On the Transformative Power of Seeing Others

May 7, 2024

On the Transformative Power of Seeing Others

From a very young age, I’ve dreamed of reaching the greatest heights possible. I learned this from my mother, Maria, who left the small volcanic island of Fogo in Cape Verde at age 17 in pursuit of the American dream, specifically an American education. This dream was denied, however, as she had to work as a hotel maid (and a proud member of the UNITE HERE Local 26 union) to help support her family in a foreign land. Thus, it became my mission in life to make the most of my mother’s sacrifice, to achieve the American dream for both of us. I remember my mom taking me and my siblings to Piers Park in East Boston, MA when we were kids. I would stare at the Boston skyline across the harbor, imagining that the boardrooms in those tall buildings were filled with the most talented professionals and yearning to one day be among them. When I was in 5th grade, I learned that successful people went to Harvard University. So, attending Harvard University became my first goal in life.

Sociology would later teach me how much of an uphill battle I faced to achieve this American dream. Neither of my immigrant parents have a high school diploma. My father has struggled with alcoholism for my entire life. I never attended a quality public school because we lived in low-income neighborhoods. None of my three older siblings attended college. Ignorant of the determinative power of these socioeconomic factors, however, I clung to my Harvard dream like a life raft as I watched my siblings settle into the urban working class. I worked part-time at a local supermarket and I remember collecting shopping carts in the parking lot on cold winter nights after school, looking up at the sky and thinking to myself, “Can I really make it from here to Harvard?” I learned about the transformative power of a caring teacher in 8th grade when my English teacher, Mrs. Brauneis, pulled me into the hallway and said, “If you really want to make it to Harvard, you need to go to a different school.” She helped me get from a failing vocational school with a 60% graduation rate to a local Catholic high school where I felt safe to be a good student. Because of her, I eventually achieved my goal of attending Harvard College.

I thought achieving this goal would fix all of my poverty-related problems, but it created a new set of challenges I had to confront. Living and learning alongside the one percent taught me to be ashamed of my working-class background and created a wedge between me and home. I was faced with the challenge that no one ever talked about during the college admissions process—how to exist between worlds. I felt like an imposter, an admissions mistake, until spring of my second year, when I somehow was admitted to a popular sociology seminar taught by Professor William Julius Wilson on “Urban Inequality and The Wire.” It was the first time at Harvard that I felt like I had something to contribute to class discussions. I began to find my voice as a scholar as I realized that I could use the theoretical and empirical tools of sociology to make sense of my unequal lived experiences. I also learned that my scholarly perspective could be wielded for institutional change. Aside from successfully completing an undergraduate thesis, my greatest accomplishment at Harvard College was founding the First-Generation Student Union (now known as Harvard Primus), which has provided more opportunities for first-generation, low-income students to find a sense of belonging and created a more inclusive culture on campus for all students.

Despite conducting several independent research projects as a Social Studies major, I never considered myself “PhD material” because of my race and class background–I didn’t see many professors who looked like me or shared my life experiences. I set aside my intellectual curiosity to pursue the goal of maximizing my income after graduation, landing at an elite strategy consulting firm located directly across the harbor from Piers Park. Here I learned about how culture stratifies economic outcomes—that entry to elite firms was not just about technical ability, but also culture fit. I was the wealthiest I had ever been in my life, but it came at a great personal cost. I was overworked, unfulfilled, and not working towards self-actualization. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t the right fit at the mostly white and wealthy firm and that I probably wasn’t meant to be a consultant in the long run. Through the advice of a mentor, Linda Spencer, I returned to Harvard in 2018 to continue working on behalf of the first-gen community as an advisor at the Office of Career Services. It felt like a second chance at Harvard. I reveled in the privilege of knowing that I deserved to be there and that my perspective was important from day one. I was developing my praxis as an educator and mentor. And still, I didn’t see myself as PhD material until another mentor, Jasmine Waddell, a Black, queer, Rhodes Scholar, told me directly: “You belong in a top Ph.D. program.” Like Mrs. Brauneis, she taught me the power of seeing someone.

I’ve continued to dream big at UC Berkeley, traversing the fields of data science, sociology, psychology, and political economy in my training as I build an interdisciplinary research agenda. I’ve continued to break down institutional barriers to inclusion as a researcher on the NSF-IUSE team, investigating disparities in undergraduate data science education. This research project introduced me to my advisor, Professor David Harding, and to the Berkeley D-Lab, a wonderful resource that I wish I could have had as an undergraduate. I’ve been able to leverage my experiences as a Black, queer, first-generation college student to inform the kinds of questions we are asking and to ultimately develop knowledge that will make data science education more inclusive and accessible for all students, especially underrepresented first-generation students, transfer students, and students of color. In this process, I’ve developed my skills as a quantitative and qualitative researcher, designing and analyzing student surveys, conducting focus groups and interviews to unpack student experiences and outcomes, and communicating what we are learning to both internal and external stakeholders. I can now confidently say that Jasmine was right–I am indeed Ph.D. material.

The arch of my biography, from poverty to privilege, with all its unexpected cultural tensions and pitfalls, motivates me to reveal the cultural dimension of education and the labor market and the resulting, hidden social consequences of upward mobility through my work. Nonetheless, my life was transformed by those who saw potential in me before I could see it myself. This gift, the power to see others for who they are and who they could be, animates my research, teaching, mentorship, and service.