Mom—The Only Person I Know Who Went to College
This semester, my son had a project assigned in his high school freshman English class in which he was asked to interview someone who achieved a post-secondary education. He mentioned this early in the year and asked if he could interview me. I wondered what he would ask me and how much I would tell him. In reality, I was only one of three people he could have approached for this interview. My oldest sister and my twin sister both have bachelor’s degrees, and I am proud that three brown women from my family are here to help guide him.
I am grateful, though, that he chose me, especially because these moments of deep reflection are hard to come by me and my teenage son. For ten years, we’ve been playing this game. I’m here (Arizona, Wyoming, and back to Arizona) and he’s there (New Mexico). And every night at 8:30 p.m. we talk on the phone. Sometimes we say nothing and other times we cherish opportunities to learn more about one another—though I always joke that the conversation is mostly one-sided.
I consistently reminded him about the assignment due date while thinking carefully about how I might frame our conversation. And just like I guessed, he called me at 9:30 p.m. the day before the assignment was due to conduct the interview.
First question: What was your post-secondary experience and where did you complete this?
I have a BA in Spanish with a minor in Business Management from the University of New Mexico; an MA in Hispanic Southwest Studies, also from UNM; and a PhD in Spanish Cultural Studies from Arizona State University. I was an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming for three years and now I’m in my second year as an assistant professor at ASU.
Second question: Did you ever think of college as a kid?
Only once. When I was eight years old, we picked up Auntie Laurie from summer camp at New Mexico Highlands University. Auntie Lesha and I decided we would go to college there, but we didn’t know anything about it. That was our only exposure to college at that time. I graduated top ten in my high school class but received no scholarships to college. Maybe I didn’t know how to ask about them or maybe no one bothered to reach out to us. I didn’t understand it, because I was smart, and I thought that smart people got scholarships. We didn’t have anyone to talk to about navigating college. When we were seniors in high school, UNM had a Hispanic Day and we rode a bus an hour to Albuquerque to tour the campus. Later that same year, the high school counselors corralled all the seniors in the cafeteria and passed out applications to UNM. And that’s how I decided where I would go.
Third question: Did you plan on getting a PhD when you started?
Yes and no. When I was in high school, someone came to our class to talk about a degree in Pharmacy. I was sold when they said it was the perfect career for women who also want to be married and raise a family. I didn’t know at the time that it required a doctoral degree. I changed my plans two years into college, as I became more aware of my cultural identity and met more people like me. I changed my major to Spanish but, when I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what kind of job I could get with that. So, I got an MA. And when I finished, I got a PhD. I never imagined myself teaching.
Fourth question: What was the most important coming of age point in your life?
Having you, definitely. I began my second year of college as a pregnant, 19-year-old Chicana (though I hadn’t yet realized that I was Chicana). It was hard. Really hard. I met all my teachers in August to tell them I was due at the end of November, right during finals week. I was determined to make it through the semester, so I enrolled in an 8-week course at Kirtland Air Force Base to finish a class before your due date, and made my way through the rest of my classes. Thankfully, my professors were understanding and allowed me to take my final exams when I got back in the spring, which also meant I had to be back in the spring, a little more than one month after giving birth. I worked as a waitress until the day you were due and I went back to work two weeks after you were born, even though I couldn’t stand through a three-hour shift. It was right before Christmas and we didn’t have any money. I remember Auntie Lesha took me to Walmart to buy Christmas decorations (a string of lights and a pack of ornaments was all I could afford). She pushed me around in a wheelchair because I was still in so much pain from giving birth.
“Can I add something else?” I asked.
In four years, I started college, got pregnant, had a baby, graduated, started a master’s program, and got divorced. Nana and Papa expected us to go to college but they never said that out loud. We also understood that, if we went, they could not support us financially. I worked multiple jobs in undergrad and four jobs during my master’s degree. But for all those times we felt lost about college and about what we wanted to do with our lives, I am reassured in knowing your experience will be nothing like that. As a freshman in high school, you have been exposed to college more times than you’d probably like. My life choices have been about you and my wanting to be the best example I can be motivates my drive to do well. So you can look back on your educational journey and know you had all the answers you looked for. I wasn’t ever sure what my education was worth but, when I had you, it was clear. I do this for you.
Last question: Did you ever get looked at different because of your ethnic background?
I always felt like people were judging me and I never felt like my presence was more noticed than when I was pregnant. People would look at me funny but I never knew for sure if it was because I was hyper aware of my pregnancy or if it was something else. I don’t know if it was racially motivated. I never worried about being discriminated against as a brown woman, because I was too busy dealing with shitty things people would say about being a young mom. Like that one time my grad school professor asked if we should move the class to another time so I didn’t have to bring my baby with me, or the other time when I missed class because you had pink eye and a fellow grad student said, “It must be nice to use your baby as an excuse to not come to class.” When I finally realized I was Chicana, I could look at things differently and, in retrospect, I think some of it had to do with my ethnic background.
“So, did you learn anything new in this interview?” I asked him. “Yeah, like I know you went to college and stuff but I didn’t know all this.” He read my answers back to me to make sure he didn’t miss anything and said he’d call me back after he wrote the paper. About half an hour later, he called. He began by saying, “Dang, I only had to write four paragraphs but I could have written pages about this!” I smiled, feeling proud that he took in so much. I wondered how he would synthesize my experience into the four paragraphs that his assignment required. I wasn’t quite sure what the “big lessons” would be but he summarized it all by saying that basically I have a PhD and people gave me dirty looks because I was pregnant and I had to work hard as a Chicana. I laughed as I thought about all the things I could have added to complicate the conversation.
I hesitated to give him too much information and avoided heavier topics like the depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and health issues I suffered from in my PhD program while I was away from him. Though I mentioned that his dad and I didn’t like each other for a while, I avoided bigger conversations on divorce, legal battles, and traumatic co-parenting. I didn’t talk about the countless times I was told by professors that my academic capabilities were deficient while others said to keep working twice as hard, because I was Chicana and the cards were stacked against me. Or the mounting student loans I took out to make sure I would never miss an important moment in his life.
The labor we’ve put into nurturing this relationship feels me with so many emotions. The questions he asked seemed simple enough, but triggered memories of everything we’ve been through to get to this point in our lives. When I moved from New Mexico to Arizona to begin a PhD program, I never imagined how hard it would be to balance being a long-distance mom, teaching, and doing doctoral work. I didn’t account for the emotional toll that pursuing higher education while mothering from afar would take on my body and my mind. And I’ll never fully understand how my son felt through all of this. My mom always told me to trust in God’s plan, but it seemed that every attempt that I made to be physically closer to him never worked out and it broke my heart every time. I try to look at the bigger picture, though. That the sacrifices we both made during the last ten years give him opportunities and knowledge that I never had. And that means a whole lot.
Vanessa Fonseca Chávez is an Assistant Professor of English at Arizona State University where she teaches courses on Chicana/o and indigenous literature and cultural production. Her current book project focuses on contemporary manifestations of colonial relationships in Chicana/o literature. Her co-edited book, Spanish Perspectives on Chicano Literature: Literary and Cultural Essays, was published in 2017 with The Ohio State University Press. She also has published work in Chicana/Latina Studies, RANLE, Chiricú, and Puentes. She is the Co-Director of the Following the Manito Trail project, which looks at the Manito, or Hispanic New Mexican, diaspora from the mid 1800s to the present.