During my bachelor graduation ceremony, I remember being surprised by the large number of parents that were doctors, scientists, philosophers, and the like. They all seemed to understand what university life was all about – because they went through it themselves. They seemed very open-minded and encouraged their children to continue their studies, to move to different cities, go abroad, and so on. This might have been my first conscious experience of ‘being different’ from those around me. As a first-generation academic coming from a small village, my world view was entirely different. The phrase “just act normal, then you are already crazy enough” probably best describes it (in Dutch: “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”). In the following years, I often felt like I do not really belong in either of the worlds. I felt disconnected from what I considered to be “true academics”: those that live and breathe science, those that are expected to be in that kind of environment. At the same time, I did not feel fully understood by my family or the environment that I grew up in.
When I meet academics, they are often surprised to find out that I stayed in Maastricht for my bachelor and master studies and my PhD, almost as if that makes me boring or inferior to others. When I accepted a wonderful opportunity for a postdoc in the same lab, instead of congratulating me, I was often asked why I decided to stay. This is very frustrating, because the mere act of pursuing a PhD was already extraordinary and unthinkable to me – let alone continuing to work in science. I am good at my job, and I enjoy the science that we are doing, but I prioritize being close to my partner and family. Does this then make me unsuitable for or unworthy of doing science? Am I then less committed to science than others? I beg to differ. But it sometimes feels like I need to work extra hard to be taken seriously.
On the other hand, I have a hard time explaining to old friends or family what it is that I am doing, and why. That for me, science is not just a nine-to-five job, but an important aspect of my life, something that I consciously choose to work hard for. That it is not always easy to deal with the insecurity and deadlines in academia, but that I also benefit from a lot of flexibility and freedom. That I do not just get a permanent contract after one year. I struggle(d) with the fact that I have changed a lot since starting my studies, becoming interested in intellectual discussions and science topics in general. I sometimes fear that I am no longer recognized or understood, or even feel guilty for being so different. I am still the same person, but also I am not.
I think it is important to share these doubts and feelings, in the hope that other first-generation academics that recognize themselves in my story will feel supported and seen. You are not alone, and your feelings are valid. I believe that it is important to create support systems for first-generation academics within universities, to help students/employees develop themselves. To show them that they can choose to be themselves, even if they feel out of place initially. More generally, I hope that we all learn to realize that something that is straightforward for some, might be much less so for others. We all have different backgrounds, support systems, ideals, and priorities. If it is important to you, it matters!
By – Shanice Janssens, Twitter @ShaniceJanssens