What I learned in my first semester of graduate school, being a student

I have said it before, and I will say it again. The more that I learn, whether it be in school or in my personal experiences, the more that I learn that I don’t know anything. Well, I guess that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t not know anything, but the more that I learn the more that I learn how much more there is to learn….if you can follow my logic.

This has not been proven more true than this past semester, my first semester in graduate school. This past semester was extremely difficult for me, not only did I learn much about who I am as a person and the things in my personal life that I struggled with, but I had to relearn how to be a student. I had to relearn how to create good study habits, manage my time well, and manage stress well. On top of that, being a graduate teaching assistant, I had to learn how to be both student and teacher at the same time. There were days when I honestly was not sure that  I was going to make it, and I honestly cried myself to sleep. However, I do not regret those blood, sweat, and tears….okay, okay so really only tears, but there were a lot of them.

Here are some reasons why I feel no regret. What I’ve gained from the difficulties far surpass the stress and extreme lack of self-confidence that I endured.

I’ve always felt like I’ve known a decent amount about the world, and I’ve always considered myself to be an open-minded person. However, my French class this past semester, Institutions of contemporary France, showed me that I still have a long ways to go before I can put myself into that category. Much of my undergraduate career focused on learning about France’s history. I will admit that I know a fairly decent amount about France’s history up until the late 19th century, much more so than my own country’s history, and I kind of used to brag about it. Apparently, I was a pretentious prick (though I’ll be honest, I can come off as pretentious sometimes, despite not meaning to be, when I talk about my life in France or my travels, as small as they may be, sorry friends).

This class showed me how little I know about the contemporary issues France’s society currently faces up against. Much of the semester focused on the writings of Christiane Taubira, the former Chief of Justice of France, until she resigned in January of 2016 after disagreeing with the French government’s ideas to take away French citizenship from those whom have bi-nationality from those who played a part in terrorist attacks against France. She was against this, which for those whom cannot fully understand the political situation of France and only see the pain, the loss, and the terror caused by these people, might be confused. I will admit that at first I was confused, but obviously there was much I didn’t know about the current political situation in France, despite having been in France at the time of the Paris bombings in November of 2015.

Her reasons inspired me. In situations such as terrorist attacks, it’s normal to want to react angrily and out of fear, but Taubira, in her book Murmures à la jeunesse (Whispers to the youth), she writes that we must first seek to understand these people who committed these acts. We must see them as people, who have come to this point because of where they come from and from what they’ve personally experienced in their lives, not as monsters who have committed monstrous acts (despite the fact that they were terrible and monstrous acts). We must seek reason in face of such horrible events, rather than allowing their emotions to run away with us and act out of anger and fear. Not only does this book, published in January in 2016, greatly display the logic and reasoning of a French writer inspired by French Enlightenment writers of the 18th century (when logic and reasoning started becoming a core value of French intelligence and scholarship), but it serves as something that it can be applied to any country, not just France.

I learned the hard way how anger and fear can drive people to say and to do horrible things, case-in-point, in the face of the elections. When president-elect Donald Trump was voted into office, I was so livid beyond comprehension. I lashed out at Trump supporters because in my eyes, they empowered a racist, prejudice, misogynistic, egotistical, bigot to run our country. How have we come to a point in our country’s history where treating other humans like trash to be thrown away, or even worse, burned and condemned to hell just because they differ from us, has become the norm or acceptable? How have we come to that point? Especially when it comes from my fellow Christians, who are supposed to love one another and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ? What happened to our humanity? I’m confused. All I see are a bunch of hypocrites, but I realized that I’m not innocent either. I guess we are all failing.

In realizing my anger (I’m definitely a very emotional and passionate person at times), despite the fact that I’m still angry and despite the fact that I sometimes kind of really want to punch Trump supporters in the face, there’s a reason why people whom I love and whom I believe to be good people voted for him to be in office. So, I’m trying my best to embrace these ideas not only in my academic life but also in my personal life: to seek understanding and reasoning. I’m a firm believer that Trump gained such momentum because people are terrified, terrified of what they don’t understand or know, terrified of our country and its people being threatened and hurt by extremists, and terrified of losing their identity in a country that traditionally was a country of white people with select minorities into a truly diverse country where society rules are evolving and changing (that which I believe to be a good and wonderful thing). However, of course, this is only my opinion. Unfortunately, he is our nation’s president now, and unfortunately, I have to learn to live with that. That does not mean that I am going to stop fighting for what I believe to be good, honest, and worthy of fighting for (or against). I just plan to use the inspirations I receive from Mme Taubira to fight in a more positive, fruitful way. I know going in that I won’t always be so successful.

For example, despite my loathing of Mr. Donald Trump, I have tried, little by little, to force myself to read the news in order to better understand the current political situation. Though to be honest, it’s quite difficult. The more terrible news that I read or hear about, especially when it concerns Trump, someone that our country willing chose (I understand that not everyone voted for him), I get so angry. It’s so unjust to me. Sometimes, I get so upset that I have to stop reading for the day.

But you’re probably wondering how this relates to my life as a student? Truth be told, I no longer consider my student life and my personal life as separate. I feel as though everything I’ve been learning in the classroom goes beyond just learning knowledge for the sake of learning knowledge or getting a degree. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older and more mature now or if it’s because graduate school is just like that or both, but everything I’m learning in the classroom is so relative to me as a person and in my personal life. It also just happens to be a great way to improve my academic life as well. I had to learn how to properly argument my theories and my ideas in a foreign language. That is definitely not the easiest thing to do.

So, this French class of mine, not only was I improving my French and learning more about contemporary French culture and society, but I was learning about myself and most importantly, about how the world functions as a whole, because after all, despite the differences in culture and language, we aren’t all that different from the French. We are all human after all, right? The human experience is recognizable across the board, or in this case, across the world.

This brings me to my next point. Christiane Taubira was invited to my university in October to give a speech. She outlined some of the history of her French nationality, her race, her place of birth (French Guiana, in South America), and how all of these effected how she identified herself. I think I connected so well with her and her writings because of this exact same issue that I find myself faced up against. After living in France and experiencing what I have experienced, I have for the past few years felt that my identity is caught between two nations and two cultures. I feel as though understanding myself and my place in the world has becoming increasingly more difficult. Meeting people from all over that have two different nationalities and learning about their lives only made the weight of the question of my identity grow increasingly in mind. Can we ever really define ourselves by where we were born or what nationality is on our passport? Is it possible to identify ourselves by our experiences in a comprehensible way?

Back to the conference in October, as she was speaking, I listened intently, of course being inspired by her words throughout the course of the speech, but the thing that hit me the most was her closing sentence, which goes along the lines of something like this: Our nationalities, our identities are our humanity. 

Though many people might not agree with me, I believe that’s the key to solving my identity crisis and maybe the crisis that we all face right now, our current political and social upheavals. Maybe we are never just our nationalities or the culture that we were born into. We are but our experiences up to this point, in other words, we are our humanity, and this is what brings us all together, despite differences in color, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. We are all human, and this is how we learn to love one another.

This is the lens through which I will start to soak in the world around me and explore it even more.

This is how I plan to approach others whom think differently from me, despite the fact that their beliefs and choices may anger me. I will admit that I won’t be successful 100% of the time, but I’d be stupid not to try.

 

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