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Author: Viola Allo
Title: Leaving: A Personal Narrative of Graduate School
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Leaving: A Personal Narrative of Graduate School
Viola Allo

vol. 18, no. 1, 2010
Issue title: Graduate Student Socialization in Anthropology
PDF: Link to full PDF [208kb ]

Leaving: A Personal Narrative of Graduate School

Viola Allo

American River College

What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first step to something better.
—Wendell Phillips
...I was actually feeling kind of delighted about all the compartments of time and space that were appearing in my days, during which I could ask myself the radical new question: “What do you want to do, Liz?”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, “Eat, Pray, Love” (2006:23)

1. I am really bad about keeping a journal. I start one in a fresh notebook with solid binding, and I make entries religiously for several months. Then, feeling constrained by the routine of writing in it daily, I shut the notebook and use it to store bits of paper, to-do lists, letters, pictures, and leaves rescued from dirty sidewalks. Sometimes, I put the notebook in a place I will soon forget. This way, I will not be reminded of my failure to document events and emotions I’d like to remember someday. In addition, I am selective about the things I want to remember. When times get tough, I stop the journaling. I don’t want to remember painful events. I begin, as soon as possible, letting them slip freely through the cracks in my memory. How am I to forget unpleasant things if I, in some morbid quest for self-torture, go about documenting them religiously? Years later, when I find my forgotten journal on a shelf, buried under a pile of dusty papers or pressed between tall binders, I regret this selective journaling.

This is what happened in late May 2007 when I cracked open my dusty journal from the summer of 2004 and read the very last entry I made that year, written one month into my first semester of graduate school. I was sitting on the cool front porch of my friend’s house in Ann Arbor, sorting through papers and books, arranging them in boxes to be shipped to my mother’s home in California. [1] I spotted the journal in a jumble of papers, its pale green front cover looking almost new. Deciding that it was important enough to be included in a rectangular Priority Mail box of personal documents, that is where I put it, but not before prying its tightly shut pages open. I leafed through it until I came to the final entry, curious to discover just where and why I left off journaling. My curiosity turned into sadness as my eyes met the page.

October 10, 2004. (1 a.m.) I am drowning. I don’t know if I can do this. Please, help me God. I am so tired and weak and homesick and lonely and sad, and I can’t find the strength to try. I am trying. Nothing works. I am going to bed. Please, don’t let me die here. Don’t let me live a lie. I was not made for this academic world. I don’t want to do this. What for? For tonight, just let me sleep. Please God. I love my family in CA and Chicago. I miss you all. And Jon, what am I going to do until you get here? You have been my family for so long now. [2]

Tears tugged at the corners of my eyes. Fearing that my friend would see me crying, I rose from the wooden bench on her porch, tucked the journal under my arm and went to the bedroom she said was mine for as long as I needed it. This ground-level room was one of the coolest rooms in my friend’s warm house. In the spring, it was a sweet place, with windows that opened out to flowerbeds filled with red impatiens. Once in my room with pale green walls—green like the cover of my journal—I climbed into bed, tried to forget. I did what I had done, for three years, whenever I felt lost: I cried and went to sleep.

It is this journal entry that assures me of the wisdom of my decision to leave graduate school. It is the only entry I made during my first year of graduate school. This was before I began an online journal for my friends and family in the summer of 2005, as a way of anchoring my isolated life to some solid ground—not the most solid ground, I should add, because I was so far away from family and old friends.

I have examined this entry countless times now, the way I am so fond of doing with the words people say or the things they do. While my poor journaling habits led me to believe that I would make a terrible anthropologist, it is this fondness for pondering the words and actions of individuals that convinced me I would make a fine ethnographer. [3] However, I am not sure what to say about this entry. The difficulty with analyzing this entry is that it is my own writing about me, and all I see is a person whose actions I do not quite understand. This woman has a hard time explaining to me why she chose to struggle this way. I have to remember how it came to be that she felt she was drowning, so that she will not seem like such a stranger to me.

I made no entries after the October 10th entry, and those I made before it simply document my move from California to Michigan. I ran out of time to journal. Maybe I did not want to write anymore, because the writer in me would have spoken far more truthfully than I could have tolerated. She would have told me to leave graduate school. And I did not want to leave! I did not want years of hard work to be wasted.

I wanted a PhD. I wanted my family, especially my father, to be proud of me. I wanted to prove to my siblings, none of whom have completed college, that I had done the right thing by staying in school, my passion for learning ultimately earning me a PhD. I wanted to go home to my beloved Cameroon, my childhood home, and paint a beautiful ethnographic picture of it. I wanted to prove to the parents of my boyfriend at the time that they were wrong when they regarded me with an impenetrable suspicion. Wielding a powerful PhD in anthropology, I wanted to silence forever anyone who dared tell me I was not smart or capable. How could I listen to the voice that questioned my reasons for being in graduate school when I had so many irons in the fire? In May of 2007, I finally listened to this voice and I left.

Most days I just want to forget it all happened. But even as I dreamed of walking away, I knew that I would need to remember what being in graduate school was like. I would need to remember in order to leave. This remembering is what this essay is about. It is my way of remembering why I left. I need to remember why I left graduate school before my reasons become blurry and I begin to doubt my decision once again.

2. Doubting my decisions, doubting myself, is what I am an expert at. Well, graduate school can be a terrible place for one to turn to if one hopes to gain greater self-confidence. For me, it was not the best place to develop a deep and lasting respect for the things I know. Academia is a place where one learns to digest myriad competing pieces of information, where one is taught to question things and question oneself. This is especially so for academic social scientists whose job it is to critique things. Graduate school is a place where stress and exhaustion, combined with all the questioning, can render one’s grasp of reality a tenuous thing. Am I sick of graduate school or am I just imagining that I am? Is graduate school making me sick or am I making myself sick? Is it that I was not made for this academic world or is it that this academic world was not made for me? Both?

