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On Graduate School and Loss

by Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown

Graduate school. Those two words were a tough road for me. I am a young black woman, first-generation PhD, seven months post-graduation. I wrote and defended my dissertation, yet this piece feels infinitely more difficult to write. It’s been a year since we lost you and committing that to paper hurts. I only hope that by sharing my own experience, it reaches someone and encourages them.

I don’t know exactly how to begin, so I guess it’s best to go to the very start. One of my earliest and most vivid memories of you is your first birthday. You were sitting in your high chair, brown, big-cheeked, and smiling at the small crowd and the sugary cake sitting before you. I’d watched you grow all those months before, curious, bright, and the most beautiful baby! The cake was like a puzzle you needed to figure out. You plunged your hands inside and brought it to your cute little face. Perhaps it was the shock of so much sugar at once, but immediately you recoiled; then, like a child, you attempted to taste it again. Baby’s first cake. That’s how I think of you now. That’s how I will always remember you. Curious, precocious, beautiful, bright. That’s who you were. And as I sit to write this now, it’s who I wish you still were. But you’re gone now. To where? I can contemplate and imagine, but I won’t know for certain until I leave this plane myself someday. But wherever you are, I write this for you, little cousin (little sister). I’ll carry you always.

Being in graduate school is a struggle, one that is hard to navigate even in the best of circumstances I presume. As I sit and write this, one year removed from the initial trauma, I still struggle to find the words to describe all I went through. However, I recognize the importance of talking about my experience, not just for myself, but for others as well. So, being vulnerable and honest, here I go:

It was January of what turned out to be the final year of my graduate study. I was in the midst of waiting to hear back from positions I applied for and dreading rejections, as well as the possibility of offers, as those would come with interviews and job talks—both of which terrified me to no end. It was just a few days after my 31st birthday when my phone rang, a call from your dad. There was nothing unusual about that. Your dad was (is) like a second father to me, so I answered hoping maybe for a second birthday surprise. But it wasn’t. Instead, he asked if I was sitting down, told me to sit down, and immediately I felt my heart stop. Rarely does anything good come after someone asks if you’re sitting down, so I’ve learned in my experiences. Unfortunately, I was right. Your dad called to tell me you were gone, that you had hung yourself, that you had died. An instant after the words left his mouth I went numb. I was devastated, disbelieving, heartbroken. You were thirteen years old. Exactly what it was that caused you to leave us as you did remains unclear to me, but whatever it was removed a light from my heart, a light from this earth.

That you could’ve taken your own life is still unfathomable to me, but perhaps it is not my place to understand. Nevertheless, I realize that there is no easy way to lose someone, a child no less, of that I am sure. But losing someone to suicide must be among the most painful. You weren’t my child to lose, you were my cousin, my little sister, but still my love, and I lost you. I lost you at one of the most difficult points in my adult life, and even today, a little after a year later, I am not sure how I am standing.

Writing a dissertation is not an easy feat, at least it wasn’t for me; yet, somehow in the wake of losing you, I somehow had to manage to put words to paper while dealing with the meaning of losing you. Advisors expected chapters and job applications expected responses. Yet I could barely breathe. All I could think about was the you in that beautiful dress, looking as if you were asleep within the coffin. Looking like yourself, but not at the same time.

How could I think about my next steps, knowing that you had taken the last of yours? How could I write, apply, or try, knowing that you’d never have the chance?

So I didn’t. For days I did nothing but cry. Remembering your face, your smile, your laugh. Days went by and the darkness around me grew. I was lost. Deeply and utterly lost. It took someone else to pull me out of the hole I had fallen into, one shrouded in pain, hurt, darkness. But her hand held mine, pulled me back to myself, back to happier memories of you. The you who supported me, the you that looked up to me, made me see things in myself that I may have otherwise missed. So slowly, but surely, I picked up a pen again. Put pen to paper and wrote. I dedicated my dissertation to you, the light in my darkness. My little Elira.

