It has come up more than usual, which has concerned me. Perhaps people want to know with respect to my being at an advanced stage in the doctorate program, I’m not sure. Maybe I said something that would make them ask my age. That confusion comes because they believe I look younger than my actual age. I have always been told that I look younger, but I didn’t think that people would still question my age and assume I am younger when I am in my early 30s.
I realized there are two ways I look at this.
For one, of course It’s really nice that I may give off the image of “looking younger.” Perhaps when I am 40, I will look 30, and perhaps I wouldn’t feel so bad for getting behind in my life’s goals.
So it can be a great thing. I thought I would still appreciate it at this age when I learn that people think I am in my early 20s. I used to find that as a compliment, but I’m not so sure about that anymore. I have been getting it a lot lately and it has become a bit annoying. It happened again last night during a conversation with a lovely twenty-five year old gentleman, who seemed to enjoy my company.
The other way I see this is not very consoling. I fear that perhaps I am coming off as appearing intellectually younger than I really am. And this actually concerns me quite a bit. To be sincere, the most important thing that I have ever wanted for myself was, simply, to be smart. I wanted/want so bad to be Intelligent. I would trade in my arm or a leg for a brilliant mind.
I have become obsessed with this the past 10 years especially, because I was never a genius, I was never a straight A student until recent years in graduate school, I was never the smartest kid in the class, I was never really all that “smart” in general. It would also be evident in my speech, with my anxiety, I would speak with a stutter and not very eloquent even in one on one conversations with friends. But I always loved school. I love education. I LOVE being in the classroom. It is a value instilled in me by my highly educated parents.
I learned only recently that my depression and anxiety impacted my inability to perform with excellency from the beginning elementary years and all the way through graduate school. I almost dropped out of my first semester of my Masters 10 years ago because of the personal belief that I didn’t think I was good enough to be there. But I did it any way. And now, I am fighting to achieve excellency in my dissertation, using the PhD program as a way to make up for all that time loss for not making most of my education during my youth, for not being able to achieve the highest marks because of my illness. This is partly why a mediocre “done” dissertation is not good enough for me. So many people have told me to just get something done and get out. There are good reasons for that and I understand it. But for me this commonplace notion of “a good dissertation is a done dissertation” does not work. I cannot accept “mediocrity” anymore.
This is an important fight for me for many reasons. It is also so important to succeed in my doctorate so that I can help and serve others with similar struggles to see their potential, in addition to being a public servant through my research and skills as a professional in the world of international development. And to prove that despite my illness, I can succeed in this monstrous feat. In spite of your challenges with mental illness, you can make important and relevant contributions to society. After 6 years I was finally able to achieve candidacy. If I could do that, I can cross that finish line and earn those three beautiful letters behind my name.
But given the nature of my illness, particularly the OCD, nothing I do, no knowledge I consume is ever enough for myself, so perhaps that’s why it may not be proportional to the standard that others assume should be for a 33 year old doctorate candidate who has been in school for the majority of her life. Because I am unable to see myself as a “smart person.”
There are many reasons why I am not taken seriously sometimes, as a woman and a woman of color with “exoticized” features, and I wonder if appearance of my age is part of it.
As I mentioned, lately almost everyone I meet has informed me that I look a lot younger, thinking it is a compliment, the youngest I got a few weeks ago was 21 years old.
I may have lost my younger years to the ills of anxiety and depression, working really hard to make sure it won’t take my 30’s either, but I believe with all the hard work and sacrifice in my career and education, I earned all those years of struggle and hard work, and achieved a wisdom I wish I had in my 20s, but would not have unless I went through all those battles.
Sometimes I do mind this aging process (my body definitely feels it and minds it, especially lately as its been harder to lose weight and I want to eat everything I see :), like when I got my new computer a few weeks ago, it looked so delicious I wanted to take a bite out of it).
But I am totally cool with being in my 30s. It took me 3 years to get used to it and really appreciate aging and I am still battling with an acceptance of this process at times, as many women do at this age. Especially single or unmarried women. Add cultural stigmas to that and it gets even more difficult.
I do feel I was finally able to accept it.
Everyone has a different trajectory in life. Similarly, in a PhD program, everyone has a different trajectory. So just like in the doctorate, it is not worth asking, (or even a serious faux pas to ask) someone what year they are in the program, or when they will finish the program (especially in the social sciences) because it is different for everyone and you cannot place a number on the definition of “success” and “smarts.”
The stories tell us more than the numbers. That is why I love qualitative research, and why I love stories.
In the end it is just a number and the important thing is to stay healthy, in mind, body, and spirit.
Peace and Blessings,