Harley Khaang is a UMBC returning women student and an intern at the Women’s Center. She is currently a junior and an INDS student, focusing on earning her degree in Communications Strategy.
My first day of school was Groundhog Day. I hadn’t stepped foot on a campus in decades, but there I was sitting in my remedial math class at 7 am (it was an 8 am class), shaking. Sure, it was February 2nd and brutally cold, as it should be, but as much as the blustery wind was affecting me, I was shaking mostly from fear and the overwhelming feeling that I had possibly gotten myself in over my head. It was a moment … I had a moment.
I got through the day, then I got through the semester. And despite the fear and the doubt, I managed to complete 4 more, graduate with an Associates in Arts and Sciences, and transfer to UMBC. During the 5 semesters at CCBC I noticed something interesting emerge: As education became more important to me and I was getting ready to transfer to UMBC as an undergrad, I began to notice resentment coming from several friends and family members. Just a short time before these people were supportive of my decision to go back to school, yet now they looked at me with contempt. Growing up I was taught that getting an education was the best thing you can do for yourself. So why was I losing support from friends and family? I was hurt, but what’s more, I was confused. Was I supposed to apologize for getting a degree, or stand up for myself and tell them to bug off? I didn’t know what to do. Why couldn’t I just earn my degree in peace? Why couldn’t they just understand and give me their support like they had been doing? I felt torn, truly torn.
As I was nearing graduation in 2017, I was also dealing with big changes in my life: I moved, dealt with health issues, and was accepted to UMBC. As if that wasn’t enough, I was dealing with never ending issues with phone companies, cable companies, my apartment management, to name a few. I had almost always avoided confrontations throughout my life. I let a lot of people walk over me because I didn’t want to face them and “start trouble”. I lost a lot of money because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of haggling with companies who had over charged me. I let a lot of things slide that I should never have let side, all because I didn’t want to be confrontational. Now, I was forced to take a crash course in Standing Up for Myself 101.
As I began to find my bearings I realized that maybe there was a reason for all the “confronting.” I realized that I wasn’t being confrontational, I was demanding what was wrong be made right. For the first time in my life I was standing up for myself. I was being my own advocate; I was finding my voice. Then I came across a brilliant article, and that tiny impetus to apologize for coming back to school disappeared quicker than I could say “poof”.
I received a newsletter from brainpickings with the tagline “Adrienne Rich on Why an Education Is Something You Claim, Not Something You Get.” My heart skipped a beat. In the piece, written by Maria Popova, I read that Adrienne Rich “delivered a convocation speech to a group of women at Douglass College titled Claiming an Education”. In that speech, Rich states: “One of the dictionary definitions of the verb ‘to claim’ is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. ‘To receive’ is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.”
I was at CCBC for 5 semesters before graduating. Out of the 5, I worked full time for 4 while attending school full time. It was exhausting to say the least. There were many things I had to “put on the back burner,” there were things I had to learn to live without, there were compromises I had to make, and there was not a single part of my life where a corner or two were not cut. I realize now, women like myself who go back to school later in life, often make our choices based on pacifying everyone around us. That act of keeping everyone happy can often keep us from achieving our education goals. I look back at those times I felt the need to apologize for “neglecting” my duties to my family by going, yet again, for another degree, and know that coming back to school was not an easy choice to make, but one I would make over again. The women I have met at UMBC, and especially at the Women’s Center, know exactly what I am talking about. We have had many passing discussions regarding this issue.
Returning women students (undergraduate students 25 years and older) have a full plate and then some. In trying to balance work and family life, most of us have put ourselves last, minimizing our needs. Many of us who are returning women students are constantly on the go, working to find time for everything on our list of things to accomplish, all the while fighting money issues and guilt that we are not accomplishing enough. Many of us feel we are doing this alone, but that isn’t true. There is camaraderie to be shared with the Returning Women Students here at the Women’s Center. There is sisterhood among us who understand and feel the pain so common, and at times, deeply rooted in our psyche.
We have been there. We know; we understand. We got your back.
Since that cold Groundhog Day in 2015, I have realized, that for many of us returning women students, the recurring theme is self advocacy. We have a duty to ourselves to claim what is rightfully ours, in this case, our education. What I have come to realize in the past 3 years, and with the help of the recent discovery of Adrienne Rich’s amazing speech, is that self care = self advocacy. We have to be our own heroes because, most times, we will not be given what we want or deserve, even if we’ve earned the right to it. No one will give you what’s rightfully yours, you need to claim it. And at times, the process of claiming it means demanding it. I claim my education. I claim myself and my well being above all. I claim me. I hope you will claim yourself.
For more information and further reading:
More on the Returning Women Students Program in the Women’s Center to include our scholarship program (deadline is March 30th!!)