Entering Science Writing as a Child of Immigrants

Courtesy of Vanessa Vieites

 

I’ll never forget the way my dad wailed when he and my mom dropped me off at my dorm at Smith College in 2010. I was transferring to Smith after two years at Miami Dade College, a two-year school in my hometown of Miami. Because my dad feared flying, my parents and I had taken a 36-hour Amtrak train ride from Miami to Northampton, Massachusetts. I knew my leaving was hard on my dad, but he had kept it together during the trip, even enjoying the scenery. But when it came time to say goodbye, my mom needed to console him on their walk back to their hotel right off campus as I waved, teary-eyed, from the steps of my new home.

This scene was not completely unexpected. I always knew that my parents wanted me to go to college; I would be the first in my immediate family to do so. I also knew they expected me to attend a local college or university, not a school 1,500 miles away. My mom, having grown up in Cuba, was forced to leave most of her extended family behind when she moved to Miami with her parents and brother in 1979. And so, I think that for her, abandoning close family was not something you did unless it was necessary. They assumed that I would stick close to home, indefinitely. People from Miami—especially immigrant families like my own—tend to plant strong roots here. Parents raise their children and later help raise their grandchildren. Most young people here don’t move out of their parents’ homes until they’re well past the age of 18. And when they do, they usually don’t want to leave the city.

My parents’ childhood experiences may also partly explain why they were—and still are—so sensitive about separations. My mother had suffered the cruelties of the Castro regime as a young teen, when she had been forced to attend a labor camp for nearly three months over a two-year period, with only once-weekly visits with family. Her father, having been held as a political prisoner for 15 years from the time she was 5, was also out of her reach. And although my dad moved to the U.S. soon after the Cuban Revolution, he lost his father at the age of 16, which deeply affected him. In hindsight, it is no wonder to me why my parents dreaded my leaving them behind.

 

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Family histories and past traumas aside, my parents gradually adjusted to my being so far from them, though that adjustment process wasn’t always smooth for any of us. They made a tentative peace with my having moved away from home, but my mom would later confess that in those days she’d still cry sometimes, seeking comfort in cooking and creating new recipes to take her mind off the situation. Regardless, over those two years at Smith, I discovered a fascination with psychology, even though I had always had a penchant for writing. My parents were proud of my scientific interests, which they viewed as seeding a path to a solid future, while they saw my writing as an admirable side interest. Given what had happened when I transferred to Smith as an undergraduate, when it came time to apply to graduate schools, I chose to apply only to schools in Florida.

It took two failed attempts to get into a doctoral program in psychology, but when I did, at Florida International University (FIU), I thought I was set on a direct path toward becoming a professor and researcher. Much to my dismay, after spending almost seven years working as a graduate research assistant, I’ve questioned whether I have the patience to withstand the demands of research and academia, especially as a junior scientist. Though I’ve had supportive advisors during my graduate training, starting in a new lab with relatively little funding meant that I had to spend two years constructing a test apparatus for my master’s thesis, apply (often unsuccessfully) for several research grants or fellowships to help fund myself and my projects, and perpetually troubleshoot technical and other issues in the lab that distracted from my work.

 

Anyone who decides to switch from a traditional career in the sciences or in medicine to science writing may find the uncertainty of such a prospect daunting. But immigrants and children of immigrants often have an added burden: having to convince our parents that science writing is a valid career option.

 

Discouraged by how long it took me to finish just one study, I began considering other career options—and science journalism has been calling to me. I liked the idea of informing the lay public about social phenomena and dispelling misconceptions about science, including in my own field of developmental psychology. And after reading about others’ transitions away from academia and into science writing, I felt relieved that a career in science journalism was within reach. But as I contemplate switching tracks, I’m concerned that I will once again be at odds with my family’s expectations.

Anyone who decides to switch from a traditional career in the sciences or in medicine to science writing may find the uncertainty of such a prospect daunting. It’s no secret that science writing is seldom a path to riches. But immigrants and children of immigrants often have an added burden: having to convince our parents that science writing is a valid career option. This is in part because many immigrant parents tend to dream of more financial security for their children than they ever had and, thus, may not appreciate the allure of writing for a living. Although these experiences are not universal, many cultures, especially in Asia and Latin America, value a sense of community over the individual—a mindset known as collectivism. In such cultures, the family tends to play a big role in one’s career decisions.

“For minority populations, your family is very important for helping you make decisions and motivating you for going forward in college and university,” says Dionne Stephens, a developmental psychologist at Florida International University whose research examines how cultural meanings shape decision making and health inequalities in people (especially women) of color.

That was clearly true for me as I made my own decision to leave Miami for college in Massachusetts. Though I was open to experiencing life outside my hometown and wanted to attend the most prestigious school possible, the idea of disappointing my parents by leaving them behind left me feeling anxious and afraid. But talking to others who transferred from my community college to schools outside Miami made me feel like I could do the same. Despite my parents’ issues with my leaving, I knew it was the right decision.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried to prepare my parents about possibly moving away. During my first two years of college, while I was still in Miami, I sometimes casually mentioned to my parents that I planned to apply for transfer to schools outside of Florida. “Yeah, sure. The only place you’re going is FIU,” my mom would say, sarcastically. After all, that’s where most people who attend college in my community go. And she once begged me, on her knees, to apply to one of the private universities in Miami instead of one outside the city or state. The prospect of my leaving had that much of an effect on her.

