When Feminists Mentor

Today’s post comes from Sociology Professor Georgiann Davis.  Generally, our writers choose their own topics, but I urged Georgiann to consider writing about mentorship, since her own mentor, Prof. Barbara Risman, will speak on campus later this month, and because Georgiann is an incredible mentor herself: when I walk by her office in Peck Hall, Georgiann is usually in an earnest conversation with one of her students or colleagues, and it seems her door is literally and figuratively always open.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Georgiann’s post today is itself an act of mentorship: in sharing her own stories, she reminds us that we are never committed to a single identity and she demonstrates how the faith and support of someone we admire can challenge us to take the risks necessary for our own growth.

I left school when I was twelve years old—that is I dropped out. This may come as a surprise to many who know me today as Dr. Georgiann Davis. I kept this piece of my ongoing story secret for a long time because I was ashamed by it. Dropping out of school isn’t exactly something to celebrate. Society doesn’t look fondly on “delinquent” dropouts (never mind the fact that I was fairly popular with my peers and teachers and had great grades). Very few people in the U.S. drop out of school. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, only 3.1% of students in grades 10-12 drop out without completing high school.[1] While I could write an autobiography about why I left middle school that I (biasedly!) think would be interesting to read, I’d rather share how the incredible feminist mentorship I received over the years helped me become Dr. Georgiann Davis.

After I earned my general education development (GED) certificate in October of 1998, I enrolled in my local community college. My goal was to get a two-year degree in radiography and work as an x-ray technologist. I was working in my local hospital’s film room. As you might imagine, I interacted with a lot of physicians, none of whom knew about my limited formal educational background. One doctor asked me why I wasn’t in school; I’m not sure why it felt safe to be honest with her but it did (I usually would lie and tell folks I was home-schooled because I hated school). Fighting back tears, I shared everything with this radiologist. I will never forget her insight: “Your past informs your future; it doesn’t dictate it.” She encouraged me to get my GED, so I registered for the test and somewhat shockingly passed without much preparation. I’m not sure if the radiologist would self-identify as a feminist, but she certainly did mentor me in a feminist fashion.

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My aspirations of being an x-ray technologist didn’t last for long. Before I was allowed to begin my community college’s x-ray program, I needed to take several general education courses. Because of my educational history, I was placed into remedial math (I now teach social statistics at the college level, go figure!) and remedial writing (I am currently writing my first book, go figure!). I also signed up for survey of health careers, introduction to elementary education, and introduction to sociology. I was scared. Aside from taking the GED test, I hadn’t stepped foot in an educational setting since the seventh grade and there I was a college student. Admittedly, my first semester was quite challenging. I was struggling. Things did get a bit easier when I decided the first week of classes to withdraw from the health careers course. Let’s just say I realized that working in a hospital’s film room with patient records was different than working directly with sick or injured people. I won’t go into details, but I will say that I quickly learned I have a very sensitive stomach.

I was, on the other hand, in love with my sociology class. I was being introduced to sociology by a self-identified feminist sociologist in an environment composed primarily of nontraditional students. I realized that my life was not unique in that setting as many classmates had similar stories. I was hooked. It was then that I decided I wanted to become a feminist sociologist to pursue social justice, and to be able to introduce the sociological imagination to others in the way it had been introduced to me.

Having to work full-time throughout my undergraduate education, I always chose to pursue studies at a local college/university. The first choice I had to make was where I would get my associate’s degree (College of Lake County), followed by my B.A. (Northeastern Illinois University), my M.A. (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), and eventually my Ph.D. (University of Illinois at Chicago).

At Northeastern Illinois University, I had a community of feminist mentors in the sociology department (some have retired and/or moved onto new opportunities). The sociology faculty members I interacted with at NEIU were incredibly instrumental in my life. They always encouraged me to dream big, but most importantly, introduced me to a toolbox full of tools to do so.

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I was only at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for two years, but by the end of my second year, I had a sociology master’s degree in one hand and an admission to University of Illinois at Chicago’s sociology PhD program in the other. I’m still in touch with several UWM sociology faculty members. They mentored me in liberatory ways as had the radiologist years earlier, my sociology instructor at the community college, and sociology faculty at NEIU. So many people believed in me, yet I still felt ashamed by my educational secret.

Would faculty still be supportive if they knew I dropped out of seventh grade? I would soon find out at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It was 2007. I received a mass email from Dr. Barbara Risman—Sociology Department Head at UIC—about Sociologists for Women in Society’s Beth B. Hess Memorial Scholarship Award (with additional support from the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the American Sociological Association). Like any great mentor, she always passes along opportunities that she hears about through her professional networks and encourages those qualified to apply. The Hess Scholarship is awarded to somewhat unique PhD sociology students. Applicants must have started out their educational careers at a community college or technical school, and they must be committed to teaching and social justice research and activism.

I emailed Barbara telling her that I was qualified for the award and was really interested in applying. The monetary component of the award was going to help kick start my dissertation project by funding preliminary data collection. She told me to draft my letter of application (a two page narrative about my decision to study sociology) and send it to her for feedback. She didn’t have to do this, but she wanted to. I spent a good amount of time on that application letter and sent it to her.

Within hours, I received feedback. She wrote something along the lines of “Give me more. WHY do you want to be a sociologist? Open up and say more…” You see, I withheld my experience dropping out of school even though that experience was instrumental in why I chose to study sociology (I also left off my lived experience with intersexuality, but that’s for another blog post!).

I sat down and rewrote my letter of application sharing from the heart and a very real space of vulnerability—much like I did almost a decade earlier with the radiologist who was also instrumental in my life (although probably doesn’t know it!). I let it all out, and resent my letter of application that same evening. Barbara compassionately responded and took me under her wing, as so many other mentors have along the way.

I didn’t get the award. I was worried about how I would fund my dissertation, but Barbara encouraged me to not give up. As an exemplary feminist mentor, she said she would find a way to help get my project funded. She also reminded me that I could re-apply for the award, which I eventually did.

At the 2009 Sociologists for Women in Society summer meeting in San Francisco, California, Barbara sat next to me and cheered me on as I received the prestigious Beth B. Hess Scholarship Award. From the moment I met her, she’s never left my side…

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With the help of so many mentors from my past and present, I have been very fortunate to overcome a tremendous amount of adversity. In order to give back to all those who’ve mentored me (and continue to mentor me), I aim to passionately follow in their footsteps. I allow my life history to inform all aspects of my work from research to teaching to mentorship.

Mentorship is so valuable and important, but as I see it, something extra special happens when feminists mentor. 

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[1] http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0271.pdf

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