One of these things is not like the others: on being an academic from a non-academic family

My first culture shock in academia came in graduate school when I noticed that, for the first time in my life, most of the people around me were from much more affluent backgrounds (Did you read Sarcozona’s post last week on poverty in academia? You should. In fact, if you haven’t, go read it now. I’ll wait. Done? Good.). My experiences with poverty and a working-class family were similar to Sarcozona’s, and financial instability definitely added stress to my life and occasional to awkwardness to conversations with colleagues. But for me, the hardest aspect of making the transition to academia was much closer to home.

As a grad student, the majority of my peers and faculty came from academic families; at least one parent was an academic or white collar professional of some kind. If you took the average graduate student in my program, it was almost a guarantee that one or both of their parents went to graduate school, medical school, law school, or at least worked as teachers. Many of them had parents who were professors– they’d literally grown up in an academic culture. They knew how things worked. They had parents who were able to support them financially, but also emotionally.

In contrast, my parents never graduated from college, and so had only vague ideas of what graduate school was like. They were proud of me for getting into graduate school, especially when they discovered that I’d be paid to go and would get fantastic benefits. Having said that, they were disappointed that I wanted to be a “college professor” and not a doctor or lawyer– growing up, these were the two careers that, in my family, signified signs of success and class mobility, and were the natural choices if you were smart enough to make it– at Harvard or Yale, of course. So while they didn’t quite understand my choice to pursue something other than medical or law school, they were supportive.

As the years went on, though, things got more and more awkward. My parents didn’t understand “what was taking so long?” (I did a MS and PhD in seven years), or why I’d chosen a career where I’d be making “peanuts” (my dad’s words when I told him the average salary of an assistant professor). They didn’t understand, no matter how many times I told them, that I didn’t have summers off. They had no idea why I was stressed out, or that I worked, at times, for 70+ hours a week (this was not a problem when I had comparable work weeks at retail and food service jobs). They didn’t understand my research, or why it mattered, and often cracked jokes that made me feel like an egghead. They didn’t understand about the stresses of qualifying exams, or publishing papers. “You’ll do fine, you always do, you’re smart!” they’d say, not realizing that it felt like a dismissal of all the hard work I was putting in, and that the job market is uncertain even with stellar qualifications. The only reason I walked at graduation was because, unlike my defense, my regalia was a symbol they could understand.

When I went on the job market, even though I’d told them repeatedly that I had very little control over where I got a job, they still didn’t understand why I didn’t move back home. My in-laws (also working class) made snide remarks about my marriage, not understanding why my husband would “let” me move to another time zone to do a postdoc (“Finally, the Ivy League!” said my mom when she learned of my position). Even when I landed my dream job, they passive-aggressively communicated their disappointment that it was in the wrong state, at the wrong kind of school, and– let’s be honest, here–the wrong kind of job.

Because here’s another thing: I’m not just the only academic in my family, I’m really, really good at passing for affluent. I self-identify as a feminist, I have liberal politics. Over the years, I’ve acquired tastes for things like opera and fine dining. So not only do my family not understand my career choices, they think my education has turned me into a snob. Not only am I not a doctor or a lawyer, but I’ve managed to pick up politics they find bewildering at best and embarrassing at worst. My family is largely conservative, anti-choice, and don’t believe in global warming or taxpayer-funded science and they think that women should put their kids in daycare. Often, these beliefs clash awkwardly with their acknowledged (if conflicted) pride and love for me, but usually they seem unaware that their rants against straw feminists, scientists, and liberal universities are also attacks on me as a person.

I love my family, and I do believe that my family loves me. But they don’t understand my career, and it’s hard not to feel that on some fundamental level, they don’t understand me. Family gatherings have gotten harder over the years, as I’ve had less and less in common with them, and they can no longer get by asking me how school’s going. My siblings with non-academic career choices and babies and military service and sports achievements have made life choices that are easier to relate to. They produce things that can be hung on a refrigerator and shared with co-workers and which are a currency with value in their world. Meanwhile, I watch my siblings grow closer as adults, and I move farther away in physical and emotional distance. My family often tells me I should just quit my job and move back to my rural hometown. I know that to them, they’re saying We miss you!, but it’s so hard not to hear I don’t understand you, or value what you do.

Class mobility is not just a process of struggling to fit in amongst your new peers, but also feeling like you’re betraying your roots. It’s really, really difficult to successfully walk on both sides of an invisible line.

I’m getting better a coping with this. I work on building a chosen family of close friends and colleagues who are going through similar experiences. I’ve done the mental work of laying out realistic expectations for my family members, and focusing on the things we can relate to. I try to be patient, and to gently educate them on the realities of my career. A liberal use of filters and carefully managed settings on Facebook helps me to avoid the worst of the conflicts. I make sure that I have a safe set of topics to engage on– babies (other peoples’, not mine), the weather (not climate change!), sports). Traveling cross-country for the holidays requires a much longer time window than my family is used to planning for, and so I make contingency plans. I remember my audience, and use appropriate analogies, and avoid jargon about my work or my job. I’ve found therapy to be really, really helpful. So is being married to a supportive spouse who also comes from a working-class background and is sympathetic to these struggles.

Have you found making the transition to academia from a non-academic family awkward? What are your sticking points? Is it different if you come from a middle or upper-class background as well? What are your coping strategies?


92 thoughts on “One of these things is not like the others: on being an academic from a non-academic family

  1. I can partially relate to your post. I grew up very poor, but my Dad had grown up poorer. He came from a criminal underclass of travelers where nobody had a job, let alone a working-class one. Violence, addiction and incarceration was a way of life. He was a sensitive soul, though, and used to go to his local library to read Norse myths to avoid the chaos at home. He was never educated, but recognised education as way out, at least mentally, from the chaos around him. To me he was able to offer an impoverished but supportive upbringing. In this way he has a true sense of the personal value and rewards of intellectual pursuits. My grandfather was illiterate, my father had only secondary-level education, and I’m doing a PhD in Literature. He hasn’t the foggiest about my research and, to be honest, I don’t like talking about it to my family as I don’t want them to feel that they cannot relate to me. I’m still who I am, I just work in academia. I think you have to keep that separation. Hey, I can talk to them about popular fiction and films without deconstructing them – do you think some of your problems could be remedied by keeping your two worlds separate to an extent?

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  3. I identify so much with receiving this advice from parents, friends, etc: “You’ll do fine, you always do, you’re smart!”

    I don’t know what to say other than that is the least helpful advice ever.

  4. Yes, I can identify and also gained insight into things that happened. I am 71 now a little of my older family remain. The upcoming generation is more educated with BS and MA/MS degrees. But they are scattered geographically and thus the family does not have the opportunity to come together. We do not have an annual family reunion. I communicate with two or three on Facebook. Other than that, it is very lonely. Most of my neighbors and acquaintances do not or would not understand what I say. For example, I watched “The Dove Keepers” tonight and only one acquaintance knew what Masada was and enjoyed the movie.

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  6. Sorry to be the latecomer to these replies, but I’ve been searching for a while for someone–anyone–who might identify with what I’m going through lately, as it’s been extremely stressful for me, and it looks like my search ends here! I really identify with so much of this, and it’s so relieving to finally find others who feel the same way.

    I grew up in a really poor, extremely conservative, fanatically religious family with a history of domestic violence. I never dreamed that I would ever be able to go to college.

    However, I’m now in my mid-20’s, and I was recently accepted into an Ivy League university. I was overjoyed at my acceptance–it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I felt like I’d been given a new chance at life. But then the cultural problems began. I don’t really have much contact with my family anymore, so the accusations of snobbishness have manifested in the workplace. (I work about 30 hours per week in a grocery store coffee shop while attending school, since my parents don’t support me, so I see my coworkers often enough.) Prior to my college admission, I had a reputation as an overwhelmingly “nice” person, someone who really cared about others. But now no matter what I say, it’s misconstrued as snobbish. I’ve tried keeping my head down and focusing on the job at hand, talking only about superficial topics such as the weather, but then I’m still misconstrued as being snobbish for “not wanting to talk” to them.

