When I officially announced I was pursuing a Ph.D. at New Mexico State University, I received advice from mentors to prepare me for this adventure. I looked forward to beers with colleagues, extended conversations about theorists and research, and revelations about my place in academia. While these predictions have been a part of my experience to some extent, I didn’t expect to feel a disconnect, more specifically, a disconnect to my cultural community.
I have lived in the Midwest for most of my life. In both my upbringing and adult life, I have been immersed in African American communities while developing relationships with people from different backgrounds, participating in international events, and living in diverse communities. I knew it would be a bit challenging for me to adjust to New Mexico, but figured it would be an easy process. I underestimated the impact of this residential transition.
I remember sitting in a counseling session less than a year after moving to my new home state venting about feeling disconnected and missing the African American community. I arrived in southern New Mexico knowing that my cultural community was going to be smaller than I had experienced. Yet, it was significantly smaller than I anticipated, and there was a difference in the way Black people interacted with each other. Even though I am in the same country, I was living in a different America, one that was turning out to be uncomfortable and a unique cultural experience.
With the assistance of my counselor, African American peers, and family members, I created strategies that encourage me to feel grateful for my experience of living in New Mexico and at the same time connected to my cultural community. I have noticed while these strategies help me, they also resonate with my colleagues who come from other cultures, regions, and countries.
- Strategically engage in social media activity. Before moving to New Mexico, I sparingly used social media. However, in my predicament, I find social media instrumental to staying knowledgeable about issues impacting the African American community and current about trending commentaries, jokes, and cultural references. Since I care about the author’s perspective, beliefs, and tone, I am intentional about people I choose to follow.
- Make time for meaningful travel. When I have breaks or long weekends, I make a conscious point to travel to cities that either have diverse communities or are the location of my family and friends. Traveling to these cities allows me to recover from the intensity of my doctoral program and be around people who understand the dynamics of my communication style, culture, and way of being.
- Be open to finding peers outside the doctoral program. Though I can feel uncomfortable in social situations, I am now more willing to initiate conversations and build connections. As an adult, this can sometimes feel awkward if there is no point of reference. With time, I have been able to cultivate relationships with other African American women who understand my feelings of cultural disconnection as well as embrace the benefits of the American Southwest. Some of these women I have met at the university and others I have met while participating in other activities.
- Find places of community. Rather than wallowing in the feelings of cultural disconnection or confining myself to only those African American women I have met, I find other ways to build community. Similar to what I have done when living in the Midwest, I am building friendships with people based on activities and pursuits. For instance, some of my relationships are centered on shared interests in yoga, indoor climbing, tasting local wine, utilizing critical theories in their work, or most recently dance.
Without moving to New Mexico, I wouldn’t have understood how valuable my culture is to me. This is one of the many things I have learned about myself since moving to the American Southwest. Despite missing my cultural community, I have found enjoyment in other interests, built new communities, and have had space to deepen my understanding and connection to myself.