Growing up, the sitcom that played in my house was not “Full House” but “Married with Children.” The Tanners were funny, but they were not relatable like the Bundys. One would think that a Vietnamese immigrant family would find little appealing of a raunchy show about a down-on-his-luck shoe salesman whose life peaked when he scored four touchdowns in a single game for Polk High. But Al Bundy, played by Ed O’Neal, perfectly conveyed the burden of poverty and insecurity, what he referred to as the “Bundy Curse.”
Whenever Al was on the verge of an immense windfall, such as winning a game of cards, he would panic because he knew an external force could come crashing in to take it all away. Al’s fears were always confirmed, and he would look directly at the camera with a defeated smirk say, “of course.”
The sense of precarity is something many first-generation low-income students and faculty feel. It was what I felt throughout graduate school and over the last six years as I worked toward tenure. Permanent employment is an increasingly rare prize in academia, where less than a quarter of jobs are tenure track lines. These positions are highly coveted because they pretty much guarantee that one has the academic freedom to research and teach without unjust reprisal. As someone who grew up with immense insecurity, I also found job security and the prospects of being able to provide for my family incredibly appealing.
I was recently fortunate enough to receive tenure at one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States, and it still does not feel real. My first post-promotion paycheck has not kicked in yet, so the tangible changes are not so apparent. But for the first time, it feels like I can breathe a little. Getting to this point was a struggle.
Many of the obstacles that I will outline in this essay are surely not unique to a first-gen graduate. Still, our backgrounds provide a unique experience that is often not fully understood in the academy.
One of the greatest joys of academia is meeting brilliant and passionate people who are always open to conversation and collaboration. I often keep my office door open, hoping that a faculty member or a student will poke their head in to talk about the latest news. Connections in our profession are so valuable because we receive feedback, suggestions, and opportunities. As a first-gen scholar, these networks are invaluable to your survival.
The academy is in a transition period where it is making honest attempts to diversify, but is sending mixed messages about what that diversity means and a first-gen scholar’s place in it.
You quickly notice, however, that the higher up you go, the smaller the circle becomes and the fewer the names you encounter. Some are far more well-networked than others, which makes it difficult not to have some self-reflection that rarely brings confidence. Maybe it is because my research interests center on East Asia, but the “old boy” network and elite families are prevalent at conferences and workshops where rising stars often have star academic parents. This is not surprising or upsetting in and of itself — it is the protestant work ethic in action. As much as we like to believe that conferences are for sharing research, they are also great opportunities to reconnect with old friends and to reminisce. I imagine that the burden of success can wear a person down. It can be challenging to carve out one’s path when the road is already paved. But at least your feet hurt less. Envy is something many first-gen faculty often feel in academia. To be first-gen means to truly be the first in your family to enter this world, which means you do not have fond memories to share, unique insight on the genealogy of foundational work, or even a shared vocabulary on many topics.
I have an interesting family story too. My parents arrived in the US as refugees and didn’t go to school past the third grade in Vietnam. They worked dozens of odd jobs and somehow managed to get four kids through college. My parents never attended a school event, offered career advice, or understood our career choices. I actually didn’t know what the SATs were required to apply to college and only took them because the girl I wanted to take to prom asked me if I needed a ride to the testing center. This background is a quick conversation starter and ender. People find it a compelling story but not too relatable, and the anecdotes of poverty and ignorance are painful to sit through for both parties.
Research has shown that faculty members have higher than average childhood household income, and about half have at least one parent with an advanced degree. This statistic reinforced a particular annoyance of mine where people claim to be first-gen when they are not. I’ve posted about first-gen experiences on social media in the past with some hesitance because of the risk of oversharing. But first-gens share for two primary reasons: 1) To laugh with fellow first-gens about the absurdity of it all, and 2) to tell a story that goes largely unnoticed. The data shows that the canon of the academy is a small elite family.