I flounder as I introduce a personal narrative on a topic or choice (leaving graduate school) that bears a great deal of stigma in the academic world and inspires a feeling of shame and a fear of judgment in students—feelings and fears that the sociologist Eric Plutzer argues are not at all unfounded. [4] I splash my words, as I poke around for a personal voice that some anthropologists will see as lacking authority. [5]

To anchor my voice to something truthful, I see this essay as emerging from the heart of my October 10th journal entry. Barely a month into graduate school, I was questioning my new life. Eventually, my questioning would turn its critical eye to my reasons for wanting a PhD. I found these reasons to be flawed.

I am thankful to graduate school for this, for giving me the ability to question my goals and begin assessing what I need in order to lead a happy life. I am even more thankful for the opportunities and privilege it gave me to write. I am thankful for this opportunity to share my story with an audience of graduate students.

What I am not thankful for is the anxiety graduate school caused me, the very visceral memory of unbearable stress it has left me with. As I write this essay, I feel strange. I am unable to sleep through the night. I am becoming irritable, depressed, weak, and generally unhappy. I feel sick; perhaps I am coming down with a cold. I feel as if there is a creature with sharp teeth living inside me, tearing at my muscles and gnawing at my bones, making any kind of thought difficult. From labored start to awkward, early finish, this is what graduate school was like for me. Painful.

During the last semester of my third year, unsure of who to speak to and what to do, I began a desperate search for things to read that would let me know I was not alone in my desire to leave graduate school. Like a woman peering into a crystal ball, I looked for clues about my future in every book pulled down from my overcrowded shelves.

It took me a while to find a place to start, but eventually, I did. A few pages into the first chapter of Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer (1996), I began to accept that I was a woman searching for home. I missed my home in Cameroon. I wanted to go back to this home, and I was using anthropology as a way to get there. I had not thought of the possibility that there are other ways of going home—less painful ways. Can I go home via my memories and stories? I began to think about writing a memoir. I began to dream of writing my own journey and not letting anthropology write it for me.

Still, I kept looking for clues and for permission. I wanted stories about graduate students in anthropology who had left their programs. Where did they go? What did they do? How did they do it? I did not find these stories. Here and there, I found books, articles, and websites that helped me and I have included them in my essay. In the end, I had to make my decision, for the most part, on my own. My narrative, a collection of personal essays on my time in and my leaving graduate school, is the kind of writing I searched for during that last semester, the kind of narrative I did not find. It is a narrative that is by no means complete but is one that explores the numerous things that shaped my journey through graduate school and my leaving.

I want this essay to be part of a discussion about the varied and important experiences of graduate students. Robert Nash writes that students “want to be understood, and to be heard, from the nucleus of the stories they are living. They want to make a claim for some unchartered time to engage in honest, heartfelt narrative dialogue with [faculty] and with one another. Writing personal narratives in a scholarly setting is one way to achieve this” (2004:2–3). Such a discussion, rooted in the sharing of graduate students’ stories, can help dispel the silence that enshrouds the very significant half of all doctoral students in the social sciences who leave their graduate programs. [6]

Ultimately, I hope my essay will give courage to students like me who (want to) leave and feel alone in their decision-making. [7] I write this narrative to document my own journey, but I also write for these students. I have crafted my essay as a gift to them. [8] I want to pass it along to the students who remain quiet in their struggles but hunger for stories that affirm their choices. I see this essay as a longer version of my friend’s words to me whenever I emerged from the room with the pale green walls and expressed my doubts about leaving. She fed me warm food and said, with conviction, “You are not a failure, you are doing what is right for you.”

3. It is hard. I can’t shake that feeling that I am a failure, even though the feeling is getting less intense with time. I know I am turning down a good deal; there are many aspiring anthropologists who would love to be a part of the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor’s Department of Anthropology. And I am walking away from a doctorate that could be mine in another three or four years. If only I could tough things out, I catch myself thinking, then I could continue to dream of being Dr. Allo someday. I could be a person of so much more authority, power and influence than I could ever hope to be as a woman without those three letters after my name. PhD. Or is this what I had to believe, in order to put myself through the stressful ordeal that graduate school is? Unfortunately—or fortunately, as my mother would say—my body would not cooperate with my academic goals and upon the completion of my MA degree (not a terminal degree offered by the department but one PhD students could get after completing their coursework), I chose to leave and to work toward creating a new vision of myself, as a woman who can achieve her dreams without a PhD.

It may seem to some that this is something I could have done without leaving graduate school. It is something I tried to do, but I found it impossible to stop believing in the value of a PhD. Every time I tried to forget about it, there seemed to be no point for me to struggle so much; the PhD gave purpose to my suffering. “There is no success without suffering,” the saying goes. “No pain, no gain.” But I don’t want to suffer, my body objects. It is too hard to be part of the world of PhDs and still pay attention to the signs and voices that say, “A PhD is NOT everything.” [9] It ought to have been very obvious to me. A PhD is not everything but breathing is.

4. Drowning. I know it is an inappropriate word. I did not die. I can’t imagine physically drowning, not being able to hold onto life, feeling it slip away and feeling powerless to make it stay. Still, it is the best word I can think of to describe how I felt.

Beginning in my first semester of grad school, some form of the sensation of not being able to breathe is what I felt on many nights. “You are having panic attacks,” my mother said, when I described my nightly routine of falling asleep after what seemed like an eternity of tossing and turning in bed, only to be awoken in the middle of the night by a shock of electricity firing through my heart, after which sleep would be impossible to reclaim. Me? Panic attacks? No! “You must learn to breathe,” warned my mother, a veteran of the terrible war that long periods of stress can wage on the human body.

