Last Sunday, after two tough years of attempting to balance work and school without going absolutely mad, I graduated from the George Washington University with a master’s degree in museum studies. On that beautiful, cool day I was able to celebrate this achievement with friends and family and for a moment, forget the fact that I had just graduated with about $100,000 in debt. Now, I don’t want to say it wasn’t worth it. The professors in this program are incredibly brilliant, insightful, and respected within the field. My perspective was widened and my focus, narrowed. I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted my career in the field to look like and started carving out that path. All of this and more I am certain was because of the new relationships I made and interactions I had between professors and professionals in the field while in graduate school. This is what I paid for.
I love my alma mater. In fact, I feel more of a connection to GWU than my undergraduate school, the University of Maryland. If someday I am financially able, I would love to give to GWU for the two years they have given me. The importance of these past two years is that great. But for about $100,000, access is exclusive and barred to those who can’t afford it. Straight up, I can’t afford it yet somehow I struggled, I suffered and I made it work at a consequence that I will pay (interest rates are fun), but hopefully not regret. See, I was sold a dream, then told that I’d be unable to reach my goals without proving my worth through higher, higher education. My bachelor’s degree in art history wouldn’t be enough, my work experience most certainly wouldn’t be enough, so I had better have a plan and that plan had better be an M.A. or a PhD.
So, I decided to get that M.A. for exclusive access to the VIP room at the club also known as the Museum Field. I wasn’t getting anywhere on my own (despite probably being one of the very few with permanent employee status at the Smithsonian, having worked in the museum stores about 1-2 years before applying to graduate school). Only in the museum field does the term “moving up” mean absolutely nothing. No, I had to work the bouncer and get that special wrist band that let me in and engage with people I had never been able to engage with before. But I had to slip the bouncer a cool $100,000.
Now, there are plenty of people who can do it on their own, based on their innate talents and skills, no extra charge. I applaud those people’e efforts and clearly, their social skills (hey, I’m online so are you surprised I’m an introvert?). But what about the rest of us? Specifically, what about PoC? We all know the song, we’ve all heard the beat and we all sing the lyrics, don’t we? Barriers to access is high, PoC are marginalized and under-represented, blah blah blah. How much more data do we need to tell us that PoC are not represented numerically? How many “solutions” can we come up with to pat ourselves on the back for even thinking about it? My class of 2017 had a small handful of Latinas and an even smaller number of African Americans. I can almost guarantee that these women of color got there through their own volition and not through the any of the many solutions proposed by experts in the field.
I don’t mean to point my finger at GWU because while these were my personal experiences, I know it is reflective of graduate schools nation wide and in most fields, not just museum studies. But while those in the museum field love to discuss diversity and inclusion (AAM, the past two years I’ve gone), students like myself are struggling to stay above water and not fully drown in real world struggles of the cost of being included in these very exclusive spaces.
Yes, the barrier to access is high and PoC are marginalized and underrepresented because of these barriers. Pushed around and undercut in society, we jump through hoops higher than our White counterparts just to reach the same place. As a Latina in graduate school, there was so much I had to navigate on top of the cost and often I felt frustrated and lost. Luckily, I didn’t quit, though many times I wanted to. Now, after two years of struggle I am a proud owner of a $100,000 diploma, my VIP all-access card. I suffered for it, I earned it, structural inequalities be damned. Now that I have my VIP card, let’s just hope there are no more barriers in this exclusive spot because I plan on popping bottles.
(jk, so many barriers for PoC no matter what stage in our careers)