, earthquakes and people dying all around the world.   The man who was elected president is close to inciting nuclear war with the North Korean dictator and cannot seem to control his impulses although his more professional staff have tried.   Between hearing his speech to the United Nations General Assembly and the twitter war with the NFL, Stephen Curry, and Rocket Man, I have been very distracted.  This weekend, he said so much more about standing or kneeling during the national anthem and remained silent about the destruction in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

As a Veteran, I served so we all could have the choice.  I served so we could protest against institutional racism and injustice.   I served so everyone had the right to stand up, kneel, or sit down during the anthem or whenever. I served so you could vote for whomever you chose, even if you picked someone who would not know patriotism if it slapped him in the face.

You’re probably wondering what standing up for the anthem and deep work have in common.   Yes, I am distracted but no I have not lost my sights on the long-term goal.  That is the true purpose of committing to a doctoral program.  I recognize how much there is to be done and how much I could lose if I allow myself to get distracted by every shiny tweet or impulsive post.   As a doctoral student, armed with twitter, Face Book, and LinkedIn, I have some serious distraction to fight.  Weaning myself off Huffington Post and Morning Report is just a start.  In his latest book, Deep Work, Cal Newport writes that “deep work is the ability to focus without distraction.”     To be clear, Cal Newport’s methods will serve me well beyond graduate school, but most importantly, it served to remind me that we all should determine what we stand for and what we want to accomplish with our lives.

Silence is Not Golden

I have been in Delaware for the last month settling in and getting back into the graduate school state of mind.  Since I am in the disaster science and management doctoral program, I can hardly shut out current events. I do have a television, but I do not have cable.  Although with the internet, one can live without cable.   For those of you who follow my blog, you probably thought I had been swallowed up by the school.  After all, the life of a doctoral student can be rather boring.

When I should be reviewing research methods or statistics, I find myself thinking about white supremacists and Charlottesville.   I am pouring through my social media instead of my textbooks.     For those of you who are wondering what the heck is happening in the world, I want to expand on a point I made this weekend on FaceBook about how some people live in a bubble.   When we look out at the world, we look through our eyes and with our experiences.  If we have never seen, experienced, or even acknowledged color, racism, sexism, or any inequality, then we may not recognize it happening around us.   For the record, telling me or anyone else, that you do not see color, race, and gender does not absolve you of your prejudices or biases.  It just means that you are blind to all of them and ignore the fact that people who are multicultural, LGBQT, etc.,  face different risks in their daily lives.

Without rehashing any events from this weekend or earlier, there are several points I would like to make about witnessing injustice and acting.

  1. Everyone has a different view of every situation but white supremacists who advocate for the death of non-white people are wrong, every time. Frankly, anyone who advocates for anyone else’s death is wrong.
  2. Staying quiet when you see or hear injustice is providing consent. You are showing the adults (and the children) around you that you agree with this behavior and will do nothing to make it stop.
  3. Sometimes you must stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, for those who do not have a voice, or for those who are ignored or overlooked.
  4. It is okay to be afraid of the consequences of standing up to injustice or to the bullies. If you do nothing, the consequences of your inaction or acquiescence will be far greater.
  5. We can disagree about many things but we can also listen to each other respectfully. The Google employee and his manifesto that got him fired and made many of us so very angry is an excellent example.   Do I agree with him?  NO! Did he have a right to his opinion?  Yes!     If we shut down all conversation just because we disagree, how can we move forward?  How can we learn anything from each other? Think about this the next time you shut down or end all communication.

In an earlier post on my blog, I shared with you all about standing up for others because it was the right thing to do.  In all our social media, we have countless examples of people referencing military, family, or personal experiences fighting the Nazis in World War II, surviving the Holocaust, or regular people like you and me saying no more inequality.   I want to end this post with a modified version of the quote generally attributed to the British statesman, Edmund Burke.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.”