I would sit up in bed, listening to my heart pound and waiting for it to slow down, afraid that it might stop beating altogether. I would rub at my arms impatiently, waiting for the sound to die down, the sound of waves crashing somewhere in my ears and filling my head with water. I would curl up into a tight ball and will my heart not to jump out of my chest. My heart was a red, hot, uncooperative mass of flesh, obstinate and, unfortunately, out of reach. I would run my hand over my chest in the space beneath my breasts, imagining that the touch of a hand would somehow break through my heart’s belligerence. But like a difficult baby who will not go to sleep at night and who wakes its parents every few hours shrieking its complaints, my heart became my own little terror. It refused to see how inconvenient its nightly tantrums were. I felt betrayed. You betray me, so who will stand by me?

Most of my attempts at slowing my heart down were futile. I tried talking to it. “There is nothing to be worried about,” I would say in a soft but firm voice. Anyone who knows me will say I have a very soft voice, barely audible sometimes. If any voice can soothe a wild heart, it ought to be my own. I could not talk to my own heart.

Sometimes, I felt the urge to walk around, so I would get up and walk around my “efficiency” apartment, a small 230-square-foot space on the quiet ground-level floor of a vast redbrick apartment complex. My apartment was efficient, just as my journey through grad school was meant to be. It had a kitchenette, a small bathroom, and a room that served as my bedroom and my office. Bookshelves were the main decoration, but a large, blue batik cloth painting from Le Marché de Fleurs, the tourist market in Douala, hung above my twin bed and lit up the room. A bustling port city in Cameroon, Douala is considered the country’s economic capital. The tourist market is where foreigners and tourists can purchase fresh flowers and souvenirs like jewelry and woodcarvings. Big and small batik paintings, rich in color and made on cloth with the help of dyes and wax, adorn makeshift stalls on one side of the market.

The deep blue of the painting above my bed filled my room with life. Men and women in colorful clothes, with baskets of fruit on their heads, live in this painting, but as I paced back and forth on sleepless nights, I did not see their peaceful faces. What I saw—and despised—was the inefficiency of insomnia and anxiety, the failure of my own body and mind at coping with the rigor of graduate school. Sad and frustrated, I would pick up a book from a pile of unfinished reading next to my bed and read until I felt brave enough to close my eyes, no longer afraid of death.

When I look at my journal entry now, I recognize what was happening to me. I was exhausted. My body was losing its ability to cope with stress. And when this happens the heart is not the only victim. The mind is, too. “Very often a panic attack simulates a heart attack: pain in the chest, difficulty breathing, and a sense of impending deat” (Hart 1995:53). I am drowning. I don’t know if I can do this. Please, help me God. I am so tired and weak and homesick and lonely and sad, and I can’t find the strength to try. I am trying. Nothing works. I am going to bed. Please, don’t let me die here.

5. What was the cause of all this anxiety? In my first year, it was the amount of reading assigned in my classes; most of the time, I could not keep up. Some of the reading was confusing, so “keeping up” did not mean I understood what I was reading. Going to class with unfinished homework terrified me. I was paralyzed by the prospect of speaking in class, of making guesses instead of insightful contributions. When it came time to write term papers and finals, I feared failure and disgrace. It was a struggle to plow through readings I could not make sense of and write coherent essays based on them. I was ready to collapse after I submitted each term paper. I protested but only to friends and family.

For my first year, funding was not a source of stress. I was fortunate to have a one-year fellowship through my participation, during my undergraduate years, in the McNair Scholars Program, a program that helps students from low-income families or minority backgrounds prepare for and pursue doctoral study. (I got into this program not because I was part black but because I was poor.) In my second year, however, teaching assistantships became my only source of funding and my next source of severe distress.

I was just beginning to feel confident about my ability to survive graduate school, when I found myself thrust in front of a classroom and unprepared for the responsibility of moving seventy-five undergraduates safely through the introductory anthropology course. I foundered, and when the mid-semester teaching evaluations from my students arrived, I could not bring myself to read them. Eventually, I forced myself to—and proceeded to have a complete meltdown. It was Thanksgiving Break when I got the evaluations back. I spent the entire holiday weekend bedridden, paralyzed with fear.

What frightened me the most was a remark from the list of improvements I needed to make. “Needs to be more confident,” my students said of me. They were right. How could I teach and expect to be trusted when I did not trust myself? But all I could do was put my face in my hands and weep. I buried the evaluations the same way I buried my journal, under a pile of papers on my bookshelf. I sunk into a deep depression for the rest of the fall of my second year. The world was a place full of injustice and my students were ungrateful beings. As winter drew near, my world and the sky turned gray.

I grew more terrified than ever of my students and their judgment of my abilities. My true nature had been discovered. I could no longer hide my lack of confidence. “You know, don’t let your students see your uncertainty, its okay to bullshit a little because we all need to see our teachers as confident people,” my peer adviser said to me. She was a fellow teaching assistant—a successful one—and the one who collected feedback from my students. I nodded but secretly chose to jettison her advice. This was not a term paper where I could manipulate the tone of my voice and cite many sources. I would only confuse my students and myself or at least run the risk of doing so. I either knew things or I did not know them and I needed to be honest about this.

I battled constant fatigue, but I knew I had little time for anguish and despair. I needed a solution. What if I revealed my vulnerability to my students? I could let them see that I was not an authority on all things anthropological but a student as well, making my way through a discipline that oftentimes thrives on being obscure instead of being clear. This is what I did during my next semester of teaching. But first, I had to put that awful semester to rest, and it took an eternity to do so. The nightmare ended two days before Christmas. On December 23, 2005, after grading 75 term papers, each ten pages long, and writing my own final papers, I was ready for a new way of doing things.

I cannot say that my solution worked. I was happy to give myself permission to be imperfect, and some of my students appreciated this. Still, I felt anxious. During the rest of my second year and again during my third year, I continued to agonize over my teaching after every discussion section. I also continued to feel inordinately exhausted. I never overcame the fatigue that made it hard to face each class meeting. It was frustrating having my own coursework to complete but often feeling the pull to prioritize teaching. [10] In the end, I felt like I did poorly at both.