There is no easy way to write a dissertation through grief. The only advice that I can give, the only words that I can say, is that it doesn’t happen alone. Rely on your village, your person (or people) to help guide you through. Remember yourself and what you came to do. Pick up a pen, open a laptop, and let the words flow (even if they don’t make sense). I did. Eventually I found my way in words, using my writing as a way to remember you, as a way to move forward. It wasn’t a smooth process. It was rocky, marred with sleepless days and nights, tears, rewrites, curses, a trip to the hospital for insomnia driven psychosis, and feelings of hopelessness. But I wrote. I went to dissertation boot camp and I wrote. I went to write in sessions with my best friend and I wrote. I punched pillows, and cried for hours, but I wrote.

It was painful. Moving forward. Breathing. It hurt. It still hurts.

But with the help of my village I finished my dissertation, defended it and graduated in July 2018.


30412161_10105763080272873_6484055218454528000_nLetisha Engracia Cardoso Brown is a Presidential Pathways Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech University. Her research focuses on social relationships and food practices, as well as media representations of black female athletes. Her work can be found in the South African Review of Sociology and the Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education, as well as the online publication The Shadow League.

Black Girl Does Not Do Grad School Alone

By Martina Lampkin

Having just finished my first semester of grad school, I find this to be the perfect time to reflect on the trials and tribulations, as well as the joys of working on an advanced degree. One thing that easily made a big impression on me was the surprise and delight of not being the only black girl in my classes.

So, a little bit of background: I am a software developer, and for every project I have been on at work, I have been the only black female developer. Because the school I’m attending has become more diverse, I knew I was not going to be the only black person in the Computer Science Master’s degree program. However, because of my past work experiences, I thought I was going to be the rare black girl in a program and field dominated by white and Asian men. As I sat in the classroom waiting for my professor to come into my first class of the semester, it looked like I was going to be the only black girl in the class.

It wouldn’t be the first time I was the only person of a specific demographic in my classes. In an undergraduate Programming Concepts class, I was one of two girls, and the only black girl. I never thought about being the only black girl in class because I wasn’t as socially aware at the time;I didn’t understand that there were privileges that I would not get in the tech industry. In a CompTIA certification class I was taking after completing my Bachelor’s degree, I was the only girl in the class. I started worrying at that point because I didn’t know that I was going to be the only girl in the class until the instructor told me after calling my name during roll call. Will the guys try to be sexist and say sexist things? Will I be made to feel unwelcome because I’m not a man?

At that moment, a black girl walked in. My expectations, that were formed from past experiences, were broken instantly shattered into a million pieces that blew away in the wind. The surprises didn’t stop there: Another black girl walked into the class. No longer was I the only black girl in the class, I was one of three. For my other class, I was also one of three black girls; the two aforementioned girls were in that class with me. Ah, the joys of core classes where you’ll see at least some of the same people in your classes during that semester.

Just like other people in the class, we complained about one of our classes, we talked about our professors, I even gave one girl notes from a class I had previously taken. So why are we seen as the “other” in tech when we are similar to the people who fit the majority?

It is so important for any black girl who wants to work in the tech industry to see other black girls learning with them, or working in the field. We can face the unique challenges of being the minority in the field together. It’s why I’m getting my Master’s degree in Computer Science; I want to be the representation that is desperately needed to break the status quo. I want a young black woman to see me at school or work and think “There’s someone like me. I can do this!” The only black women I would see at work had the stereotypical administrative roles. I questioned if I would ever see another black woman like me working a tech job, and I almost left the industry because of lack of representation.

While one of the black girls I met in my classes will be switching to a different tech-related program after this semester, it was still great walking through the start of grad school with her. I will miss having another black girl walk with me on this journey, but I know there are other black girls in the computer science program who will gladly walk together in the grad school journey.


Martina Lampkin HeadshotMartina Lampkin is a student at Towson University where she is working towards a Master’s degree in Computer Science with a concentration on Software Engineering. When she is not working or going to school, she can be found doing kickboxing, singing in her Unitarian Universalist church choir, or planning her 2020 wedding. Check out her blog where she records her journey in discovering who she is and finding her purpose in life at diaryofself.wordpress.com.

From Sharde’ to Sharon…and Back: Code Switching in Academia

By Sharde’ Chapman

Like many black women, I am in an everlasting conundrum of how I present myself. From a very early age I, like many black women of a certain age, learned that it was important to be multilingual in a world that has shaped an identity for you, even when it is totally antithetical to who you actually might be. Code switching has become so totally engrained in my day-to-day life, my fluency sometimes shocks me. I live in a constant tension between my innately black girl-isms and respectability politics-laden persona that is often reminded that I better not embarrass my mama in public.

