Becoming Mama-Scholar-Practitioner: My Journey in Higher Education

Written by
Stephanie Pérez-Gill

Jun 10, 2024

Jun 10, 2024 • by Stephanie Pérez-Gill

My self-proclaimed mama-scholar-practitioner identity has influenced how I have navigated my journey as a doctoral student and professional in higher education, though I didn’t adopt that term until recently. I appreciate how this hyphenated term expresses the entanglement of these identities without having to sacrifice any one of them, and how it highlights, first and foremost, being a mama.

After becoming a mama, I began noticing terms such as mother–scholar and mami scholar in the academy. Mother–scholar, a hyphenated term, signified to me two identities tied together, but I did not identify as a mother because it did not appeal to my identity as a Latina. The term mami scholar was coined by Latinas; it goes unhyphenated, which indicated to me that these identities are intertwined. However, I have not yet achieved this level of cohesion in my identity, and mami scholar did not include my identity as a practitioner.

Given that I am a mama earning my Ph.D. while working full time in higher education, I felt that the hyphenated mama-scholar-practitioner was a label befitting of my current state. It is hyphenated to indicate that each day I move between them, but I have not yet learned to bring them together. Mama is first because it not only informs how I approach scholar and practitioner, but also because it is now the most challenging and rewarding role I have.

Though I had been married for five years, I did not anticipate becoming a mama when I started my doctoral journey in August 2019. My husband and I discovered we were expecting in February 2020, shortly after the second semester of my Ph.D. program started (and just weeks before the world shut down). I did not know what this meant for my doctoral journey since I was already struggling to balance my full-time job and coursework. Guiltily and selfishly, I was afraid that motherhood would topple it all.

The guest room I had excitedly repurposed as my office and sanctioned writing space transitioned to a nursery. The black Ikea futon I’d carefully decorated with brightly colored throw pillows, where I’d imagined reading academic articles well into the night, was replaced by a grey gliding chair with a matching ottoman and a bookcase full of children’s books. I packed my desk to make room for a white crib that promised to grow with us. Those around me asked if I would take a semester off or quit my program altogether to focus on my growing family. Instead, I doubled down, stubbornly promising myself that I would not change my trajectory. No matter how hard it would be, I would persevere. I had imagined my Ph.D. journey to be linear as my other post-secondary journeys had been. I was focused, diligent and dedicated as a student, often going beyond the curriculum to gain new experiences. As we set up the nursery, a new image appeared, blurry and obscured. I was determined to be Dr. Pérez-Gill, but at what cost and on what timeline I was unsure.

The day I became a mama was sudden and traumatic, six weeks sooner than expected and under dangerous circumstances. My son was released from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) 11 days after I was discharged, minutes before the first class of the second year of my program was scheduled to begin online. I had still not considered the implications of having a newborn or how being a mama might affect my identity as a scholar. I logged in to the first half hour of class on my phone as my husband drove us to the hospital. I excused myself via the chat once we arrived. I was trying so hard to keep my identity as a scholar because it was familiar, and this motherhood identity was so fresh and surreal.

My son was a special guest in my evening online classes for the rest of that semester. I held him, fed him, and changed him as I listened to lectures and participated in discussions. My cohort jokes that he is our mascot. I worry that I can measure my progress by how much he grows. He is almost four years old now and I am still here, a Ph.D. student. It feels like it is taking me too long to meet the milestones to Doctor. Will it be any less of an accomplishment if I don’t finish before he gets to kindergarten?

Every day, I search for reassurance that I can continue as a Ph.D. student and a mama. Before my son was born, my identity was rooted in my academic abilities, ambition, goals, timelines, organization, and control. Afterward, I just wanted to make it to bedtime each day and hoped that I could find fifteen-minute increments in which to write throughout the week before work, before he woke up, after he went to sleep, never on my time.

My identity as a practitioner has been my grounding through this transition into mama-scholar-practitioner. When my son was born, I worked as a graduate assistant for an institute at the university I attend that manages a tutoring program in the community. With the changes to the educational landscape at the time due to the pandemic, there was a need to shift to an online tutoring platform and consider innovative program changes. This opportunity allowed me to transition to a full-time position due to my experience as an administrator and teacher in K–12. I am now the program director of this institute, and my professional growth in higher education has given me the confidence to continue as a doctoral student, rounding out my mama-scholar-practitioner identity.

Along the way, these are the biggest lessons I have learned that have kept me going.

  1. Find community. In the first year of my Ph.D. program, I was a member of a research team composed of Latina mama-scholar-practitioners. This supportive and inspiring environment got me through my first year as a mama-scholar-practitioner. From these women, I learned that there was a world where I could be a devoted mother, get my Ph.D. and work full time if that was what I wanted. While many tell you how isolating academia can be, I found community to be my biggest asset. I thought I had to be on this journey alone to earn the doctorate, but that would have been foolish. I have learned so much through the support of other women, Latina mami scholars and other student-parents. I have seen them persevere and reach the end, so I know it is possible and that my time is coming.
  2. Be unapologetically you. Recently, I presented at a state conference for Chicanos in higher education, where I shared how my mama-scholar-practitioner identity influences me as a higher education professional and how they are assets. I began by sharing words I identify with: Latina, daughter, mother, partner, scholar, practitioner, and first-born. I shared images from my life that exemplified these words: pictures with my family at various points in life.
    “And this is my why,” I shared with the group of Latina professionals that filled the room. A picture of my three-year-old son on his red Radio Flyer balance bike, wearing a blue helmet and a toothy grin, popped up on the screen. I saw tears in the eyes of my peers. To me, their tears were validation to come as I am. How many times can a woman go to a professional conference and present an image of her personal life, of her child no less, and still be considered a serious scholar and professional? I realized then that there was a need for this space to come unapologetically because being a mama does not make me less than others; it is my biggest strength, and it is intertwined in all that I do.
  3. Set clear and explicit boundaries. “No” is a complete sentence. There will be time for everything but maybe not all at once. Set yourself up for success by focusing on what you can handle and what will allow you to be present. This goes for school, work, and at home.
  4. Be kind to yourself. I have to remind myself that only 1% of Latinas have a doctoral degree. This is a challenging process, and I am raising a tiny human while working full time on top of it. I can remind my peers of this, and yet, I am unforgiving of myself. We must remember to give credit for all that we do.