I tried to do the things I was supposed to do, all the things that could help me succeed—stay organized, meet with my adviser regularly and inform her of my progress, keep my grades up, apply for grants and fellowships, reflect on a research topic, take courses that would help me frame this topic. [11] However, I failed to socialize and network with professors and peers alike. I am not sure if I was shy or if I just wanted to be somewhere else. At the end of a day of classes or teaching, I would make for the doors of the department. Let’s get out of here, I would whisper to my backpack, heavy with books, binders and uneaten snacks.

“It’s time for you to come home. You have to rest!” my mother would say several times every semester. How I used to long to run away, to go home. She worried that stress and anxiety would do to me what they had done to her. “Yeah, I know. But guess what?” I would respond. “I read this really cool book for class this week. It was fun.” It was only after I turned in my last term paper and completed my last grading, that I made my decision to leave graduate school, and I stopped holding my breath. I was ready to run away. [12]

6. Before I moved to Michigan, I underestimated the kind of psychological pain cold air and dark skies can cause me to feel, especially when no one is smiling at me. It did not matter that, as a prospective student, I visited the campus during a March blizzard, a good opportunity for me to see what I was getting myself into before accepting the department’s offer of admission. It was pretty cold during that “new student welcome” weekend. Yes, it was cold, but just about everyone I met was smiling.

I stayed at the apartment of a third-year student who was preparing to do her dissertation research in Africa. She smiled at me, bravely, even when she came down with a cold and looked miserable. I loved her living room, with its simple futon that she opened up for my bed and its large cloth painting that swayed above my head, a painting of a warm, brown African savanna. I forgot the cold.

I remember now. The three layers of pants and sweaters, the bulky down jacket, the useless scarf and hat, the unhappy fingers and miserable toes, the burning eyes and lips and ears, the sting of cold air in the nose. There was the winter night I left the library and lost the black, fleece earmuffs my sister gave me for my first Christmas as a grad student. I noticed they were missing when I got home. It was midnight. I went back to the campus and searched and searched, bounding up and down Hatcher Graduate Library’s flights of stairs with superhuman strength. Then, I went home, in tears. My family did not understand why I was so distraught over a pair of flimsy earmuffs. My boyfriend sent me a new pair. I hardly touched my new earmuffs, too afraid to lose them.

In Michigan, winter is a horrible guest. He comes early, stays late, and burdens everybody with his harsh opinions. I thought if I died in Michigan, the best time to do so would be during one of the three winters I witnessed there. It would be convenient if on my way to school, I collapsed in the snow and froze instantly. It would mean I could skip school altogether. I could skip the entire year. Early graduation! I can joke about it now but it is not funny. What bothers me is that, for three long winters, it seemed more convenient to exit graduate school in this way than to say to anybody, “I want to leave.”

Everyone manages with the cold, I told myself, so I will manage, too. I learned to cope. At the end of an ice-cold day, I would rush home to my warm apartment, examine my tired eyes in my small bathroom mirror, and give my reflection my best you-made-it-through-the-cold-like-a-pro smile. I would escape into the cloth painting above my bed, the blue painting of a tropical Africa that I purchased in Douala before my move to Michigan. I would remind myself that I come from a warmer place.

7. Some warmth crept onto my bookshelves during my second year. I was in love. I was in love with the authors of the books I was reading for Ruth Behar’s Blurred Genres and Ethnographic Writing seminars, authors like Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, and Mitchell Duneier. For the first time in graduate school, I was enjoying my homework. I was thoroughly in love with the different ways of writing ethnographically. What fascinated me were the genres—fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction—in which one could tell a story about a place and its people, ways that would make the story engaging and accessible to an audience of readers beyond the world of academic anthropologists. Adding novels and memoirs to my bookshelves—shelves heavy with theoretical tomes by central figures in anthropology like Malinowski, Durkheim and Boas—made me feel that there is a place for the story of my family in the ethnography of Cameroon. If I do not write our story, is there an anthropologist out there who will?

For the seminars taught by Ruth Behar, I wrote about my family and my twenty years of life in Cameroon. I workshopped my essays with students who were fiction writers. Anthropology graduate students were conspicuously absent from the ethnographic writing seminars that year; I was the only anthropology student in a cohort of students who trickled in from their creative writing, art, and education programs. I felt alive being around these students, writing about my family and my childhood, and sharing my stories. But it would take me another year of struggling through books and assignments I did not enjoy to finally consider writing about Cameroon, not as an anthropologist, but as a young woman from this African nation and as a writer.

8. In early June of 2007, I said good-bye to Ann Arbor. I took a train to Washington DC to visit my brother who had just moved from Chicago to Maryland with his wife and daughter. While I was visiting, I got to spend some time with my brother’s mother-in-law. She is African American and lives in Delaware. She is an energetic woman in her mid-seventies. She is sociable and inquisitive. She delights in asking about Cameroon, and she enjoys interrogating me about African traditions she does not understand. She loves to tell us about the people from Africa she meets in Wilmington. I cannot tell if her son-in-law’s foreignness is heightened or reduced by her encounters with other Africans, but her interest in Cameroon warms my heart.

She refers to Cameroon as Kangaroo. Her daughter and my brother have been married since the fall of 2005 but only in the summer of 2007 did they succeed in correcting her. “It is Cameroon, Mother! Not Kangaroo!” her daughter would say, impatiently.

I was disappointed once she stopped calling me a Kangaroonian. I ought to have been offended by someone calling me by the name of an animal from Australia. As a graduate student, errors like this really offended me; but now that I am not constantly trying to be “correct,” I find that it is really not a big deal to be called something I am not—who am I anyway? I should have a sense of humor about this because the name “Cameroon” has its own history and I am sure, given the right conditions, this particular space in Africa might just as well have been named Kangaroo!