Tenure is not just a commitment of the university to the scholar, but the scholar to the university. As a first-gen scholar, it has been stinging to hear “this is not how it is done” or “this person is not the liberal arts type” because one is never sure if the comments apply to oneself. First-gens also receive unforgiving reactions from colleagues when misspeaking or demonstrating ignorance of how things have been done. The sense of imposter syndrome is greatly enhanced when comments suggest that you are cheating the system or hold a tenure track line due to some unjust institutional effort to increase diversity. People might also think you are not committed to the values of the college or community because you don’t show up for a meeting or donate to a cause. Although we share the same job, we do not have the same background or responsibilities. One of my colleagues gave a fantastic talk on Vietnamese refugees and the burden of remittances, and he received accolades from the faculty for shedding light on such harrowing experiences. Many did not realize that I was the typical case in that study, where I have to take care of my family and pay off significant debt. I am their retirement plan. So when the plate gets passed around for the fight of the day, the burden is a little bit more heavy.
The academy is in a transition period where it is making honest attempts to diversify, but is sending mixed messages about what that diversity means and a first-gen scholar’s place in it. Like all untenured faculty, first-gen scholars are afraid to speak up, and that silence is often misconstrued as consent or a betrayal of values one expects of first-gen low-income individuals.
TEACHING AND SERVICE
Students are incredibly impatient. They are passionate problem solvers who lack experience and just need a little guidance. I often say that my students are far smarter than me when I was their age, and my comparative advantage is that I had more time to learn than them — and I can always stay a chapter ahead.
Students want results because the wait is painful. Imagine looking for a job in the middle of a pandemic. It is unfair and cruel. Providing perspective gained through painful experiences is one of the greatest assets that first-gen faculty offer to students in the classroom, during office hours, and informal lunches at the dining hall — so very liberal arts! My office features a corkboard with over 100 cards from students who express genuine appreciation for preparing them for graduate school or connecting them to job opportunities. A journal will never reach out to me more than once after it has published my article, but students will maintain the connection for years. These relationships make the price of admission to the academy worth it.
Advising as a first-gen scholar, however, is a delicate balancing act. Some students have suggested that I am “not authentic” because my title, earned through the same years of hard work as my students, and then some, means that I am the “establishment.” Others have suggested that I’ve sold out, which makes no sense because I’ve never been paid for the advising that only a first-gen person of color (POC) can do. I once received a blistering email about how I run my courses and suggested I learn from the many other faculty who do it better. Another interaction was a student accusing me of not genuinely caring about education because of the college’s bureaucratic red tape and submission deadlines.
There is only so much a first-gen faculty member is willing to push back due to fear of reprisal. First-gen faculty can be very sensitive to course evaluations, which carry significant weight at a liberal arts college regarding tenure. Research has shown that student evaluations are deeply flawed, but few colleges have a systematic way of weighing course evaluations. The Bundy curse can take the form of a student with an ax to grind.
As young faculty, we also often receive well-meaning advice to “protect our time.” Simultaneously, first-gen POC are asked or assigned special committees on diversity. More importantly, it is difficult to say no to students who need your help. This inequitable distribution of labor is exacerbated when students quickly realize who is willing or not willing to meet with them. The many responsibilities hoisted upon first-gen faculty in a rapidly changing institution leads you to believe that a failure to meet a need can be the end of the line, whereas dutifully meeting demands goes largely unnoticed.
Surprisingly, research is the most straightforward dimension of the occupation. I had to hit specific publication benchmarks to receive tenure. The common obstacles to untenured faculty apply the same, such as finding a press, winning major grants, or a global pandemic. This does not make the bitter pill of severely delayed reviews easier to swallow. Tenure for a first-gen scholar is almost a matter of life and death. I will not return to a life of poverty. I need to provide for my family. Hence, when tenured senior faculty sit on reviews, it can feel deeply personal. So much of the research part of academia is out of your hands, like rising rents, collection letters, and medical emergencies that you simply cannot afford.
