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Why Are You Here?

Figuring out your purpose in graduate school, with a little help from watching 90's Sci-Fi.

December 14, 2018

John A. Vasquez is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Administration at Michigan State University where he also works as a career consultant for graduate students and postdocs. You can find him on Twitter @maximsofjuan or on LinkedIn.

This is the third post in a series I am writing inspired by my love of Babylon 5, a 90’s science-fiction epic set onboard a space station in the year 2257. Throughout this series, we have been exploring five fundamental questions that are important in helping navigate both interstellar relationships and graduate school:

Who are you?
What do you want?
Why are you here?
Where are you going?
And do you have anything worth living for?

We are midway through our journey and are now at one of the philosophers' favorite, fundamental questions: Why Are You Here?

I’m going to be really honest. As an older graduate student and someone who has to commute an hour (each way) to campus, I ask myself this question all the time, especially on cold snowy Michigan mornings! On the days go to campus, I have to pull-off a highly orchestrated and time-sensitive morning ritual and avoid rush hour traffic: between 5:45-7:45am I have to find time to get up, make the bed, go exercise, make breakfast (and lunch) for the family, make sure the kid makes it to the bus stop on time, kiss my partner goodbye so I can beat said school bus from trapping me in my driveway, so I can make it to the Interstate and join the morning semi-truck caravan to get to campus. All of this so that I can get to campus, fight to find a parking spot, and walk an actual mile to work! (MSU’s campus is beautiful, but it is also BIG!) Sitting in my finally parked car, frazzled from the near collisions with tractor-trailers and wayward undergrads, pulling on my coat and thinking about the long day ahead of me, I often find myself seriously wondering – Why am I here?

There’s a greeting new Minbari leaders say when they join the leadership council on Babylon 5: "Summoned, I take the place that has been prepared for me. I am Grey. I stand between the candle and the star. We are Grey. We stand between the darkness and the light.” When I was working full-time I also had a long commute to work; however, I spent much of my time working directly with students and advocating on their behalf, so it made the drive worth it. Now that I’m in graduate school, I’ve had to find other ways to find meaning, especially during times when things have not gone my way.

I’ve talked about the challenges of being in grad school in past posts and mentioned how many times I think about quitting and going back to work. It’s during those moments that I really try to do some self-reflection. In this case, however, I’m trying to not think about what I want, but rather what can I do make a difference at this school? The answer is I can do what I do best – work with and advocate for students. It doesn’t matter that I’m not in a position of power anymore. I still have knowledge and experience that I can use to support students. Making my work and experience more meaningful would be one way to make the drive to this new institution worth it.

At my current institution, I was asked to take part in discussions in support of undocumented and DACA students on campus. I knew this was a very political subject and that it was possible I might make things challenging for myself in a predominately white institution with politically conservative leaders. But when I realized here was my chance to really “stand between the darkness and the light,” to really put myself on the line for a cause that I care about knowing there was nothing I could gain from working on this issue, I jumped on it. I knew I could use my knowledge and experience of university and higher education policies to help.

(For those of you interested, learning more about DREAMers, DACA and immigrant students or the challenges they face on trying to access a college education, I highly encourage you to check out United We Dream.)

I have been in many meetings trying to increase support for DACA and undocumented students on our campus. There was one meeting in particular where I was part of a group meeting with our Provost (yes, one of the most powerful people on our campus), and I spoke very loudly and forcefully about why I thought it was such an important ethical and moral issue for our university to take a stand on. It’s hard to describe the scene to you, but there’s a clip of Delenn confronting the Grey Council that I think is a fairly good representation of what happened (or at least in my mind how I thought it went!).

Some of my friends and colleagues worry that “I might get pushback” from the administration for taking a stand. But, you know what, I’m not too worried about it. I feel like in a very small way, I’m trying to do my part to help people in my community. My advisor has asked me in the past, in a very non-judgmental, very honest, and earnest way, why do I spend time on something that doesn’t involve my dissertation (i.e. Why He Thinks I’m Here). I’m honest with him when I say, “Because I can.” I’m doing what they taught to me do: use my knowledge and my voice to challenge and help change policies.

So, the question I hope you ponder, the next time you are waiting for feedback from your advisor is “Why are YOU here?”

[Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute via Flickr, adapted by the author of this post, and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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