As history would have it, Portuguese traders sailing up the River Wouri from the Atlantic coast in the 15th century found the river overflowing with large prawns. They called the river Rio dos Camaroes (Neba 1987:2). This river meets the Atlantic Ocean at what is sometimes affectionately called the “armpit” of Africa. This is how Cameroon gets its name, with later modifications by German, British and French colonial masters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So it is a country named after a crustacean—not a kangaroo, of course, but a member of the animal kingdom, nonetheless.

9. Yes, we are from Cameroon! Oh, Cameroon, Thou Cradle of our Fathers... That’s how our national anthem begins. We are Anglophone Cameroonians, people from that sliver of land, that is really a place fat with thick trees, rolling hills, rich soil, and delicious food. We are Anglophone Cameroonians, squeezed between Nigeria, the West African giant we hold at bay with a very porous border, and the giant we cannot hold back and must contend with everyday, Francophone Cameroun. We—my two brothers, my two sisters and I—call this home, this sliver of land populated with English-speakers.

“How come you speak such good English?” some Americans have asked me. Well, we have the British to thank for that. “What did you speak at home?” they ask. English, French, and some Cameroonian Pidgin English. I can’t really express myself in Awing, my father’s “native” tongue. But I enjoy trying, like a true anthropologist. Apuhleh? How are you? Apong! Fine! [13]

We were born and raised in Cameroon, but mostly, we are Cameroonian because our father is Cameroonian. This fact of our paternity resolves much of the ambiguity we have to contend with now that we live in the United States, the place our mother hails from. We do not really know what it means to be Irish or Welsh or German, even though these are our mother's ancestors. It is our father and his family that we are bound to; his family and his people claim us. Though we don’t always acknowledge this, it is our father's line and name that we must uphold, the two things through which we, as individuals, are assured some sense of belonging.

We are children of the Allo family. And because colonialism complicated and expanded the place we Allos come from, we are not just Allos. We are Cameroonians, too, from the North West Province, one of the only two English-speaking provinces of Cameroon. I am an Anglophone from the North West, not the South West. This distinction matters. One must be aware of what group of people one belongs to or can be claimed by, the people one can represent. If you forget this, someone will remind you, I’m sure. This is what all education is about—learning who you are, who you are to become, and what groups of people you can speak for. This, too, is what anthropology is about. Who were you, long before you became so educated, long before you became ‘the’ anthropologist?

10. “No one can take your education away from you,” my father said countless times to my four siblings and me during our childhood years. “Once you are educated, you will see, nobody can touch you.” I certainly did not want anybody touching me. I wanted to be beyond their reach. I took my father’s words to heart. So far, I am the only one of his children with a college degree (three college degrees, actually!). Now that I’ve left school, I feel very vulnerable; I fear anybody can reach out and brush me off the face of the earth. At least, I have a master’s and whatever happens, I will always have that. [14]

“You must get your education,” my father would say, shaking his head from side to side and curving his lips in an upside-down smile, the way he does whenever he wishes to emphasize an important point. “They can take everything else away from you, but they cannot take away your education,” he would add, conjuring visions in my youthful mind of a large, nebulous mass of “takers,” evil people who existed solely for the purpose of taking things away from others.

Sitting in classrooms with broken doors and listening attentively to the poorly paid people who brought education to young Cameroonians, I imagined that these selfish “takers” lived outside the crooked boundaries of my beloved Cameroon. It was the duty of every capable Cameroonian to ensure that this evil presence was kept at bay. I sensed that those without a solid education lived in constant danger of being robbed of what little they possessed in the way of objects, knowledge, and peace of mind. Having failed at their national duty and lacking the protection a formal education could provide, these individuals were the truly damned.

I knew for a fact that my father was not one of these vulnerable souls. My father has a PhD. College educated in East Africa and the US (where he met my mother), my father came of age during the 1960s, the independence era for many African nations, Cameroon included, and the era of development through universal primary education and higher education in the West, preferably in the sciences. [15] In the late 1960s, the Cameroonian government gave him a scholarship to study wildlife management at a young East African institution, Mweka College in Tanzania. While he was a student there, the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation gave him a scholarship to continue his studies in the US. After earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, he returned to Cameroon and conducted research for his doctorate. He has a PhD in ecology.

He has proof of this academic achievement, too: a sleep schedule characterized by waking up around 3 a.m. to read something; a room full of heavy biology books that sit lethargically on dusty shelves in our house in Bamenda; and red eyes from reading too much and sleeping too little. He has bad dreams, as well. “You know, I still dream that I am going to be late for an exam,” he once told me, a smile on his lips, when I asked him what he often dreamed about. He is sixty-five years old.

In the past, I have had a hard time seeing my father in me, but I know that I must truly worship him, because unlike any of my siblings, I set about acquiring my own room full of books, a strange sleep pattern, a pair of red eyes, and a good collection of school-themed nightmares.

11. I am lucky. I haven’t had many bad dreams about graduate school. Perhaps I left just in time to be spared. What I dream about is another school I could not escape from.

If you go to boarding school in Bamenda, my hometown, there are certain things you cannot live without. This is why, before you come to the campus, the school gives you a prospectus. If you go to Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary School (Lourdes), the only all-girl, Catholic boarding school in Bamenda, there are a few things the school will provide for you, such as meals, textbooks, two sets of the school uniform (a creamy, yellow blouse and a red, pleated skirt), a PE dress, a counterpane, and a narrow bed.

The prospectus outlines almost everything else you will need: a suitcase, a trunk, a bucket for bathing and doing your laundry, a machete for cutting grass, a sewing kit, 2 sets of white sheets, 2 pillowcases, a blanket, a plate, a cup, a spoon, a knife, a fork, pencils, pens, an eraser, a ruler, colored pencils, notebooks, toiletries (soap and dish, toothpaste, toothbrush, comb, towel, toilet tissue), three plain white dresses (square neck, sleeveless), a handkerchief, two pairs of brown leather sandals, two pairs of shorts, a brown cardigan, and extra cardigan of any color.

What the prospectus does not tell you is that you will need some heavy-duty matches for burning down the school! Or a sledgehammer you can use to pound away at the tall, concrete fence that separates the campus from the outside world.