When you do take things into your hands, you are reminded that it’s not the right path. Although I comfortably passed the benchmarks for tenure, I received some feedback that stated that my portfolio indicates that I lacked an understanding of where I should spend my energies. The criticism may be warranted; there are probably smoother paths toward tenure. But as a first-gen scholar struggling with navigating the academy without family support, with financial responsibilities across generations, and with supporting first-gen students — the remarks are a reminder that you might not just belong. It makes you question your education and your values, even though you’ve met every demand of the institution.
I often find myself stopping to stare at Carnegie Hall at Pomona College on my walk to my office, thinking, “I can’t believe I get to do this for a living.” I am eternally grateful to my department, the college, professional colleagues, and students who have put their faith in me. But sometimes, when I sit in my office chipping away at my book, grading student papers, or preparing for a lecture, the dark thoughts creep into my mind. Will someone finally notice that I don’t have what it takes? Will my article get accepted in time? Am I betraying my values chasing tenure when the academy is becoming increasingly exploitive? Was I selfish for pursuing this profession? I should have become a pharmacist like everyone else in my area if I really wanted to help out my family. I am so close. Will I just fall over and die? The sense of insecurity or guilt never completely goes away.
On a small note, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unpleasant wrench thrown in at the last minute. Conducting fieldwork (or not), connecting with students in different time zones who are bearing the weight of their own insecurities, asking for help from busy colleagues, praying that daycares don’t shut down due to an outbreak, worrying about friends and family in the healthcare industry, and hoping that overburdened faculty across the country can somehow get reviews in before the tenure deadline added stress to an already stressful endeavor. That Bundy curse does not mess around.
My friends and family have been very supportive, and when I received tenure, they were far more expressive with their joy than I was. When I received the call from the dean of the college, I expressed my gratitude and hung up. My family didn’t really celebrate. I think we went and bought some boba, but we buy boba almost every day. However, when I sat down in my car to get ready to pick up my son from daycare, the tears came rolling down my eyes. And for the 30-minute drive, they didn’t stop falling. I don’t think this is healthy. There has to be a better way.
It feels silly to offer advice because I still feel like I fell ass-backward into the position where I find myself. But I don’t think one can write an essay like this without offering something useful to the reader, so here it goes:
- Be kind to others. None of our work is more irreplaceable than the friendships you can make. Find mentors, especially those in different disciplines and other institutions. Escaping the bubble can help you not lose sight of your goals and your strategy to achieve them. I benefited greatly from the Faculty Success Program, and I hope more colleges enroll in the program.
- Level with your students. Most students get what you’re going through because they are going through the same. Most of my students have been generous when I expressed that I was burnt out. I set a deadline of one week to return assignments, and when I missed it, the students never complained. First-gens have a tendency to punish themselves with unrealistic expectations because they believe the margin of error is so small and have internalized suffering as normal. I never overcame this and am still working on being more forgiving to myself.
- Interesting research will find a home. The “publish or perish” mantra creates unhealthy expectations. Graduate students with many publications struggle to find jobs, whereas students with none give up hope. Stay on your yoga mat and publish according to the standards of the places where you want to work. Interesting research will at least get you more at-bats and with enough revisions, your work will find the appropriate outlet.
Al Bundy never overcame the Bundy curse. However, he did find happiness. Al enjoyed the little victories like eating Weenie Tots (drinking boba for me), hanging out with friends, and fighting the judgmental elite with his family. I might need to accept insecurity — tenure doesn’t solve most of the world’s biggest problems —- but at least I could laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Tom Le is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College and a research associate at the PRIME Institute at Meiji Gakuin University. Le is the author of Japan’s Aging Peace: Pacifism and Militarism in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, June 2021). Le received a PhD in political science from the University of California, Irvine, and BAs in history and political science from the University of California, Davis.