In the last few years, there has been a wonderful push in the life sciences to increase diversity. It is now a widely accepted fact that promoting diversity and equity is a must for the advancement of science. As a queer scientist, who is also an immigrant, I want to talk about my experience during graduate school. Although this is a personal story, I hope to highlight the need for meaningful support in the sciences.
I was born and raised in Turkey. I grew up very lucky and privileged. My family always supported and encouraged my education. They were not enthusiastic about my wanting to become a scientist, as job prospects for scientists in Turkey are limited. Nevertheless, I was set on this course, and soon realized I had to leave home to get training in another country. I was able to get a summer internship position at Penn State University. This was due to the fact that I was very lucky, and I met the right people at the right time. In addition, my family was willing and able to fund the experience. Afterward, I applied for PhD programs in the United States and was accepted. At the time, I knew I was fortunate to have my family’s support, but I do not think I understood the true extent and meaning of this support until I lost it.
Halfway through my PhD, I realized I was queer and came out to friends and family. Like many, this was a sudden yet lengthy realization for me. Maybe it was being away from the open hostility toward queer people that I witnessed in Turkey, or the opportunity to truly be in charge of my own life that I was able to discover myself in ways I had not thought possible before. My way of coming out to my parents was telling them about my partner. They were shocked and embarrassed. I do not know what I expected their response to be, but it truly shook me. My relationship with my father and brother came to a boiling point a couple of weeks before a postdoc interview. That day eight years ago, we had a very unpleasant interaction over the phone and have not spoken since. At the time, this was very hard to deal with on top of the stress of trying to get a new position. My partner was still in school and had a very small salary from part-time work. So, we mainly depended on my graduate student stipend. When I needed to fly out to California for a postdoc interview, I did not have enough money in the bank, or a credit card with a large enough limit to buy my own plane ticket (which was reimbursed after the fact). When you initially come to the United States, you do not have any credit and cannot get a decent credit card for the first few years of your residence. I was so fortunate that I had an understanding PhD mentor, who arranged for me to get my plane ticket. In the past, not only would my parents have helped me financially, they would have also supported and encouraged me. This is just an example of times that I intensely felt the loss of family support.
For a long time, I did not realize I was experiencing grief from the loss of my family/support system. I did not know what to do with myself, and I did not have anyone to talk to. My school was in a small town and there were very few openly gay people in the whole town, let alone the university. I certainly did not have any openly queer mentors; in fact, it seemed impossible to me that anyone could have an openly queer mentor at the time (which is thankfully incorrect!). I withdrew from all the other Turkish people I knew because I did not know how they would react to me being queer. I did not have any problems when I came out to the people in my lab or the department. I was also trying to finish my PhD and work on my dissertation. I was depressed, anxious, and under immense stress. I felt very isolated. I also felt like I had to keep up the appearance of being okay because I was not about to let anyone think that being queer had negatively affected my life. It felt to me at the time, that because there was already such a small amount of queer representation in the field, people would generalize my experience and start having negative opinions about queer people and their experiences.I made an appointment with the counselor provided to graduate students by the university. It was the worst experience of my life. This man was even less comfortable with queerness than my father.
Since coming out, I have gotten married, and my mom has visited. After a few years, I was able to talk myself into trying therapy again, and this has been very helpful for me. I hope everyone has affordable access to good mental healthcare and a strong support system. I have built a good life and surround myself with people who love and appreciate me. The thought that all the life experiences I was supposed to share with my family are happening without them is never far from my mind. However, sometimes that is just how things work out. I am also lucky to have obtained my green card, which gives me the security that if a position does not work out, I can still stay in the United States because my immigration status is no longer tied to being employed. I do not have to worry that I might have to go back to a country that may not be a safe place for me if my career does not work out as planned. This is not the case for many international trainees who come to the United States on a visa that is tied to their specific employer.
Based on my experiences, I think the most important thing to remember when talking about promoting diversity is that our trainees and colleagues may be dealing with a variety of issues that we cannot imagine or even be aware of. There are layers and nuances to everyone’s experience, and if we truly want to be supportive, we need to respect and make space for people’s needs.It is a hard task to focus on science, which can be an all-consuming experience when you are dealing with a lack of support or feeling isolated from your community. Though I am currently in a privileged position compared with most people, it can still feel like the whole world is hostile, merely because of my queerness and immigration status. We need to move on from the “push through,” “get over it,” “you need to be cut out for science” type of mentality, and instead be more compassionate. Our efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion go beyond filling a diversity bingo card during recruitment. Meaningful support (including adequate financial compensation), recognizing our humanity, not merely tolerating difference, but welcoming and accepting the wide variety of human experiences.
About the Author:
Izel Tekin is an Assistant Project Scientist in the Neuroscience Research Institute at UCSB, and a member of the UAW Local 5810, The Union of Postdocs and Academic Researchers. Email: email@example.com.