Living at the Intersection: Reflections on the Graduate Student Experience

Guest columnist: Maya Pignatore, Nova Southeastern University

What social identities do you currently identify as most central to you? I identify as bisexual woman, psychologist, wife, daughter, atheist, Italian-American, Geropsychologist, LGBT advocate, nerd…

If you could go back in time, what advice related to your intersecting identities would you give to your former self upon applying for and entering graduate school? Looking back, I don’t think that I connected enough with my own diversity factors when I began graduate school, and this is something I regret. I primarily thought about myself as a white woman from a middle class background. I was in an opposite-sex relationship, was not very out about my bisexual identity, and felt I was more an advocate to the LGBT community rather than an integrated member of that community. Because of this, I primarily approached my “helping” role from an outsiders’ perspective, rather than as a connected member of the groups I worked with.

Over the course of graduate school, I became more connected with my own diversity factors. I feel that being capable of and comfortable with self-defining and disclosing different aspects of identity has helped in more clearly defining my role as a clinician and my relationship to the clients I serve. I wish I had pushed myself to be more open and honest about my multiple identities earlier in my career and had invested more time in exploring the meaning of these different identities.

How have you found support and spaces to talk about your intersecting identities as they relate to graduate school and your quality of life? It has been important to me throughout my training to find safe spaces for myself to express to my different identities. Part of this has been a need to escape the pressure I felt from situations where everything from my knowledge base to my wardrobe was being evaluated for professionalism. I like to have spaces where I can fully indulge in one aspect of myself, without the constraints of another, and particularly without feeling scrutinized. The neutral stance of my therapist identity doesn’t always jive well with my political/feminist activist identity, and neither meshes too well with the more playful side that wants to play video games and get lost in fantasy.

I try to find a balance between settings where I can integrate some aspects of myself, while also maintaining others that are totally separate. I joined the psychology department’s Gay Straight Student Alliance to find a space to be “out” and also indulge my activist side. I seek out professional peers who are willing to spend time discussing tea and movie preferences, without any talk of evidence-based practice. But I also keep other things totally separate from professional life, such as my artwork, which I share anonymously on the Internet. Wearing all my hats at once would probably result in some cervical vertebrae issues, so I take care to give each the spotlight from time to time.

This column is part of a monthly series highlighting the experiences of students and professionals with diverse intersecting identities and is sponsored by the APAGS Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity and the Committee for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Diversity. Are you interested in sharing about your own navigation of intersecting identities in graduate school? We would be happy to hear from you! To learn more, please contact the chair of APAGS CSOGD (Julia Benjamin) or CARED (James Garcia).