    I was never aware that this prejudice existed before, but I’m really grappling with this now, and it’s taking a toll on my mental health. Has anyone found any methods of coping with friends/coworkers since reading (or writing) this? Is retreating into academia/encapsulating oneself in a bubble of educated, open-minded people the only solution? Has anyone found any other candid articles/blogs addressing this issue that they would recommend?

    • Hi Jackie,

      I’m sorry that you’re experiencing these difficulties. Unfortunately, you’ll find that there’s not much you can do about them because this is an example of a situation where the problem does not lie with you, it lies with other people and their reactions to you. You outline the futility of the situation in the sentence “Prior to my college admission, I had a reputation as an overwhelmingly “nice” person, someone who really cared about others. But now no matter what I say, it’s misconstrued as snobbish”.

      I’m sure that you didn’t change as person overnight when you received your college acceptance (congratulations by the way!), but hearing your news likely tapped into the insecurities that your coworkers may have about themselves and their own path in life. There may also have been some sort of (possibly temporary) perceptual shift where you are no longer viewed as ‘one of us’ because now you have this opportunity in front of you.

      I think that the best way you can handle this is to take a step back mentally, understand what is motivating this behavior from your coworkers and then just let it go the best you can. Keep smiling, keep working hard and join in conversations, but don’t over-compensate or waste your energy trying to change opinions that come from the persons own perceptions and insecurities. Generally, people will come around in time.

      Hope this helps.

      (the first and only person in my family to go to college, and someone who has often been accused of snobbery but usually found that opinions changed when I just kept showing up as myself).

    • One thing I do is to try to come up with a list of “safe” topics to discuss at home– sports, movies, etc. I bring board games. I help out in the kitchen. I make sure my expectations are adjusted. It helps a lot to let go of the hope that my family will really understand me. Personally, I’ve ended up having to really rely more on my chosen family than my biological family. Therapy helps. I’m sorry you’re going through this!

  7. I’m pleased to find a thread on this topic (I know it’s an old one, but I’m hoping people are still reading it) . I didn’t even know if it was a ‘thing’ since I don’t know of anyone else in my position. I’m doing a PhD and I’m the first and only member of my family to go to college. I was born when Mum and Dad were 17 and 18 respectively. They are both from working class backgrounds, and didn’t finish high school; both left school at 15. I can remember being at high school myself and my dad saying that I was going to go to university if he had to drag me there every day! Well, I did go to university, at 17, to a prestigious art school, not exactly what dad had in mind! (sorry dad). Now, I’m Australian, so I’ll do my best to translate colloquialisms. The first thing I noticed is how everyone else at art school was from a more privileged background that me. There was no-one there from my part of town. I’ll admit I was quite resentful about how easy they seemed to have it. The second thing was that I spoke quite differently to everyone else. They all spoke very nicely and had wider vocabularies. I didn’t enunciate properly like they did, I was used to a more laid-back kind of speaking with lots of slang. To my advantage, I had my own distinct style of dressing as I was into vintage and making my own clothes in high school. Dressing like a bogan (I think redneck would be the closest equivalent term) in a track suit would have made me stand out even more. I very quickly learned to change the way I spoke. I changed my politics and became a feminist heavily involved in the student union. As soon as I could I moved into a share house (a privately rented house shared with roommates) in a trendy neighbourhood. Now I can pass for middle class very well, and, come to think of it, maybe I am middle class now? What are the qualifiers? I’m an academic with a french car who lives in a very nice area. What I’m getting to is that my dad forced me to go to college, and what I learned there has effectively alienated me from my family. They are uncomfortable when I’m there, it’s quite obvious. I’m uncomfortable around them. They have to watch what they say. It must be terribly difficult for them not to tell racist Aboriginal jokes in my presence. I vote differently to them. I’m vegetarian and my dad is a deer hunter. I can’t stand the commercial TV that they watch or the newspaper that they read. They hate restaurants I like, and I would rather have a root canal than go to places they like (the type of place with huge portion sizes, massive tv screens and ‘pokies’ – slot machines?). We simply don’t feel comfortable in the same situations. I try to stick to safe topics to avoid arguments like others have mentioned in earlier posts. Recently a colleague disclosed to me that her parents (who are academics) read her thesis drafts and had really good advice to offer. This is something that I could not even imagine, my parents don’t even understand what it is I’m doing, and they never ask about it.