In most of my nightmares, I am trying to leave Lourdes but I can’t. Over the years, escape has become more of a possibility. Built in the early 1960s and named after Saint Bernadette and the pilgrimage site in France, Lourdes is one of the top secondary schools in Cameroon, and it became my second home from age 12 to 17. If it is not what you are used to, five years is a long time to wake up for mass every morning, bathe with cold water, eat bread with watery tea for breakfast, eat rice and beans almost everyday, see your family once or twice a month, expect to be quizzed in class without warning, and expect to cut grass or wash the pit latrines for being tardy or disobedient.

But what am I complaining about? I was well on my way to becoming a member of the Cameroonian educated elite! My father desired this—I know I did, too. I was blessed to be learning from some of the best teachers in Cameroon. I was lucky to be in a very sheltered environment; for many girls at Lourdes, the campus was a safer place to be than the outside world, sometimes safer than home. For many of us, Lourdes was home, a place where we spent most of the year, and our classmates and dorm-mates were family, the people we spent most of the year with.

Halfway through my tenure at Lourdes, I became very depressed. I felt God’s presence on the large, fenced campus on a tree-covered hill. He dwelled in the surrounding parish, convents, chapels, and solemn sculptures of Mary and Jesus. I reached out to God in prayer. I begged Him to strike me down. This was the more reasonable thing for Him to do. While it would have been nice for me to see the campus go up in flames, it would be terrible for anyone to reduce the beautiful, long, redbrick classroom buildings to ashes and to risk the lives of four hundred studious girls. It would be a tragedy to see the tall, silver-leafed eucalyptus trees around the campus become smoldering stumps. Perhaps God guided my hands because I kept a journal, wrote poems and drew pictures to lift my spirit. I wept when I was alone.

I looked forward to nighttime when the campus, veiled in darkness, could cease to exist. At least for a few hours. Every night, I turned my back on the world and burrowed into my blanket, once we—the girls of my dorm—had recited our bedtime prayers together in sluggish, hushed voices. The lights across the campus sputtered out a warning flash before 10 p.m. and then flickered off in unison like our routine Hail Marys.

I passed in all my subjects at the end of my fifth year—biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, history, literature, economics, geography, English, French, and religious studies. I went home, vowing to never leave my family again. But I did when I went to Michigan; I saw my family only twice a year.

“What are you doing here?” a fellow grad student asked me when I described life at Lourdes to the participants in an oral history seminar I took in my third year at Michigan. “Sounds like you do not need another five years of school,” the professor added. It was incredible to hear this. I took it as one sign that I had done enough and it was okay to escape.

Today, I look on my years at Lourdes with fondness, but they were oppressive years. There was no bargaining with my father, no gambling with my future then. But staying in grad school was up to me; I had a choice. This must be why I don’t dream of grad school but still dream of Lourdes, of being late for mass, of being punished for nothing, of running away.

12. We both had twin beds, only slightly wider than my boarding school bed. Jon had one, soft and old, from his childhood days. I had one, hard and cold, rented along with my room. We were in love, and we fit on a twin bed the way two quiet babies might fit into one warm, dark womb. Eventually, we fit each other in the same overcrowded way. So it is a good thing he let me save myself.

I was a senior and he was a junior and sometimes we would do our homework together, at his place or mine, and then climb into bed half asleep, annoyed with school but happy to have found each other there. When I graduated and left California, he was going to finish up and follow me. That was the plan. But he got a job in California and chose to stay close to his family, and I, the girl who was not supposed to leave her man, found myself alone in Michigan. We were no longer joined at the hip.

His family never truly approved of me. Dutifully, I wrote down their concerns, after their dutiful son passed them on to me. She is Black. I knew this was the main concern, even though it was not on their list. My African-ness, I gathered, stood in such contrast to their son’s Mexican American-ness that it made love impossible. And they were right. Sometimes it is just too much work to be with someone different.

I thought that having a PhD would help. I had a lot of faith in it, faith in proving my worth. But it is awful working for love—love that you will never be good enough for just the way you are. Will you think me worthy if I have a PhD?

We did the best we could to love each other from afar. How we tried to order things, to figure them out. I buried myself in school, a defense he disliked, while he remained loyal to a family I did not trust. This order worked for us but only for a while. We hardly saw each other and the threads that held our love began to unravel. “You said that you would come. Why haven’t you? You’re failing to help me through grad school, just the way you failed to protect me from your parents,” I accused Jon at least twice each semester. “I did not ask you to go to Michigan,” he would protest.

I am not sure why I thought Jon could rescue me. I needed to stop waiting for someone to change my life. But even after we went our separate ways, two months prior to my departure from grad school, I continued to wait for him, the man with the curly brown hair and bushy eyebrows who loved stories from Cameroon. Now that I am back in California, I catch myself searching faces at the store or on the street, looking for Jon.

I keep trying to find Jon in the cramped California spaces we inhabited. And when I can’t find him, I sit under a tree at the park and I begin telling him a story. Let me tell you what happened to us in Cameroon, when we lived in Mundemba, at the edge of the rainforest... If it is really quiet in the park, I close my eyes. I listen to the trees. I ask. It’s your turn. Please, tell me a story. He searches for a while and soon begins. Once upon a time, there was a boy who fell in love with a girl from Cameroon... He has told me this story before. Most of it is the same, but this time, the ending is different. The story stands still and then sits in the snow somewhere in Michigan.

13. It was the summer before I started grad school. I had just earned my bachelor’s in psychology. I had studied and worked through three years at a junior college and another three at the University of California, Davis, and as my reward, I had a spot at the University of Michigan waiting for me. It was time to celebrate. It was time to return to Cameroon. But when I got to Cameroon, nothing was the same.

