What graduates can learn from reading Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’

By Kristin Berberich

When I was given the former First Lady’s much-hyped memoir for Christmas by my supervisor, I was beyond excited. Given the current media landscape, the response to Michelle Obama’s Becoming was as ecstatic as it was critical. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham (2018) accused her of “cashing in on trashing Trump,” while Obama’s appearances on popular daytime television shows like The Ellen Show or the legendary podcast Two Dope Queens contributed to the hype surrounding the book launch. Two years after her husband completed his legislative period as President of the United States, Michelle Obama was more present than ever. And I was counting the days until the Christmas break to start devouring this book.

© Crown Publishing Group

Lessons learned from a (post)graduate-student’s perspective

Michelle Obama grew up in Chicago’s South Side, a large black community that has been suffering from disinvestment and gang violence since the 1960s. Although her mother Marian Shields Robinson still says that the South Side is full of children like hers, Obama was undoubtedly an exceptionally talented student: after skipping second grade, she attended Chicago’s first magnet high school, i.e. a school that draws students from across usual school zones. As a result, the young girl had to shoulder a daily commute of roughly three hours across town (see a recent discussion of busing and school segregation here). However, despite being an honors student throughout high school and graduating as salutatorian of her class, she recalls that she was frequently asked what her older brother’s opinion on a particular subject was, rather than her own. Experiences like these, as we will see, will accompany Michelle Obama throughout most of her life.

Becoming does not only tell the coming-of-age story of a young black girl in a deprived Chicago neighborhood. It also provides readers with a unique perspective on how to find and make one’s way in university and work life, or – something that most of us will in all likelihood never get to experience – even how to keep things together while becoming enmeshed in the hotbed of world politics. In this blog post, I’d like to review this memoir from this very specific angle: What does Becoming have to offer for graduate students, aside from a pleasant reading experience? All quotes are from the e-book version published in 2018, references denote section numbers.

Am I good enough?

This question isn’t just applicable to a young girl trying to navigate her way through a magnet school across town. It certainly is a question that many grad students spend a good amount of time pondering on. Impostor syndrome, an “intense feelings of intellectual fraudulence” (Vergauwe et al. 2015: 1), is nowhere more common than in university, with grad students being particularly likely to be affected. Such feelings may relate to a competitive and stressful working environment. But for some of us who feel they’re being taken less seriously because of their gender, ethnic or social origins, the situation can be even more harmful.

Like many young children of color, Michelle Obama was discouraged from pursuing her goals and told she didn’t belong in the course of her schooling. For instance, when she saw her college advisor in high school and inquired about applying to certain Ivy League institutions, she was told with a “perfunctory, patronizing smile,” (162.1) she wasn’t Princeton material. Her response was to go home and work on her college applications as hard as she could. Needless to say, she got in, and proceeded to receive a BA in Sociology and later went on to Harvard Law. During her undergraduate at Princeton, Michelle Obama would often be confronted with the stereotypical images of the black ghetto when asked where she grew up. Yet, she felt it was “important to say out loud” (202.9) that she, too, “belonged at Princeton, as much as anybody.” (ibid.)


Michelle Obama leaning against her father’s Buick Electra 225, or “the Deuce and a Quarter”, as the family called it (©Courtesy of the Obama-Robinson Family Archives)

From a graduate’s perspective that is very much defined by constant comparison to others, by a never-ending scrutiny of one’s own intellectual ability, it might seem impossible to even begin to compare oneself to Michelle Obama. As we are growing into and moving through the academic sphere, being doubted by others or doubting one’s own position in academia is common. One lesson from Becoming is to let the noise be noise. In Michelle Obama’s words, “the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.” No matter where you’re from, from Chicago’s South Side or a middle-class intellectual background, whether you are a physics or a medieval studies major – you belong. After all, there are places where it is “safe to be smart” (145.8) – and graduate school should be one of them. We are all working towards one and the same goal: a degree. There is no need to “hid[e] your intelligence” (165.0) because you might think you’re not good enough. If there’s one lesson to be learned from Obama’s university career, it is that despite feeling out of place for numerous reasons, including being one of the few black students in a predominantly white college, it is indeed possible to “own your presence” (182.5), no matter how hard the effort.

On college life and building a career

“What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” (Preface, 14.0)

Michelle Obama was not only a determined and hard-working undergraduate student, she also had a clear sense of her priorities. For instance, she left her boyfriend upon moving to Princeton so she would have time to study at college. I’m not saying anyone should put an end to any of their relationships, but it can feel like a relief to surround yourself with positive, like-minded people who support you and your work all the way through grad school. Because let’s face it: grad school can feel hard, lonely and stressful. You have to learn to play the game, learn new vocabulary, to eventually find your niche. Grad school also teaches you that “[t]here are simply other ways of being” (195.7) – other types of people, other kinds of styles, academic fields, analytical techniques, and so on. If you’re working in a multidisciplinary environment, it is important and intellectually enriching to be able to accept and embrace the intellectual and social diversity that you’re surrounded with.

Secondly, in most cases of postgraduate work, you’re given the unique opportunity to pursue something you are passionate about, and possibly even to veer off the “established path” (213.3) that you’ve been on since you were first asked what you wanted to be when you’re a grown-up. Michelle Obama’s case provides an informative scenario here: once she had reached the “my-isn’t-that-impressive path” (216.7), in going to Harvard Law School, she stayed on it for longer than she intended to. She persevered, but with little interest. She went on to work in a prestigious law firm in Chicago, with a downtown office on the forty-seventh floor, without being all too passionate about it.