  8. I can definitely relate. I also come from a family where neither parent went to college. In fact, both of my parents struggled with substance abuse issues my whole childhood. I was a teen mom, and am now a single parent working full time while in grad school for my MSW. I have to be very careful how I speak to my family so I don’t come off as “thinking I’m better than them”. They also have no clue about the stress I’m under which is frustrating for me. On top of that, most of my classmates can’t understand the struggles I’ve been through and the daily challenges I face. For me, grad school was always a dream and in still a little shocked I’m actually here now. It’s hard when most of my classmates come from good families and financially stable backgrounds. I’m so grateful to be here, but it does feel like no one understands from either side.

  9. Without sounding harsh…how can I put this…nobody feels sorry for you. That is the real message of the working class for you. Some of us came from families with parents who didn’t finish high school let along the unfinished college you lament. Were you on welfare as a child? Well, I was. And I went on to get a PhD from the Ivy league and am now on tenure track. Have I met any single person in my life who had any understanding of my situation and what I’ve had to deal with? No. And now that includes you.

    • Yeah, we were on welfare. I’ve had my power shut off and our home mortgage defaulted on and the family car repossessed. I relied on school breakfasts and lunches from staff who let me go on and on and on with accounts in the negative, despite the letters from the school threatening to cut me off. I had high school teachers pay out of pocket for my AP test classes and my band supplies. And I didn’t end up going to an ivy league school because I dropped out of high school because I didn’t have anywhere to live after my mom kicked me out of the house, so I got a GED and went to a small liberal arts school that was willing to give me a free ride despite my GED. Do I pass your working class purity test now?

  10. Thanks for writing this, it gave me some peace today. I came from a family that was odd in that my parents had money through inheritance, yet my father had only an 8th grade education and my mother a secretarial school diploma. My mom took us to concerts and museums and our parents paid for educational opportunities for me and my 4 sisters. However, only the two youngest of us (me and my younger sister) received college degrees. Me and undergrad and my sister a doctorate.

    We live radically different lives than our 3 older sisters. Among out sibling,s drama is a constant from losing homes, being evicted from apartments to being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night by police for passing bad checks. What I find most odd is their insistence on blaming the issues in their lives on me and my younger sister, in this passive-aggressive, and very public manner at times (Facebook) that openly states we ruined their lives. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had set up a website to this viewpoint, it’s such an ongoing activity for them.

    Though the only contact we usually have with them since adulthood is when they ask us for money or some type of assistance, they lament that we have wronged them. Consistently we hear about how our parents favored us over them, and rudely ignore any life events that we invite them to (though they claim to love her, they didn’t acknowledge any events related to my daughter’s wedding.)

    Shadows of this were evident while we were growing up. When I was in high school, I distinctly recalling each of the three coming to me individually and telling me to stop wearing makeup, achieving academically and socially. I remember at the time feeling in my gut that something was really wrong. I didn’t realize that they were already rejecting the person I was growing up to be.

    I ended contact with each of them. It was extremely sad for me, but I had to accept that, no matter how much you love and care about family, sometimes their pain exceeds the truth of that love. My younger sister and I will always be the people who betrayed them because we did not stay the same. My husband added that we are “convenient scapegoats to justify their ongoing victim-hood.” So I guess, at the very least, we will continue to serve that purpose in their lives.

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