Cultivating My Authenticity and Self-Awareness As a STEM Graduate Student

Jocelyn Elizabeth Nardo

My name is Josie and I am a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at Purdue University. This article is a collection of lessons learned as I have cultivated my understanding of personal authenticity in the context of my academic career while I have been pursuing a doctoral degree. I hope you may use these lessons to feel closer to who you are and who you will become.

To me, authenticity is the skill of knowing who you are and harnessing that awareness to reinvent yourself, define boundaries, set expectations, and coordinate resources. As a first-generation scholar and daughter of Cuban immigrants, I have come to understand the importance of learning and maintaining who I am, while also defending who I am not, within academic spaces. I grew up in Miami, Florida within a big, blended family, listening to stories in English and in Spanish about my parents living in Cuba, moving to the United States, the good and the bad. It was normal to come from immigrant parents, normal to come from a working-class family, normal to speak Spanglish. However, it was not until I left for graduate school at the age of 22 that I realized these experiences—my experiences—were very much in the minority.

To me, authenticity is the skill of knowing who you are and harnessing that awareness to reinvent yourself, define boundaries, set expectations, and coordinate resources.

Searching For the Self: Who Am I?

I grew up eating guava and cheese pastelitos for breakfast, arroz con pollo for lunch, bistec encebollado for dinner, and, most importantly, lots of pan Cubano from the bakery down the street. But when I moved for graduate school, buying my normal groceries became shopping in the international or ethnic section of the supermarket. I remember absent-mindedly buying pastries from the grocery store thinking they were filled with guava, only to take a bite and realize they were filled with cherry. Whenever I introduced myself, before I could even say my name, the person would usually interrupt with something like, “I’m sorry, but where are you from?” I figured people were just being curious until one of my friends explained, “Oh, it’s harmless! It’s just because of your little accent.” I remember thinking, “My LITTLE accent? How do I have an accent?” It was the first time that I had ever felt so different and judged. Eventually, my “little accent” snowballed into people believing that I had gotten into graduate school because of affirmative action, that coming from a blended family with working-class parents meant that I had a difficult childhood and that I was from a lower socioeconomic status, and that speaking Spanglish meant that I was neither American enough nor Hispanic enough to understand and practice either culture.

In my first year, I started to believe most of these ignorant, unbecoming things about myself. I started internalizing the toxic patterns of my peers, which led me to poor mental health and poorer academic performance. My department has a requirement of taking chemistry-content-based exams, of which we must pass five within the first two years of the program. I ended up passing four my first semester and feeling very proud of myself. When I brought this up to a peer, the person remarked, “Oh, that’s so great! Especially, considering…you know…,” so I remarked, “No, considering what?” To which the individual replied, “I just meant considering your background, like your parents and how you got into Purdue. That’s all.” At the time, my self-concept was so low that I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, yeah…they are totally right. I must have not deserved to pass these… there’s no way I will probably pass again.” It took me an entire year to finish my chemistry-content-based exams. But, I passed six for good measure. At that point, all I knew was that I had to change; I knew that I had to unknow all these false things about myself; and I knew I had to learn who I was not.

Setting Boundaries: Who Am I Not?

During the summer of my first year, my good friend and colleague noticed me sinking further into depression and encouraged me to make an appointment with a therapist. Like most people, I was hesitant and skeptical about seeking the advice of a therapist as I thought to myself, “If I don’t know what is wrong, how could this person know?” At first, my sessions with the therapist felt uncomfortable, especially when she started realizing that I was guarding…something. Finally, in our third session, she asked me, “What are you afraid of?” I averted my eyes from hers and laughed, “Oh, you know! Normal stuff like dying, the dark, lizards, et cetera, et cetera.” She mirrored my laugh with a sigh and asked, “What are you afraid of…emotionally?” The sharpness in her tone immediately made my face feel warm, “Um, I don’t really know. It’s hard to say.” She looked at me with concern and said, “I think…I think you are afraid of believing in your worth. I think you are afraid of believing in yourself.” I remember sitting there quietly trying to hold my feelings inside as my eyes began to well. I knew that the therapist wanted me to respond, but I also knew that if I were to start talking, I would have started crying. Sensing my discomfort, the therapist asked encouragingly, “Why do you choose to believe what those…mean people say about you? From what I already know, they are wrong.”

