Taking on the PhD Student Label
Orientation ended a few hours ago and the start of classes is a few hours away. I've officially begun. And I can't sleep in part because I'm still trying to process the fact that I now carry with me this PhD student label. It was present in orientation, where it colored introductions and conversations with master's level students and faculty. It was present this entire past year back around friends and family I grew up with in a world far removed from the one that I've entered into now. And I don't really know what to make of it...
I can't sleep in part because I'm trying to a) come to terms with the fact that this new label colors people's perceptions of me, b) figure out what that means for how I perceive myself, and c) think about how that all plays into how I will approach the coursework, training, and research here.
During lunch at orientation, I was asked two different things that have me up with the crickets and darkness right now - how my experience at the private school differed from public institutions that I both went to and am not at, and what my research interests are. The first one should be easy to answer, right? I can easily say sexual and reproductive health or sexual health communications. But neither of those rings true. I'm currently conceptualizing it as the intersection between health communications, sexual/reproductive health, and social justice.
But what does that even mean?
That description feels both very niche and very nebulous. And as someone who thinks a lot about how information is conveyed, it makes me uneasy to not be able to clearly define my research interests. But I can't leave out social justice any more than I can leave out communications. Yes, I'm interested in the sexual and reproductive health of populations. But saying just that feels disingenuous. I can't even say reproductive justice because I've known people that work in RJ and they're amazing people who have a singularity of focus that just isn't what I want to spend the rest of my life researching and talking about. I'm interested in how health professionals help to co-create social norms around sexual and reproductive health - how we talk about SRP, how the biases of public health color our messaging, how we unintentionally convey judgment, blame, and disempowerment in our health promotion campaigns. So my social justice and communications sides require me to sit in the tension of not having but really wanting that tagline/proverb/slogan to answer that question - what do you want to research?
Which brings me back to the other question of the day that has me wishing my dog could respond when I talk to him - how was my private school experience different? During lunch I said something about how there was less diversity, there were administrative things that were done with good intentions that I fundamentally disagreed with because I saw them as culturally incompetent. But immediately after (and probably in part during) that discussion, I couldn't help but think about how that response was colored by what I was thinking about - my current institution's intentionality about diversity and inclusion, what those differences mean, and what I'm excited about when it comes to the current endeavor. I also said in the beginning of my response that I had a great experience, in part because I had a really great cohort. I wish I had also talked about the importance of being in that privileged private school environment and how being fully present in that tension between the culture of school and my own personal world views was a vital part of my learning experience. I wish I had talked about how part of what made my cohort so great was that I was surrounded by people that also felt that tension and were willing to engage with it and one another in a way that I wouldn't change for the world. I also wish I had talked about the faculty that helped open up my ways of thinking about it and health as social justice - the ones that gave me tools and resources for engaging in that tension and its implications for scholarship in a way I never would have on my own and changed the direction of my research interests in a way that makes it hard for me to answer simple questions.
Public health has become problematized in my head now, which is both great and scary because that places me as part of the problem.
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