As we are reaching the end of the school year, I look back at the accomplishments I have achieved and cannot be anything but grateful for such an amazing year. After three years as a Ph.D. student in the Native American Studies department at UC Davis I finally took my qualifying exams and began my dissertation fieldwork research in Michoacán, Mexico. However, taking my qualifying exams has been a challenging and exciting journey. As the average graduate student, the thought of going through the qualifying exams brings in lots of anxiety and stress. After finalizing my third year in the Ph.D. program, I planned my summer break very carefully and tried to maximize both my study and writing times as much as I could. While I focused my time on writing my statement and reviewing books and articles in preparation for the exams, I still had quite a bit of reading to do, which meant my summer would not be as relaxing as the previous years. When surrounded by plentiful of work to do, being strategic is very useful although certain strategies do not always work. During the first weeks of my summer vacation, I spent most of the days reading, in an effort to review most of the works I would discuss during my qualifying exams. At the same time, I would spend a few hours at night creating outlines for my statements, which meant that I would go to sleep feeling more stressed out. As I became quite close to having a panic attack, I was able to complete a fair amount of reading and thus decided to change my studying strategies.
A few months before, I had applied to a graduate research grant competition to carry out archival work in Mexico over the summer. Therefore, the summer prior to taking my qualifying exams was very productive as I conducted archival dissertation research in Mexico. I think that having the opportunity to interact with people in my community and being out on the field allowed me to think through the entire process and better organize my ideas and writing methods. When I arrived to Mexico in July, I was worried about not being able to focus enough time and commitment to my study as I would be busy doing research and fulfilling other family responsibilities. Nonetheless, as the end of the summer approached, I realized that I actually was able to write a lot while also taking care of my other obligations. Somehow spending most of the day at the archives and getting together with my family members over the weekend to celebrate somebody’s birthday or attend local fiestas in my community released some of the anxiety and negativity and helped me remain focused on the positive thoughts. My mind was stress-free—although only for a few weeks—and I was able to produce a lot of work.
During my three years of exam preparation, I heard many stories about students’ journeys into their qualifying exams. Somehow knowing that we all go through the same process helped me calm down and stay more positive about this experience. While I had written many seminar papers and had presented at several conferences, the adrenaline of going through the qualifying exams was still there. Qualifying exams are different for every student and since day one in the Ph.D. program in NAS I knew that mine would be one of the biggest academic challenges I would encounter. I went through more than 40 drafts of qualifying exam statements and thesis prospectus and I remember that every time I submitted a new draft to my advisor, looking back at her answer caused a bit of anxiety. However, I also learned not to be afraid of challenging myself and improving my critical thinking and writing abilities.
Initially, I had expected this experience to be very painful. Nevertheless, as the date for my qualifying exams approached I thought about my academic journey and the difficulties I have encountered as a migrant from Michoacán, Mexico in the United States. Life is full of challenges and harsh times, and mine has not been an exception. Since I permanently moved to California many years ago, adapting to a culture that was, up to that point, completely unknown to me, always has been a difficult task. However, the unconditional love and support of my family towards my academic endeavors have been central in my determination to get ahead and better myself. In addition, the fact that my sister, also a Ph.D. student and now a Ph.D. Candidate in NAS, was also going through the same process also made me feel stronger. Although we are working on different projects, we spent many nights talking about the qualifying exams and the kind of questions we might get. We would discuss books together and come up with different ideas on how to respond to the various concerns and questions that may come up during the oral exams. During this time, a cousin of mine residing in Mexico was also preparing to take her professional exams in Pre-School Education by the National School of Education. Therefore, I knew I was not alone in this journey and there were people around me who supported me each time I felt discouraged.
I am deeply in debt to my qualifying exam committee for their support, care, and encouragement throughout the qualifying exams process. For that, I am absolutely grateful. Native American Studies faculty at UC Davis are keenly engaged and concerned about the work that their students do in a way that always make us go that extra mile in order to acknowledge that we are stronger than we think we are and capable of doing more. While I felt stressed out and anxious throughout the whole process, even during the written exams, at the moment I was welcomed into the orals, I felt empowered. I knew that every single professor that was sitting there believed in my capabilities and wanted me to do great. Now that I have an opportunity to reflect on my experience taking the qualifying exams, I must say that the overall process, including the reading, writing, and examination portions, was challenging, exhilarating, and enriching. It is a one-time academic experience and although it is not as enjoyable when we are sleep-deprived and have to spend many hours a day writing, re-writing, and reviewing an enormous amount of academic material, it definitely has made me a better thinker and writer.
In 2015 I was awarded a UC MEXUS Dissertation Research Grant to fund my fieldwork activities in Michoacán, Mexico, which I began in February of this year. This fellowship will allow me to start on the various activities that comprise my dissertation fieldwork research including visits to several archives and P’urhépecha communities in Michoacán. Since late January of this year I have been living in Michoacán, Mexico. I live in a very small rural community in the Lake Pátzcuaro region in central Michoacán. I grew up in this community and lived here until I was 15 years old and migrated to California. However, although moving into a different country was a difficult process, I learned to live in the new socio-cultural environment that California offered and became an independent migrant woman. Throughout these years, I have maintained constant communication with family and friends that stayed back home and travelled constantly to visit my community. However, coming back to my community to stay here for a permanent period of time has been quite an adventurous experience as I am re-learning things I had left behind. While thinking about writing a doctoral dissertation might be stressful sometimes, I am truly enjoying this opportunity. What has been one of the most exciting things for me is my reintegration into community life. I am so thankful to my family, friends, and community people in general in Huecorio, my hometown, for always receiving me and my parents with a warm welcome, which has made the transition into dissertation fieldwork research a much easier, rewarding, and enjoyable process. Over the past few months, I have met people who have always received me with a smile on their faces as I sit down and listen to the stories that they have to share.
Over the summer I have several projects, which I hope to accomplish. First, I applied to the UC Davis Social Justice Initiative Graduate Summer Research Fellowship to work on a project that mainly involves the recollection of oral perspectives and experiences regarding the implementation and effects of a recent state amendment that mandates the privatization of communal property, as well as the collaborative efforts and strategies indigenous people in Michoacán currently are employing to protect their lands. I also plan to spend one or two months of my summer visiting the National Agrarian Registry’s archives to continue working on my project on agrarian disputes and modes of legal resistance amongst P’urhépecha communities in Lake Pátzcuaro, which are very complex given the particular histories and internal socio-political and cultural dynamics of native communities in this region. Another project I plan to start working on, and which I am very committed to at a personal level, concerns the documentation of cargo celebrations in my community (these are local celebrations and fiestas, which are sponsored either individually or collectively, and which are destined to celebrate the saints in our communities), and track the cultural changes over the years as well as the sources of those transformations. My goal is to produce a documentary that would accompany the written material, especially since this is a work that would be done with the collaboration of community members and which I hope to donate to my community’s local library once it is accomplished. I hope that in a future blog I have the opportunity to comment on the progress of these projects.
I would like to conclude by saying that if I could describe this school year in one word it would be challenging. Nevertheless, both the achievements and experiences I have acquired throughout this year have made me a stronger and a more committed and passionate person towards the work that I do and my future career goals. Meeting new people and taking the time to listen to their difficult but yet inspiring stories as I am moving along this new academic journey have made my fieldwork dissertation research such an invaluable experience. As I think about the great and challenging moments I experienced this school year as well as my near future plans, I cannot be but fully charged of positivity and great energy for the projects and memories that lie ahead.