As Michelle Obama was showing herself and everyone around her that she could indeed become a successful lawyer if she wanted to, she also worked hard to diversify the staff at the law firm. As a recruiter for law students, she made the firm re-evaluate their hiring criteria to get a more holistic picture of applicants. For example, she encouraged interviewing applicants with straight As, but also those who’d gone to less prestigious schools. As someone in a position of authority, it is possible to use this asset to improve things for those who follow – be it students you teach at university or potential applicants for law school.

Eventually, though, Obama did decide to switch directions. The takeaway here, if you will, is that even if you’ve worked in your field all this time, it is never too late to take a new turn:

“Really, it was simple: The first thing was that I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it. This was a distressing thing to admit, given how hard I’d worked and how in debt I was. In my blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong road.” (301.6)

Ticking all the right boxes and making all the ‘right’ career choices might still leave you unhappy after all. Michelle Obama switched directions several times. Despite a 50% cut in salary, she decided to take the leap and transition into city hall, where she worked as an assistant to the mayor. The point is not how she progressed from one position to the next, but how rigorously she analyzed and prioritized her current life situation to find work that suited that particular stage in her life. When she felt like she needed to take a turn, to veer off the path that she had laid out for herself, she managed to see that there was not just one goal that should be pursued no matter what. Life around us changes fast enough, and most of the time without our doing. What we can do, however, is to breathe, reassess our situation, and take a different turn if needed. For example, when Obama felt like she needed to work in a job that would be more stable so that she could manage the balancing act of being a working mother whose husband was busy pursuing his own career, she sat down, re-assessed her finances, and wrote letters to old acquaintances to solve her various professional dilemmas, as she calls them.

Many graduate students spend – or waste – quite a lot of time wondering what will come next. Will I stay in academia? If so, maybe I should land another publication or go to an additional conference. If not, should I get more work experience on the side? As we can see in Becoming, there is no one-kind-fits-all answer to this question. Quite frankly, our needs and wishes will shift with or without us realizing. Even someone like Michelle Obama, a critical and driven individual, at times overthought her current state of being. By focusing on what mattered to her, on the people that mattered in her life, she built the confidence to make these tough decisions and ultimately, to have a successful career juggling two children and being married to an aspiring politician. Graduate school, too, is more likely to be a winding path with a number of informative but revelatory detours. Most of these, however, will be worthwhile because they eventually enable us to see clearer what we actually need to direct our attention to, be it in dissertation writing or personal choices.

This sounds a lot more manageable knowing that Michelle Obama was able to rely on a great support network of family and friends, and to hire assistants when she needed support. When her daughter’s child obesity markers crossed a certain threshold, Obama was fortunate enough to be able to arrange for someone to cook healthy meals for the family a couple of times a week. Unlike a person who thinks she has to do it all by herself, she was not afraid of getting additional help. Similarly, when she was working for her husband’s first presidential campaign, she decided to consult an expert on presentation and communication skills after ending up in the crosshairs of U.S. media. Reading about this is also sooting in some way, because it gives sound advice and reminds you that not unlike many of us, someone as powerful and organized as the former FLOTUS can only fight one battle at a time.

Michelle Obama jumps rope during the NICKELODEON PALA PSA TAPING at the White House July 15, 2011 (©Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Final remarks

There is much more to take away from reading this book than what I could possibly cram into this post, including how to deal with fertility problems, miscarriage and later the balancing act that is being a working mother (whose husband decided to run for political office). The book is a subtle (and at times not so subtle) reminder that some people (read: especially those who, like Obama as a black woman from a working-class background, carry three different kinds of stigma) still have to work twice as hard as others to get to where they are today. Importantly, it reminds readers that there is still a lot of work to be done.

When it comes to graduate school and building a career, there is not just one way to do this, just like there are many different ways to write a dissertation. We learn from Becoming that we are more likely to succeed when focusing on what we can change while carefully weighing our options:

“It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.” (977.0)

Reading Becoming is in many ways inspiring and humbling. When you put down the book, it leaves you with a warm sense of opportunity, of hope. Even if the next POTUS ended up being far from what the majority of the American electorate wished for, even if societies become ever more polarized and women still need to stand tall in the winds of misogyny, there is but one way: to strive forward, to focus on your own story, and to keep your eyes open for the next turn.

References

Abrams, Abigail. 20.06.2018. “Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It.” Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/ (last accessed January 29, 2019)

Cornish, Audia. 2016. “Why Busing Didn’t End School Segregation.” NPR Ed. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/10/06/496411024/why-busing-didnt-end-school-segregation ((last accessed January 29, 2019)

Ingraham, Lauren. 2018. “Michelle Obama’s book launch is just another example of someone cashing in on trashing Trump.” Fox News. Retrieved from: https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/laura-ingraham-michelle-obamas-book-launch-is-just-another-example-of-someone-cashing-in-on-trashing-trump (last accessed January 29, 2019)

Obama, Michelle. 2018. Becoming. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Vergauwe, Jasmine et al. 2015. “Fear of Being Exposed: The Trait-Relatedness of the Impostor Phenomenon and its Relevance in the Work Context.” Journal of Business and Psychology 30: 565-581. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-014-9382-5.

About the Author

Kristin Berberich is a doctoral researcher at the HCA’s graduate training center “Authority and Trust” (GKAT). Her project focuses on the linguistic construction of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York.

Kristin received her BA and MA in English Philology/Linguistics from Heidelberg University and is interested in sociolinguistics, (critical) discourse analysis and all things urban.


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