Office of Inclusive Excellence

Educated, for Better or Worse: A Pre-Pandemic Short Story

March 22, 2022

By Renee Penalver

I didn’t know where to put my hands, how to act, or what to say. I am a self-identified extrovert and anyone can tell you that this is not a problem I ever have, and my lack of social ability at this house party got me thinking. The music playing at the Christmas house party took me back to living in Bakersfield. Considering I have never heard Mac Dre anywhere else I have ever lived. I found myself wondering if any other PhDs had ever heard of Mac Dre or liked Mac Dre as I did, or if I was just the outlier? Mac Dre was a popular Bay Area rapper, and was extremely popular in Bakersfield, especially when I was in high school, we would play beer pong with other kids and Mac Dre was always playing in the background.

I was confused with myself about not knowing what to talk about with people I had once considered my best and closest friends. The host of the party was even someone I had had my first romantic relationship with when I was younger, but I still felt like an outsider. He and I had absolutely nothing to talk about. We both tried, but we always fell short of a decent conversation. Everything I did made me feel so out of place. Even the way I was dressed did not fit in with the rest of the party; I had overdressed.

When I introduced myself to people I did not know, they asked me the dreaded question, “What do you do for work?” It is not that I am not proud of my accomplishments, it is just that no one in Bakersfield, my family included, can quite understand. “I am a professor,” I said. And everyone’s eyebrows raised. “Oooohh, not just a teacher but a professor.” Whenever anyone who does not understand higher education hears that I have my Ph.D. they insist that I am the smartest person alive, and I insist back that it is simply not true (because it is not). Anyone in academia will agree that getting a Ph.D. is lesser about intelligence but so much about social skills, motivation, perseverance, and luck.

I was born and raised in East Bakersfield. Bakersfield, California is listed regularly as one of the most uneducated cities in the country, having some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the US, and the most police killings per capita of anywhere in California. My sister’s best friend was wrongfully murdered by police right out of high school. Over 50% of the city voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, and this is the place where Kevin McCarthy is from and idolized.

In contrast, I am a very liberal, Bernie-loving, tree-hugging, young Latina—I do not always feel like I belong in Bakersfield. This is not to knock Bakersfield, but to give you some context of the city. I must have been too young to notice any of this when I lived there, or maybe I just did not care—I definitely did not care about politics or social justice issues then, or maybe my parents sheltered me too much, but these were things I knew nothing about when I lived there.

When my plane landed in Bakersfield on Christmas Eve, I noticed an overwhelming amount of homelessness in the city. Then I noticed the people in the city, people looked dangerous. I would not have considered these people dangerous 9 years ago, but it was in these moments I realized how much my experiences being away and immersed in higher education had changed me for better or worse. Let me talk through this more.

In 2011, I left East Bakersfield to pursue a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology. I had attended the university in Bakersfield for my Bachelor’s degree, and I had not yet ever lived alone or away from my family. I was the first in my family to receive a Bachelor’s, and leaving the house at 21 was not common for women in my family. A Ph.D. was not something I ever thought was in the cards for me, which is a different first-generation college student story altogether.

When I first left Bakersfield, I went to visit as much as possible. My first year of graduate school was the hardest not because of the challenging coursework (e.g., ANOVA and regression, courses many people failed) but because I was so homesick. Even though I couldn’t afford to visit Bakersfield (graduate student salaries are pitiful), I would call my grandmother crying because I missed home so much, and the next weekend she had me on a flight home. After my first year of my doctoral program., I started to make a home for myself in Texas.

El Paso, TX was consistently one of the safest cities in the U.S. before the mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2019 who was not from El Paso. El Paso, to me, is so much nicer of a city than Bakersfield. I have vocalized this before in conversations with my friends from home and they get irritated with me. I got a lot of backlash at one point and someone ended up calling me “uppity.” After a year in Texas, I started going out and meeting new people, and visiting Bakersfield less. I eventually ended up visiting Bakersfield only once or twice a year (always for the holidays and maybe for a week over summer).

After the party in Bakersfield, I went to my dad’s house. We were doing our Christmas gift exchange. I do not even remember what I said, but my sister later told me my dad’s girlfriend made fun of me for how I talked. I asked my sister, “What do you mean how I talk?” and she said, “Well, you used big words she did not understand.” This was not the first time this happened on this trip. The same thing happened when I was talking to my brother at Christmas dinner and he said, “I don’t understand what you are saying because I do not know the words you are using.”

My experiences as a first-generation college and Ph.D. student have changed the person I am, and sometimes, my ability to connect with others. I am not the person I used to be, for better or worse. 

Renee Penalver, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology