If you were to ask five-year-old Cierra what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would’ve slew out an ambitious list of ‘ballerina princess, teacher, president,’ probably in that order. Now if you were to ask me that same question, I would confidently reply with, “I don’t know.” In different conversations in varying contexts, I have made a habit of tailoring my answer to this common question to fit into perfectly constructed job titles including executive director of a non-profit or head of a government agency or professor. Even though it may seem as though my future is planned, I still feel a sense of being lost. Throughout the years I have chased dreams dependent on my current situation and the topics that found their way into my heart, but in that, I’ve learned that all of my experiences have led me to the moment I am in today - that of pursuing the Ph.D.
When we hear the word, “doctor,” what do we envision? Do we see a white coat and many years of laborious schoolwork or maybe a professor giving a lecture and earned letters that change the distinction of a name? For me, it's dismantling the stereotype that accompanies a Ph.D., highlighting that despite challenges, setback, and adversity, a Ph.D. is not simply a degree, it is knowledge and the dissemination of that knowledge to add a different voice and perspective to today’s Eurocentric academic world.
I am a leaper. When my heart focuses in on something that speaks to me, I leap for it. Although I am a calculated person in many aspects of how I plan my life and what I envision it to look like, I can’t truly describe why and how the desperation at which my heart pursues what I believe is meant for me forces me to leap, throwing caution to the wind. As many ask what made me decide to apply to a Ph.D. program in the first place, I giggle to myself. “God,” I tell them.
I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on what my life purpose is. As I navigate the murky waters of yet another transitional period in my life, some things that used to bring me joy don’t bring about the same heart-thumping excitement they used to. This has made way for new seasons and new talents to manifest, while being able to focus and hone in on the gifts that were already present. What is it that God put me here on earth to do?
As I was riding the metro coming back from an incredible morning celebrating literacy with a group of elementary school-aged girls, that odd sensation that normally comes about when my heart is ready to leap tingled through my bones. God. I left the event knowing that I wanted to spend the rest of my life making a way for girls of color to have educational opportunities and to let their brilliance be affirmed and celebrated every day. A sign on the metro was properly placed across from where I was sitting, advertising the University of Maryland. I got home, propped open my laptop to skim through their programs and there was a Ph.D. program in minority and urban education. This was it. The answer to my question about purpose was strategically woven into my everyday commute. It was so subtle, so understated that I may have missed it. Then I leapt.
I am a life-long learner. If you ask my step-dad, he would attribute this vital part of my personality to all of the days he spent making me write my alphabet at the kitchen table while I groaned the entire time. I am sometimes too curious for my own good. Curious about human experience. Curious about the ways in which our society is constructed based on the stories we tell ourselves. Curious about why things are the way they are. Curious about history and how it shapes the present. Curious about how change is sought and created.
Even though I did the whole process wrong - deciding to apply one month before the application was due, studying for the GRE two weeks before re-taking the exam to raise my scores, the list goes on. Even though both family members and friends laughed at the prospect of me going back to school and prolonging the opportunity to start full-time work. Even though it’s another five years, at least, of cutthroat academia, papers, presentations, grueling nights in the library. Even though I’ve had moments of doubt as insecurities of ‘not enough’ projected on to me in the early hours of the morning by my own demons. Even though is simply not an excuse anymore for me to not dive headfirst into what is meant for me. At the end of those years I will be able to look back and say even though I was afraid, even though I didn’t know what would come out of it, I pushed through. To be able to look at my parents faces as I achieve what they never had the opportunity to, to be able to create and disseminate new knowledge and put pen to paper about lived experiences that are often untold and largely ignored, to be able to leave a mark on this world will have made it all worth it.
As of now, I don’t have a dream job, but my future job does have dreams. I want to be able to interact with people on a personal level, listen to their stories, dive into the depths of their lived experiences to have a better understanding of the world around me and ultimately of myself. I want to be able to speak publicly, using my own story and knowledge to find touchstones with others to bridge gaps and close barriers. I want to put new knowledge into this world and change the way we view others to create a more interconnected, equitable, understanding society. Does this all have a job title? Not necessarily. I’m ready and prepared to create my own work because we are too set upon and constrained by titles. Just because your nameplate says engineer or doctor or lawyer does not mean that you do not have the ability to be a teacher, a researcher, a leader. Amidst our daily work, we are all role models, mentors, change seekers, lovers, creatives. Who are you without your title? If you were stripped of your current role, who would you be? What were you put on this earth to do?
These are the questions that guide my soul in moments of insecurity. Leap when you feel there is room. Press through the doubts and discomfort. We are all in our present moment for a reason, even if can’t accurately vocalize or explain the reason we are there. Have faith in the process and let your intuition be your guide.