Learning How to Break Up

by Aria S. Halliday

One of the most important tools I gained in graduate school was knowing when and how to break up—break up with an advisor, get rid of friendships, be done with areas of thought—with things that were not conducive or productive to my learning. For many of us, as students of color in graduate school, we have very little guidance for what the journey is supposed to be like and what things are abnormal or detrimental to the experience. Many times, we attend diversity recruitment programs and get a particular perspective of an institution based on those we meet. However, we often don’t know the dynamics of a department or the personalities of advisors and students. We build quick relationships with those we meet, hoping that someone can help guide us through this maze that we know absolutely nothing about (and our families keep asking, “now what are you doing again?”). In our first year or so, we cling to these early relationships and usually have to learn the hard way the things that the diversity programs didn’t tell us, the things they intentionally hide from time to time. We hope that these early connections prove benevolent and eventually turn into friendships and mentorships that we can carry on for many years to come. However, there inevitably comes a time we when breaking up is the best solution. 

Over time, we learn that that advisor we loved so much actually has a terrible mentoring model or that student we aspired to be like is actually a complete fool or steals other people’s research. We learn that the leaders over the diversity programming don’t actually care about retaining us, or that our departments won’t be the havens we were promised they would be. For some graduate students, these lessons are enough to make them walk away from graduate school. Citing prejudice in their programs, antagonism from advisors or members of their cohort, many graduate students decide that the degree they wanted isn’t worth the psychological and emotional strife that they undergo on campus.

For me, it took two years to accurately understand the way my institution, advisors, and colleagues worked with and against me. I realized that one particular advisor wasn’t the woman I thought she was and couldn’t be supportive of the work I wanted to do simply because I didn’t want to emulate her. I realized that a friend was far more interested in me assisting them with their annotated bibliography than they were with hearing about issues I was facing. I realized that the diversity officers that I trusted weren’t willing to fight against the institution when things went awry. In all of these cases, I had to learn how to break up with situations that were not going to fortify me for the rest of my journey.

Don’t get me wrong; it was hard. I went through many emotional months trying to figure out how to tell the only advisor I had that I was going to walk away from her mentorship. It was hard to tell some colleagues that I didn’t want to attend the cohort outings and that I wasn’t willing to study with them. It was hard to pull back from my commitments to inclusion on campus when I realized I was the only one taking the risks. No matter how hard it was, though, I decided that what I needed from the experience was more important than what others were willing to give. Many times, we believe the idiom “what you see is what you get” and we learn through trial and error that there’s much more to understand about the way the world works. My trial-and-error in those first two years made me realize how much of this journey was solely mine and that, ultimately, I had to decide to step up and change the things that weren’t working or fall prey to all the ill will that was directed my way.  I stopped citing the scholars who weren’t committed to the social justice work I do; I stopped attending the meetings that directed attention to educating white students about their prejudices rather than counseling students of color about their everyday experiences. I started to create spaces that did the work I wanted to do and didn’t bother with the other things. In other words, I broke up with the institutional issues and people that made my experience hellish and cultivated spaces and relationships that made me feel secure and safe.

Fear is an emotion that can cloud our judgment and makes us believe that a terrible situation is the best one. – Aria H.

As graduate students of color, there is very rarely a blueprint for success. We rarely have family that understands what we are trying to accomplish and face incredible odds to actually receiving the degree we want. We struggle to maintain our relationships with family and friends from home and get beaten up by the many issues on campus. However, I encourage you to make your own blueprint. Just because things may be hard, doesn’t mean that they are impossible. With a few supporters and a clear plan, you can get the degree that you sought out. You have to be willing to break up with things that don’t work for you and create spaces that do. Fear is an emotion that can cloud our judgment and makes us believe that a terrible situation is the best one. But I encourage you to let love and the desire to change the world steer you into the spaces that are scary but are going to be the most productive for you. Forget what people assume is the “right” way to do something and do what you need to for you. Not only will your experience at your institution be much more manageable, but you will also be able to finish much more quickly. Don’t forget: you are never alone in this struggle. There are people are all around you who want you to do well and are willing to help you get there.

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