My dad, however, was harder to figure out. He seemed supportive of my goals, even secretly mailing my application materials for me whenever I couldn’t get to the post office. But he also expressed concern to my mom about my leaving. Perhaps because of his fear of flying, he told her that if I moved away, he’d probably never see me.

 

In all my life, I had rarely gone 24 hours without seeing my parents or visiting extended family. It’s this tight-knit family background that I keep in mind as I now consider a career outside of academia.

Make no mistake, I was excited about the prospect of moving to a new city and being on my own for the first time. But it was bittersweet, too, because in all my life, I had rarely gone 24 hours without seeing my parents or visiting extended family. We gathered with aunts, uncles, and cousins for Sunday brunches at my dad’s mother’s house and ate dinners with my mom’s parents nearly every day after school. Even at the age of 21, when many young adults have embraced long-awaited independence, I thought of my parents as the central figures in my life, and that was comforting. It’s this tight-knit family background that I keep in mind as I now consider a career outside of academia. Making this move would upend my parents’ hopes yet again.

 

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I worry about how I would tell my parents that I am considering transitioning from research to a career that is less financially secure and that they know even less about than they did about psychology. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll take this well, especially if it will require me to relocate to another city. It would be one thing to move away for what they see as a well-paying job but another to do so for a mediocre paying one. I fear they may think that I did all that schooling just to “earn peanuts.”

Other science writers who are children of immigrants have similarly struggled to explain their career switch to their parents. “I am totally certain that [my parents] wanted me to have a more financially stable life than they did when they first came [to the U.S.],” says Carolyn Wilke, a freelance science reporter who traded environmental engineering to become a science writer and whose parents emigrated from southern India.

 

For those from cultures that prioritize familial respect and deference, it can be difficult not to center your family when making decisions.

 

For those from cultures that prioritize familial respect and deference, it can be difficult not to center your family when making decisions. “I imagine there’s always that little fear of letting your parents down,” says Seattle-based freelance science journalist Jane C. Hu, whose parents are Chinese immigrants. “I think it’s only amplified when you come from a culture where that family relationship is really important,” since children in these cultures are often expected to listen to their parents, obey them, and take care of them.

Other science writers who are children of immigrants have also struggled to communicate their wishes to their parents because there was a language barrier in some form or another. Boston-based science journalist Katherine J. Wu ran into this issue when it came time to explain to her Taiwanese-American mother about being a science reporter. “To her, all writing is the same,” and largely fiction, Wu says. “In a sense, there was a language barrier,” Wu says, adding that she couldn’t explain to her mother, who isn’t “science literate,” why telling stories about science is important. “It has been very difficult to communicate to her what I do on a daily basis and what I’m trying to do with my career.” (Wu is currently an early-career fellow at The Open Notebook.)

Like Wu, I know that I would have a hard time describing to my parents what it takes to be a science writer because I can hardly explain to them what I do as a graduate research assistant. For one, I would have to explain all of this in Spanish, my mom’s primary language and one that I only speak conversationally, which will make it harder for me to articulate my ideas to them. Although I speak the language, I don’t speak it with the kind of eloquence and fluency needed for covering tricky emotional terrain. And so, I fear the conversation will just involve a lot of crying and yelling.

But having now spoken with other science writers in a similar boat, I’ve gathered that the best way for me to convince my parents that science writing is a valid career option is probably to dive in headfirst and keep seeking opportunities that I can share with them. That’s what Wilke did. After completing a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at The Sacramento Bee, she shared some of the pieces she had written with her mother. “I know that she enjoyed them and read them; we talked about them,” Wilke says.

Showing my parents that I’ve given my new career goals a lot of forethought might also help me manage conflict with them. “The more details about the ins and outs of the process of becoming a science communicator you can share with your parents, the closer you’ll get to having them on board with your decision,” Hu says.

Meanwhile, as I’m trying to establish myself in the field and working on bringing my family on board, I’ve found support within the science-writing community. For example, at the 2019 ScienceWriters conference, hosted by the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, I exchanged numbers and Twitter handles with science writers from Latin America and the Caribbean. The more science writers I’ve connected with via social media, the more opportunities for workshops, conferences, jobs, and internships I’ve come across.

I don’t regret entering my PhD program, and I’d do it all over again—with a few changes, knowing what I know about myself now. I’d also take more science-writing courses earlier on in my graduate training. And although I believe science writing is part of my future, I’m not sure yet whether it’s my whole future. I may keep one foot in academia and do science writing on the side, at least until I finish a post-doc. I may apply for a science-policy fellowship—something I’ve been eyeing for a while—after or instead of a post-doc, while still writing about science for the lay public. Right now, I’m keeping my career options open.

As for my parents … it’s complicated. I haven’t told them that I’m working on this piece, because it might open a can of worms, leading to a whole discussion about my life and job prospects—a discussion I’m not ready to have with them, especially while I’m writing my dissertation—since I know it will involve a lot of emotional and mental labor on my part. I plan to tell them what I’m doing when I land a “regular” job, whether it’s a permanent position or a fellowship, as my graduation nears. I hope, however, through this and other pieces, that I can show them that I and others with recent immigrant roots can successfully transition out of traditional career paths and make space in the world of science journalism.

 

 

Courtesy of Vanessa Vieites

Vanessa Vieites

Vanessa Vieites is a PhD candidate in psychology at Florida International University. She is a Miami-based freelance writer, a former intern at FIU News, and a 2019 NASW graduate student travel fellow. You can find her on Twitter @vvieites001.

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