At this point, I had already begun crying as I tried to steady my breathing well enough to respond, “I guess…I just never realized that I could choose, since I didn’t know I had options....” The therapist smiled with her eyes and leaned forward, “Yes, you have options, but only if you make them for yourself. If you don’t practice positive self-talk and celebrate your accomplishments as worthwhile, you can’t choose to believe in yourself when other people say negative things about you. And if you only say negative things about yourself, then you really don’t have any option but to believe them.”

In that moment, I chose to believe that I could believe in myself even though I still had not figured out how to do that yet. I felt determined to connect with the person I was before I got to graduate school. When I got home, I decided to reread the personal statement I wrote when I applied to Purdue. In that letter, I was confident and competent. I had a mission to attend graduate school in chemistry to learn more about how people learn so I could improve the quality of STEM education in America, especially for learners with less access to higher education. I had excelled in both my chemistry and education classes at my undergraduate institution while working part-time in a series of teaching positions. In terms of authenticity, I started to relearn who I was and remind myself that my background was never a shortcoming, but rather a forthcoming. From there, I knew that foregrounding my background was the next step in figuring out who I should be.

Setting Expectations: Who Should I Be?

I felt my mental health and academics starting to improve as I implemented more self-care routines, personal reflection time, and realistic goal setting. I told myself that if I stayed healthy, my motivation and work quality would continue to improve as I continued thinking, “This is my Ph.D. I’m happy with my progress right now and I will make more tomorrow.”

During the second year, my peers were applying for a fellowship called the “National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program,” (hereafter, NSF GRFP). A friend asked me at the beginning of September, “So, are you going to apply?” I remember laughing, “Of course not! Those things are, like, impossible to get. I know people who are fantastic and didn’t get it.” The friend persisted, “But, that doesn’t have anything to do with you. Plus, you don’t have anything to lose if you don’t get it, and if you do get it, you would literally be funded the rest of your Ph.D.” For some reason, the way she said “you” struck me, and the positive self-talk I had been cultivating urged me to speak with my adviser. So, I scheduled an appointment. In terms of authenticity, this meant I believed the person I was, was good enough to want and expect good things for myself.

My adviser (now former adviser) had contributed to much of my poor self-concept my first year at Purdue. We were from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Unknowingly, she often prioritized the students in my lab who had a similar racial background to hers and left the other students to work without her guidance. Even though she knew I was a member of an underrepresented minority, she never tried to connect with me meaningfully. A part of me wanted her to open up, but a part of me also felt she did not know how to. When I told her I wanted to apply for the NSF GRFP she looked at me, surprised. She asked, “You want to apply? Those applications are very…competitive. Are you sure you want to use your time that way? I don’t think you can start preparing your application now anyway. It’s probably too late.” I remember feeling defeated as I thought to myself, “My own adviser doesn’t…doesn’t even believe in me.” I left the meeting and started speaking to my lab-mates. Most of them echoed her disapproval, but, the friend and colleague who had encouraged me to seek a therapist offered, “It still doesn’t hurt to try. Maybe once you start writing it, she’ll get on board. You should do this. You can do this. Who knows what will happen?”

Coordinating Resources: How Can I Become My Authentic Self?

So, throughout September and October, I worked on my NSF GRFP. I wanted to design a project that felt close to me and one that I felt capable of doing. I wanted to design a project based on my family’s stories and my original mission to make STEM education more equitable. I wanted to design a project that I believed in.

Eventually, I had cultivated my research and personal statements. When I finally showed my research statement to my former adviser, she agreed to write a letter of recommendation, but she also decided that my research statement was “just okay enough to submit. We’ll see what happens.” Even through my former adviser’s disapproval, I felt proud of myself. I felt like I was starting to belong in graduate school and that my research was meaningful. I felt like I was finally mastering who I was as I realized her ideas about me were not the most important ones.

In April of the following year, I was awarded the NSF GRFP. As I read the first sentence, I immediately began to cry. “I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to receive a 2018 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Fellowship. Your selection was based on your demonstrated potential to contribute to strengthening the vitality of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.”

All the pain that I had felt from my past year had started to heal. My background was my muse and my motivation to continue through. In terms of authenticity, I realized that choosing myself was the right and only thing to do. I was so thankful for who I was and what I could offer the field of chemistry and STEM education. I wanted other people to feel the same sense of self and the same sense of healing that only choosing to believe in yourself can bring. With the honor of being an NSF GRFP recipient, I knew that I was starting a new journey of becoming. In sharing my stories, I hope that you may use these lessons to feel empowered to author a story of your own choosing.