A chat with Berkeley Connect Ethnic Studies & African American Studies mentors

wanda michael

Who are the graduate students who serve as mentors in the Berkeley Connect program? A few weeks ago, I set out to learn more about mentors Wanda Alarcón and Michael McGee, Jr., who mentor the students in Berkeley Connect in Ethnic Studies and African American Studies. Wanda is a graduate student in Comparative Ethnic Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and Michael is a graduate student in African American Studies.

When asked how she came to study at Berkeley, Wanda noted, “I never planned to be a grad student at Berkeley, but I did want to go to grad school.” Wanda studied music at CSU Long Beach and admitted she was afraid of pursuing a graduate degree in music. After college, she continued to do creative things on the side – film projects, poetry, and a poetry zine called JOTA that created a space for queer Chicana writers. “It was inspired by Carla Trujillo’s book,” Wanda said. “I was sure that more queer Latina work was out there and wanted to showcase it.” It was the four years she spent on JOTA that finally led her to graduate school for literature. At the time, her partner was already in graduate school, and she, too, inspired Wanda.  Her partner’s academic career then took them from LA to the East Coast. When her partner got a job at UC Santa Cruz, Wanda was faced with a decision between English and Ethnic Studies. “I knew it had to be Ethnic Studies for the political perspective. I got to do humanities-oriented projects with literature and now music, but with the critical edge Ethnic Studies offers. I love it here. I love the professors, and I love the classes.”

Michael, on the other hand, went directly to graduate school. “When I was an undergrad [at Brooklyn College], I was fortunate enough to have advisers who encouraged me to go to graduate school. At the time, I had no idea what a Ph.D. looked like, but I loved going to seminars because they exposed me to new reading and challenged me,” Michael remembered. “Towards the end of undergrad, I got more involved in literature, and I had always been interested in history. So I started thinking in a more interdisciplinary way and looking at the different ways to ask questions, particularly about race, class, and gender.” But when Michael got to graduate school, he found he didn’t know what he wanted to focus on. “After three semesters, a professor pointed out that I always brought into my writing the question, ‘What does freedom mean in America?’ Even when it wasn’t in the prompt, I’d find ways to talk about it. I didn’t declare it as a project, but it was always at the back of my mind.” Michael eventually decided to write his dissertation about freedom and found that his appreciation of literature and cultural thought, as well as history, all informed his project.

As we discussed mentorship, Wanda revealed, “I actually had a terrible mentorship experience as an undergraduate. That’s why I can tell the difference and recognize what good mentoring looks like. The time you get from professors here is invaluable, and the support from all my professors is amazing. ” Asked for some examples, she named Maria Lugones, who was a part of her working group at Binghamton, Joseph Keith (whose book she was coincidentally holding), and  Jennifer Stover, who helped her through qualifying exams for sound studies.

As for Michael, he recalled the support he got from a professor in his undergraduate career. “When I was interested in grad school, I asked Professor Tucker Farley to write a letter, and she told me to come to office hours and would invite me to her house. She introduced me to a lot of cultural and literary theory and challenged me to not just be fascinated with theory for theory’s sake, but to connect it to my own life. It’s easy to be caught up in the text. I wouldn’t be committed to it in the same way if not for her.” At Berkeley, Professor Reginald Wilburn was also an important mentor. “Without him, I’m not sure I would still be in grad school. There was a lot I didn’t know when I first became a grad student, and he would call me to make sure I was getting my things together.”

What do they get out of mentoring through Berkeley Connect? “Mentorship has always been important to me,” Michael said. “When I was an undergrad, there weren’t grad students at my school, so it was daunting for me when I got here. Also a lot of undergrads are really intimidated by professors, and grad students can serve as an in-between. I wanted to help students figure out what to do with the education they get.” Michael also wanted to become a better mentor, having been a mentor in various ways in the past. Wanda added, “The thing about Berkeley Connect is that the directors emphasized that I wasn’t teaching, I was facilitating. I didn’t fully understand that distinction until I was actually doing it. It’s been really great to learn.”

When asked what their favorite memories of Berkeley Connect have been, Wanda recalls, “I had a student in  my small group who didn’t have a lot of school spirit. She shared with me that her experience here as a student hadn’t been great, and her perspective spoke to me because it is possible to be disillusioned in places you don’t expect. But she wanted a certain internship with a professor, and I gave her a push to go for it during our one-on-one. She went to see the professor and ended up getting the position, and she was really pleased. When I saw her again, she told me she was buying her first Cal t-shirt. It felt like she was finally connecting with her school.”

Michael had a similar experience. “I had a one-on-one with a student when she was at the point where she didn’t know if she wanted to stay in school and was dissatisfied with all the major choices. She was trying to build her own, but wasn’t sure where to go with it. It ended up being a thirty-minute conversation, and towards the end, she broke down because she was so grateful that someone showed a commitment to her as a person, not just as a student. That’s one of those moments that shows how Berkeley Connect can create the space to build that kind of relationship.”

“That’s why Berkeley Connect works,” he said. “It’s so much more than a credit unit.”

 

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant