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Lessons in Research: Redefining My Place as a Mother-Scholar in The Academy

Corazón Lleno


Ruby Osoria, 2018

My painting attempts to illustrate the love, connection, and ever-growing bond of a mother and her daughter. I kept going back to this image as I interviewed the mothers who were part of my thesis and who spoke about the influential mother figure in their lives. They remembered the love, guidance, strength, pain, and challenges their mothers endured and used their experience to guide their own m(other)ing. As undocumented Mexican immigrant women, some of the mujeres have spent a decade without seeing their own mothers, a sacrifice made para sus hij@s. While it is a love and a bond that transcends borders and walls, it is a love that is entangled in immigration politics that dehumanize these experiences. It is a love and a bond that these mujeres yearn and should have the right to, hold, feel and see.

This painting also reflects my own journey as a scholar. My identity as a first-generation Chicana and daughter of immigrants has shaped my experiences as a student and researcher, an identity further challenged once I became pregnant as an undergraduate. Higher education was not created to serve mother-scholars or acknowledge their existence. While I struggled to find a place in the academy, it would be my second pregnancy that allowed me to recognize that a pregnant body had a place in academia and in research. It is my love, connection, and ever-growing bond with my own two daughters that helped create space for myself as a mother-scholar and has led me to reflect on my higher education journey.

During my second year in community college, I decided that I was going to do research for a living. What was research exactly? At 19, I would not have been able to fully explain it, but I knew how it made me feel. Reading scholarly journals for the first time made me feel as though I had discovered something meaningful. This feeling was further fueled by one of my professors when she spoke in words that I only dreamed to have the courage to speak; words that I had yet to learn. Hearing a woman of color speaking on the importance of research had a big impact.

That fall semester, back from summer break, I enrolled in a Mexican-American history class. The first project of the semester was a case study where we had to focus on a central topic/issue, develop interview questions, record our interview, transcribe, and analyze. I was eager and excited, I started right away. I interviewed a close friend, who was an artist and community activist. This interview led me to center the paper portion of this project on the deficit narrative of a predominantly Mexican immigrant community to justify the gentrification occurring in this community. I finished the case study project a week or so earlier, and my professor had me present it to the class as an example of how the final paper could look like and answer any questions. I was extremely proud of myself, validated by a Chicana professor who I admire. I held on to that paper as I transferred to a four-year university, for me it was evidence that I could (possibly) one day be a researcher!

As a transfer student, I was introduced to the campus, the faculty, the staff, the courses, the programs, the racism, the sexism, microaggressions, the hostile campus climate, and the realities of students of color in higher education. That year I was accepted to a research program for undergraduate students. My personal experience informed what would become my research question: What retained Chicanx students in a toxic campus climate in Southern California? In preparation for my research project, I enrolled in research methods and theory-based courses. Every course and article reaffirmed the same narrative, research is supposed to be “critical,” indifferent, in order to protect from biases and skewing the results.

While conducting research I had concerns. “How can I be critical and a good researcher when I am studying my peers in organizations that I participated in?” These feelings stemmed from the fact that I had previously written a paper on the culture of M.E.Ch.A. where my professor wrote on the front page “this is an insider view,” next to a letter grade D. His claim was clear, I should not analyze people and spaces I am invested in, my communities. While I had moments of concern throughout my research project, questioning my analysis, stressing about potential biases, I was proud to be done and was proud of my first official research project. I produced a body of work that shed light on the resiliency of first-generation Chicanx students in the academy. This was for my community and I was formulating what research meant to me.

Research provided an avenue to center the experiences of students that had historically been marginalized in the academy. It allowed for participants to tell their stories, shed light to their experience, and have control of their narratives. In the process, it challenged deficit frames that places the blame on the student and not the institution.

During my senior year as an undergraduate, I was accepted to a research program for students minoring in immigration. During this time, I was pregnant with my first child. I didn't know how this version of myself could fit in the academy while also collecting data. I had internalized subtle and not so subtle messages of who belonged in the university and who was supposed to conduct research. Thinking back, at that point, I didn’t reflect on these feeling, I didn’t challenge these thoughts like I did other experiences of racial and gender microaggressions. The academy made me feel as though during this metamorphosis of myself, I did not belong in higher education. While I never fit into the category of a “traditional student”, that of a white middle-class male, my visibility as a pregnant woman of color was one rarely seen on campus which contributed to my erasure in the academy and lack of institutional support. I had found spaces within the academy that allowed me to be successful, spaces that empowered me, and recognized my intersectionalities, but I couldn't tell you about anything available, specifically, for parent scholars. Yet, I persisted.

A year and a half after graduating with my bachelor’s degree and giving birth to my first child, I began my master’s program. This program challenged me both academically and personally. Furthermore, the journey throughout my master’s program allowed me to regain a confidence in myself, as a mother scholar. I was part of a master’s program that introduced me to the type of research I was always seeking to produce and learned about the existence of me-search, the centering of one’s lived experience as a starting point in research. A tool that is important to the telling and re-telling of the experiences of communities that have been pushed to the margins. For me, it was the centering of my lived experience as the daughter of immigrants, a woman of color, as a mother-scholar, that informed my interest in doing work around m(other)ing. I gained the tools that allowed me to do research aimed toward social justice.

Soon after completing my preliminary defense I discovered that I was pregnant with my second child. By the time I received IRB approval and began to gather data, my pregnancy had started to show. My pregnancy was front and center throughout my data collection. An amazing profesora of mine encouraged me to write about my experience in the methodology section of my thesis paper. I wrote about my pregnancy being part of my recruitment tool, as it lends itself for conversation throughout the recruitment process. This precious tool allowed me to use our commonalities as mothers as an asset to my research methods approach. Being pregnant while collecting data reinforced the importance of utilizing my intersectionalities to build rapport with participants.

This experience forced me to reflect back to my undergraduate year. It was a healing process for my undergraduate self, who didn’t know how to fully be empowered by her pregnancy while in the academy. As a current Ph.D student., my journey in higher education has led me to center my family in how I choose to challenge the normative expectations of who a Ph.D. student should be, and how I choose to navigate this process on my own terms.

Ruby Osoria is currently a first-year Ph.D. Student in Education Studies at UC San Diego. Ruby earned a master’s degree in Social and Cultural Analysis of Education, has a bachelor's degree in Sociology with a minor in International Immigration and an associate degree in Liberal Arts. Her research interests are educational access, Chicanx/Latinx immigrant parents, and first-generation college students. She is interested in research that dismantles the deficit narrative of immigrant parents and parents of color, brings forth the systematic forms of oppression that limit the role of immigrant and parents of color, while highlighting the contributions in their children’s academic trajectory.

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