I did not think of Cameroon as an “imaginary homeland,” frozen in time since my departure in 1998. [16] Sure, some things had changed and I was surprised by these changes, but I was prepared. I was ready for things like deeper potholes in the roads and the increase in city traffic. I expected to find many new buildings in Bamenda, my hometown. All these things did not disappoint my memories and my imagination. It is my father who had become the imaginary thing.

Papa had his house, his extended family and his career in Cameroon. While his wife and five children eventually all moved to the US, he chose to stay. Mommy was chronically ill, from raising five children and living in a foreign country, two things she now says she should not have done. (I am her child, a product of her choices, so I disagree with her on this. However, I can’t bear seeing her ill.) After 25 years away, she returned to her home in California in 1997. In mid-2004, Mommy and Papa agreed to go their separate ways. This made sense to me. However, when I arrived in Cameroon that summer, I learned that my father had begun to create another family with a woman younger than me (I am his oldest daughter). He had failed to mention this to us. On paper, he was still married to my mother. Didn’t we have a right to know? Polygyny is not uncommon in Cameroon and many women expect their husbands will either marry again or keep mistresses. [17] But my father was different—an educated, “modern” man who had always castigated men who “chased” young women.

I was in shock. I spent the entire trip talking to every woman I could find, searching for some kind of explanation. None was sufficient. It did not matter that I had taken countless courses in anthropology and in African studies and written papers on marriage practices and gender in Africa. I could not understand or recognize my own father. I began to wonder how I was to become an anthropologist, a native ethnographer, an expert on Cameroon, when I could not even figure out my own Cameroonian father.

Maybe this is why, in my third year of the PhD program, it was impossible for me to design a dissertation project and write a grant proposal. Everything I thought up seemed false. The ground I stood on felt shaky. Every issue that had interested me—education, gender, youth, and identity—became elusive. My inner ethnographer had lost her curiosity. The only thing I felt curious about was who my father had been before my mother met him, before he became “educated,” and before he became my father, my idol and my disappointment. [18]

I tried to forget. I took refuge in the green hills around Bamenda, admiring them from a church near my father’s house, which I would walk to on days when the torrential rainy season storms ebbed. I ate roasted corn and plantains made by roadside vendors on Commercial Avenue, the business area of Bamenda where the main market is located. At least all the good food that I had missed so much could be mine. I ate. I slept. But I did not forget. I looked forward to returning to the US. Things will make sense over there.

On the day of my departure from Cameroon, I asked my father to take me to the tourist market in Douala. We stopped at Le Marché de Fleurs on our way to the Douala International Airport. I felt so lost. I needed something to take with me.

I can see my father and me walking through dimly lit stalls and stores that smell strongly of leather and dyes and whose shelves and walls choke violently on a multitude of wares, coughing up for us beaded decorations and jewelry, leather purses and sandals, baskets and woven trinkets, tie-dye tablecloths and dresses, stone carvings and woodcarvings. I can see the mostly male shopkeepers smiling brightly with anticipation when we pause to look at an item closely. I know I have found what I want, when I see a very blue batik painting among other cloth paintings, pinned up to a line and swaying in a soft littoral breeze. After an eternity of bargaining, it is mine and I tuck it into my backpack. I am ready to leave Cameroon.

14. “A lot of the ethno (cultural anthropology) students drop out,” my friend said to me at the beginning of my first year. “They just disappear.” I did not know she had a room with pale green walls or that I would need it someday. We barely knew each other, but we were enrolled in the same classes and quickly became friends. She was in her third year and had heard a few horror stories about vanishing scholars. I never thought to ask her if she knew any of these mysterious students. Her statements terrified me and instead of asking more questions, I flexed my muscles and vowed to never vanish. I will not be weeded out!

It was only when I began to speak openly to other graduate students about my desire to leave that I heard about students who had either taken a break from their studies or left completely. Most people I spoke with encouraged me to stay, suggesting I take time off to think things over. This was a few months before my departure, and I felt empowered just voicing my thoughts. I did not broadcast my plans, however; I worried about my peers saying, “We knew Viola was not cut out for this!” But the reactions I received surprised me. Some students confessed desires similar to my own—desires to be free, to be happy, to be less tired and stressed, to have the time to do better quality work, to take a break, to leave. [19] It comforted me to know I was not alone. I was finding the kind of support I had not felt in three years.

It got easier for me to talk about leaving, but it was hard to leave. I had to make up my mind and inform my advisors and the department—I did not want to leave too noisily but neither could I bring myself to just slink away without a word. But I could not see how to say the words. I did not want to be seen as ungrateful. I thought and thought about what to say. It wasn’t enough to say, “I feel this overwhelming sense that I must leave and I can’t ignore it.” In May, once my finals and my teaching were done, I went to speak with my mentor—not my faculty advisor with whom I spoke a week later to tell her my decision. My mentor refused to listen to my excuses. I must have been quite a sight, with baggy jeans and t-shirt, a bandana over my braids, and with shaky voice and teary eyes. I stared outside her office window and just let the words roll fearfully off my tongue. She stopped me when I said, “I don’t know if I want to be an anthropologist.”

“OK!” she said. “You are off the hook, as far as I’m concerned.” I was stunned. “Just go. Here’s your chance to do things over, to find something that makes you happy. Don’t be like so many people who do something they do not love and become unhappy or who build a life that they can’t afford to leave behind. Who says you need to grow up and do what’s expected of you? You don’t get to decide everything in life; life happens and some decisions are handed to you. But you have the chance to make this decision. You don’t want to miss this chance.” [20] So I made my decision, at that moment, when leaving grad school did not seem so shameful. [21]

15. I went down on my hands and knees and scrubbed my efficiency apartment clean. Once I was done, I could not bring myself to leave that venerated place. I knew my friend was waiting for me and so was the bedroom with walls painted the most refreshing green I know, like the soft green of an ivy leaf when it begins to unfurl. It was time to go.

Seeing how my apartment looked, devoid of my possessions, the way it looked when I first arrived there, made me marvel at what I had created and mourn for what I would miss. I had turned an empty room into a sacred place. I had made a home.

