Hi, I'm Grace Sanford, a Mercy Volunteer in Cincinnati, Ohio! I've been journaling every day…
I am a planner. I like to know not only my next direct step, but also the next 10 steps I need to take to reach my goal. And ever since I was a teenager, I knew that I wanted a PhD. While I often changed my career paths (did I want to be a pastor? A chaplain? A professor?), I knew that I ultimately wanted to earn a PhD. Not only are Latinx people underrepresented in academia, but growing up in public housing, I was desperate to succeed and academia seemed like my best bet in gaining some measure of stability.
In 2018, I seemed so close to achieving my goal. I was accepted into a PhD program. The next 5-7 years of my life were more or less planned out: two years of course work, a year developing and defending a portfolio, one year of teaching an undergraduate course, and two to three years working and defending my dissertation.
Unfortunately, you know what they say about the best laid plans…In 2020, my best laid plans went awry. Bullying and racism in the PhD program made continuing impossible. I decided to leave with an MA in History and try to figure out my next moves. However, a dejected spirit and a pandemic seemed to restrict my options. My dreams were dashed. At the time, leaving the PhD program felt like the end of the world.
And yet…it wasn’t. The world continued to move and I continued to breathe and live. After a year spent volunteering and living at a church camp, I found my way to Mercy Volunteer Corps. (Thanks to my obsessive googling of internship/volunteer options/jobs). I am currently serving at Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) in Cincinnati and I absolutely love it.
When I left my PhD program, I thought I had to permanently say goodbye to doing research on subjects that I cared deeply about. I thought I destroyed my one and only chance to do something both meaningful and enjoyable. I also struggled with feeling like a complete failure. After all, academia was the ONE thing I was good at, and yet, I couldn’t get a doctorate.
But my time at IJPC and MVC has proven me wrong. There are opportunities outside of academia to do meaningful work. At IJPC, I am working on creating a certificate in peace promotion. I get to combine my deep love of research with writing and teaching others. I get to spend my time researching peace, nonviolence, and violence, which are subjects I deeply care about. I get to do work that might, in some small way, make the world a better, less violent place.
I also get to work in a supportive environment where my coworkers and supervisor believe in me and listen to me. My first week on the job I told my supervisor a little bit about my experience in academia; she was sympathetic and assured me that I had not only her support, but the support of various stakeholders invested in the creation of this peace certificate. While the peace certificate would be my major project to research and craft, I wouldn’t be doing it completely alone. There were people invested in the success of the peace certificate program. They want me to succeed.
I would be lying if I said I was not worried about the future, (I have no idea what I am going to do after my service year is up) or that I wasn’t still a little bummed about not being in a PhD program. But MVC and my time at IJPC has taught me there is purpose outside of academia; my whole self-worth need not be tied to what degrees I have or don’t have. I have learned that there are people that want to support me and help me succeed.
I have also learned the importance of being open to new opportunities and not being so hyper focused on one course of action. After moping for a bit that my original plans didn’t work out, I took a leap of faith and applied to MVC.
I had so many concerns while applying. I was worried about my age; I am in my early 30s, an age when most people seem to have their lives figured out. And yet, here I am, effectively starting over again. Would I be able to fit in with the younger adults?
Was God really calling me to a year of service or was I just seeking to find some sort of stability for the next year? What if I fail at my placement site? These fears and concerns almost kept me from applying to MVC but I decided to ignore them. And I am so glad I did.
I don’t know what my future holds. I wish God would tell me, “hey Naiomi, after this year you need to do X,Y,Z” but for some reason, God doesn’t work like that (at least in my life). But I do know that for the next few months I’ll be working a job I love and being in an environment where my supervisor and colleagues believe and support one another. For the next few months, I’ll be working with others to advocate for a more just and nonviolent world. I get to take the time to craft new plans and create new dreams. And that’s a blessing.
Naiomi Gonzalez: Cincinnati, Ohio