My post-secondary career has been spent in majority white spaces. From Memphis, to the UK and cross-country, I have chosen to receive my walking papers from three, that’s right, three predominantly white institutions. This includes my short stint as an Oxford student. I am no stranger to being one of few, if not the only, chocolate chip in the batter. I have been made deeply aware of the importance of the social and political transcript of these white spaces, and how to navigate my way through the miry waters of whiteness and privilege. I purposely shape this like an epic journey because, for many black girls in academia, it is. Knowing how to stay in your lane and drag the “angry black woman” back when cans of whoop ass are totally warranted is treacherous work. It is also exhausting as fuck. I saw a statistic that said that only 3% of professors are African American women; only a little over 1% full professors. And, per usual, the stakes are amazingly high when you are a black woman in these spaces, on these campuses, teaching these classes.

Even in my own program, I am the only African American (woman) in my cohort. The differences of experiences, expectations, and seriousness with which I can be taken are staggering. I would not call myself a product of the hood, but I was definitely no stranger to it. My nerdiness, penchant for the arts, and a single black mother that was hell bent on me being well-rounded meant that I have always been a marginal black girl. I do not care for conflict or naturally speak in total African American vernacular. I have many times been accused of not being black enough by peers while also struggling to not be the “token black person” in spaces where I was indeed the only one. Code switching became the link between the two. I “Knuck If You Buck,” but also play Handel’s “Messiah” every Christmas without fail. Going into higher education, we realize that that we will walk on eggshells so that we do not offend or intimidate anyone. We soften our tone, lower our voices, and imitate the inflection of our white female counterparts. Unlike my white colleagues, I am just as versed in the dead white “classical theorists” that they work with, as well as the scholars of color that are actually important to my work studying black people. I have heard my colleagues say things like, “Maybe slavery wasn’t that bad,” and question the value of studying African Americans as a discipline. I have even had professors ask me what black people were writing in the nineteenth century after looking at their white washed syllabus. These are the realities of my PhD journey. In these moments I have had to choose silence, or measure my words with such intention when my Baldwinian level rage was near boiling over.

To be a black woman in the academic space means that Sharde’ must don the plastic smile of Sharon to address her colleagues. It has not escaped me, the aesthetic choices that I may have to make as a I draw closer to being on the job market. My waist length kinky tresses and nose hoop may have to be tamed into a more user-friendly version of itself. I will have to put a lot of effort into folding myself into a box of acceptability just to be given a chance despite the undoubtedly impressive CV that will precede me. Academia attempts to continue to surreptitiously code black women’s bodies, bending them so that they carry far more weight than they are supposed to. We are encouraged to play ball until we get tenure and are free to do our own thing ;to study things that have “value” while also knowing more than almost everyone in the room that lacks any melanin.

With this kind of reality the question becomes: how do black women survive the process? In reality, all of us do not. My mentor did not finish her doctoral degree because the strain was entirely too much. One of my dear friends did not survive the process either. I am barely hanging in there many days, but six years in, my support system and my pride won’t let me quit. In fact, it makes me push back against the boxes that I have, at many points, dismembered myself to get into. Code switching has become a weapon for me to do that. Being able to easily change languages has made me a dynamic lecturer because I remember that the lessons are more important than the words. The mask may hide the rage but it also forces me to figure out better ways to mobilize it in my work. Ultimately, it always make us miles smarter than many and most in the room. No capes, just weapons.


Rev. Sharde’ Chapman was born and raised in Orlando, Florida. Currently she is pursuing a PhD in Religion with emphasis in African American Religion. Prior to pursuing her PhD she earned a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she was also a student at Lincoln College, Oxford University in Oxford, UK. Sharde’s research interests focus on the forms and function black non-traditional religious spaces. Sharde’ is also an ordained minister in the Baptist church.

As she pursued higher education she has been a child literacy advocate and educational trainer through the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program. Sharde’ also shares 31 countries worth of travel insight and her self care journey on her website shardesearches.com.