I stood at the stove, sparkling from a good baking soda scrub. The kitchenette was the spot I knew I would miss the most. The fridge, stove, sink and cupboards, all creamy white, had sustained me for three long years. I lived for my meals, when I would pamper myself with hearty chili beans, hot pasta dishes, and pizza made from scratch, dough and toppings and all. I loved slaving over the stove or throwing whatever ingredients came to mind into a large pot. I would take pictures of my mouthwatering meals and post them to my blog, so that my friends and family would see that I was enjoying myself at least some of the time. I would avail myself of the free movie rentals at the campus film library and feast on my homemade food as I watched the movies on my laptop. Satiated, I would lie on the floor and witness the story of my life unfolding. In my story, I am the perpetual student journeying through classrooms, looking for a place to call home.

16. “Hi. My name is Viola. I am twenty-eight years old. Four months ago, I left my PhD program in cultural anthropology.” This is how I introduced myself when I began my writing class in mid-September of 2007, soon after my arrival in California. It was a class that would teach me some things about the life of a writer, if such a subject can be taught. I signed up for it because I wanted to make sure that I could be a writer (I have a hard time trusting myself). During my last semester of grad school, I told myself that if I could be a writer, I would be okay. But this is not what I told my new classmates, who were mostly working and retired professionals with dreams of writing and publishing books and articles. I simply told them that I had left my graduate program. This leaving graduate school defined me then and it still does. But it will not always be so. [22]

After my introduction, the instructor of the class, an author and English professor, smiled and said, “I left a PhD program, too!” My interest was piqued and in my usual modest way, I nodded. “And I feel great!” he said.

I enjoyed the class. I wrote a book proposal and a query letter, but I have not submitted them to anyone. I am not ready for the world of agents and editors and selling manuscripts. I am not ready for rejection, even though I understand that it is the writer’s lot in life. I need time to enjoy writing, to enjoy being alive.

I am searching for new things to define me. I am learning to look at achievement differently. I can breathe and I can sleep through the night. I can write. I can read the books I want to read. I can continue to learn. I am convinced that I did what was right for me. Perhaps, it will not be long now before I stop needing to write an essay like this.


This essay is dedicated to my mother, who urged me to be gentle with myself; to my friend who brought me soup in the winter; to her children with the best big smiles; to my friend who showed me that true friendship is forged with honest words; to my friend who read my papers. I give special thanks to the MDIA coordinators and editors for giving me the chance to contribute to their project on graduate student socialization in anthropology. This essay honors two Cameroonian students, Leonard Fowajuh and Martin Chinje, who died on June 2, 2007 in Wilmington, DE. They have left us. Leonard and Martin are home now; perhaps, they are in Cameroon.


1. Names of individuals mentioned in this essay have been left out or replaced with pseudonyms.

2. I have chosen to leave some parts of this entry out. Using the entry and writing this essay make me nervous. What will my classmates think of me, if they read this? I was a quiet and solitary graduate student. I did not go to many of the social events my classmates organized. I worried that at these gatherings I had to sound smart, the way it seemed one was supposed to sound in a graduate seminar. Also, by the end of each day and week, I was so drained that the only thing I could do was go home and rest. No matter how isolating, I maintained a private life as my haven from the pressures of being a graduate student. This essay ruptures that private world.

3. See Emerson et al. (1995:1).

4. See Plutzer (1991:302–304). For another discussion of the stigma attached to students and faculty leaving academia, see George Benton (2004).

5. See Behar (2003:331).

6. See Lovitts (2001:1–2, 7–11).

7. Here, I am assuming that the student makes the final decision to leave. This is not always the case. Students can be told to leave if they are not making adequate progress toward the degree. Also, students may not feel that the decision is in their control. In my case, the decision was mine but it did not feel like I had much of a choice. I could stay and be sick, or I could leave and work toward feeling better.

8. See Lamott (1994:202–207).

9. See Dorothea Salo’s essay, “Straight Talk About Graduate School,” published on her website (1999a).

10. See Peters (1997:53–54).

11. See Peters (1997:124–140, 141–151).

12. See Egan (2004:10).

13. I have used my own spellings here since I am not familiar with any written forms of Awing. My father confirms that Awing has no standard orthography.

14. The promise of security and recognition that education holds is what appeals to many graduate students. See George Barna (2000) and Ruth Behar (2003). As a grad student, I often asked myself what having a PhD meant. For me, it meant being able to help people, to improve myself, to be an example for others, and to lead a life of continued learning. But I wanted to be “respected,” too. I saw the PhD as standing for not only financial security but also for status—a status (“highly educated”) that can’t be easily revoked.

15. For a discussion on the link between higher education in “science and technology” and “development” in Africa, see Lulat (2005:391–398).

16. See Rushdie (1992).

17. Cameroonians use the term “polygamy” and not “polygyny,” but I use the later since it refers specifically to a marital system in which men can have multiple wives. Polygamy includes polygyny and polyandry, the latter referring to the marriage of one woman to more than one man.

18. My father has become my “other,” the person I long to understand and whose secrets I believe can liberate me. See Behar’s (1995) discussion of her parents, especially her father, as the subjects of her memoirs.

19. These are desires that have little place in an academic life full of teaching, researching, and publishing commitments. These desires factor into an institution’s ability to retain not only graduate students but faculty, as well. For the case of African American faculty, see Thompson and Louque (2005:15–40).

20. For an essay that affirms my mentor’s words, see Bronson (2002:115–117).

21. Two articles by Megan Pincus Kajitani, a graduate student career adviser at UC San Diego, were very helpful for me when I made the decision not to “finish.” These essays suggest that the definitions of success in the academic world need to be broadened and that individuals who opt to leave academe and choose alternative career paths are not failures. See Kajitani (2005) and Kajitani and Bryant (2005). The second article is directed at faculty, staff and grad students.

22. See Dorothea Salo (1999b).

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