David with civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.
Many students who come from low-income, first-gen, or other disadvantaged backgrounds are put off by the gatekeeping that goes on in academia as well as its insular culture, what would you say to them? Does the reality reflect these concerns?
That’s totally accurate. Numerically, if you move up any work chain, the number of students coming from working class backgrounds dwindles. In academia, you have a lot of people who are grown up but have never worked a regular job, because they’ve gone straight from college, to graduate programs, to a PhD, and have taught in academia ever since. When I went to Berkeley after getting my master’s, some students in my cohort were 22, straight out of excellent undergraduate programs, and now were in a PhD program. I had worked for five years before going into these programs, but most people haven’t done that.
Transpose that 30 years later and there are still people in academia who are now 50, and still haven’t worked in the “normal economy.” Obviously, academics are also part of the economy, but it’s different. It’s hierarchical, it’s competitive. There are all sorts of class-inflected concerns. For example, if you tell people that you grew up on welfare they might look at you a little differently. Beyond your demographics—beyond being a woman, beyond being gay, beyond being a person of color—there’s all these other things about your background that trip people up and cause them to question your legitimacy.
Do you feel like people question your credentials based on your background?
My first job was at UCLA and I remember one time we were talking with colleagues, at a barbeque and we were talking about drinking and dive bars, and I said, “Oh yeah, I grew up in a bar. My dad was an alcoholic and so I spent a lot of time in this bar when I was a kid.” It completely changed the vibe, people looked uncomfortable, some excused themselves, and I remember thinking, “Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that.” It just felt like everyone was looking at me differently, like I wasn’t that same scholar anymore because I had this weird background that was foreign to them. It was one of those first-gen moments that comes back to haunt you—I was an assistant professor at UCLA at that point and I felt like an idiot. I thought, something’s wrong here. Even though I’d come so far, there I was feeling like a fool. It made me realize that my PhD didn’t level the playing field. Because it’s my pedigree that matters more.
Would you encourage first-gen students who are interested in academia to pursue that path?
Definitely. If you want to go into academia, do it. I talk to peers who say, I never tell anyone to go to grad school because there are no jobs. While that may be true, I still disagree. Yes, it’s a hard field, but if their dream is to study more and learn more, who am I to get in the way? I see students now and they’re way more prepared than I was at that age.
A double standard does exist. You’re going to have to work harder than everyone else to prove yourself, but that’s nothing new. You’ve probably been working harder since day one. Why would you let that discourage you now? When you break out of the mold of what you were “supposed” to be, you’re always going to feel a little bit out of it, but that’s okay, you can excel and thrive, you can do all those things. You can become the leader of your field—no doubt about it. Get used to the discomfort, because it sticks around for a long time—don’t let that deter you.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This is more so for the colleges to think about. For first-gen students, the step of going to school makes us different from not only our peers, but our families as well. I think that fact is often overlooked. Everyone makes it seem like getting to college your first year means you’ve made it, but really, it’s just the beginning. So much gets piled on after that and it can be very overwhelming. Colleges and universities should be cognizant of what these students are going through—that they've made a choice that separates them from all they've known.
Rapid Fire Round:
What’s one quote you live by? I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but probably a rock n’ roll lyric.
Who motivates you? I have a lot of intrinsic motivation. I grew up feeling like I was constantly behind and I didn’t like the feeling, so I worked very hard to “catch up.”
One book recommendation? Anything by Eduardo Galeano—I read all his books. I started with Open Veins of Latin America.
Movie: Real Women Have Curves captures that family/college disconnect.