Yesterday, I was privileged to graduate as a PhD (again), at a special first-of-its kind ceremony organized by the British High Commission and British Council for local graduates. It was a powerful moment of closure for me, and whilst I was so incredibly happy to have both my parents in attendance and a glorious day — deep emotions were working through me.
My educational journey has been an unusual one to say the least. I was intellectually advanced as a young toddler – reading materials that were 6, sometimes 9 years ahead of my reading group. My older brother was the same. Amma (Mum) knew how to stimulate our brains and whet our appetites for knowledge. If the natural aptitude that I or my brother had was a seed, Amma’s nurturing was the fertile soil in which it could sprout, and Appa’s (Dad’s) confidence the sunshine it needed.
When I eventually began kindergarten and primary school, a lot of the glowing self-confidence and the natural aptitude for self-study I had was dimmed, but not entirely snuffed out. Issues of race plagued my early years, with teachers going out of their way to humiliate me for my aptitude ‘despite’ my dark skin and Tamil identity. The administration saw fit to deny me the yearly prizes children would receive (for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place) despite my having top marks. All on the grounds that other parents complained that ‘a Tamil girl could have never beaten my son/daughter [gradeswise]’.
My mother of course, challenged the ruling by fighting like a tigress on my behalf. She never used coarse language, or raised her voice – but challenged the treatment I received with eloquent words, with facts and undeniable, documented, evidence.
I recall one formative experience, where I was late from my tae-kwon-do class (organized as part of school curricula) and had no time to change back into my school uniform. The teacher decided she would lock me out, stop what the class was doing and get the entire class to laugh and jeer at me, staring through the window. One of the kids was a boy whom the teacher regularly allowed to bully and utterly traumatize me each day – with some kind of plastic blade. She knew about it, and let it happen. All this when I was in Grade 1, so I was 6-7 years old.
Each year was a battle, my mother had to fight like a tigress, with my dad’s support just so I would get fair treatment. My brother had been through a similar experience, but his was a state-run school, and so my parents (at that time) had little recourse to methods of protest.
It was a very challenging childhood. Intense bullying. Psychological scars, a complete devastation of my self-esteem and I could not even imagine myself as beautiful.
My grades eventually slipped, and the bullying was less. I wasn’t the best in classes anymore, and a part of my identity just went into hiding from all of that pressure. There were literally – no other choices that my family could have made at the time.
When I was 11, I finished primary school (Grade 6) and announced to my parents that I would no longer be attending. They knew what I could do, and supported my decision. I then started a very dedicated, purely focused phase in my life completely committed to my education. That journey took me across several different continents.
I never really took in it, or saw it as a special achievement – till yesterday.
For me, it was just an act of survival and self-preservation. I had to find a way to be myself. It wasn’t an ideological statement or the ego’s desire for grand gestures – it was literally the only way I could survive without being crushed entirely.
Summarizing a few years, I essentially completed 6 years of secondary school education with self-tutelage in less than a year. Attempting to study at other institutions brought back the race issue (it’s there if you’re at the top and are outspoken), and, caused severe conflicts with the university administration. My political consciousness was awakening, my voice was emerging and I was no longer going to be silent.
During this time, I had my IQ tested and it was found to be at the genius-level (top 2%) when I was 12 and, later, at 15. I independently sat for and completed my O Levels at 13, did my American SATs (1 & 2), TOEFL and ACT.
We didn’t have help. All I had was my family and the Blessings of the Divine. We had no special connections, no favours, no hand-ups. Nothing. Everything was a battle, everything was a struggle. But we did it.
At 16 (in 2003), after a few years of social work with my father and emerging in my own right as the youngest trainer in the country, I finally went overseas. My political awareness needed an environment where speech was truly free. I went to the USA on my first scholarship, unaccompanied. There, I began with Physics (which was my first love as a child) and switched to Political Science. This was through the gifted teachings of Professor Benson Onyeji at Manchester College (now Manchester University). He introduced me to the histories of colonialism, the language of repression, the political economy of dependency. And the Model UN
I then left for International University Bremen (now Jacobs University Bremen) in Germany. I finished 3 years of an already accelerated program in 2 years by taking double the courseload and having a very full, active, student life. It was this time, I actually began to notice that – I was actually beautiful. I had my first experiences of organizing campus-wide petitions and more structured approaches to engaging with campus administration. I discovered I could paint and dance and play. And that was wonderful.
At 19, I graduated with my Bachelor’s in International Politics and History (a President’s List Scholar) and received a merit-based scholarship and Research Assistantship with Prof. Markus Jachtenfuchs at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. I had to leave the program two months after it began primarily due to illness in the family. I spent some time in India and Malaysia, and when all had settled down enough – out of the blue – I got accepted to begin my PhD, despite not having a Master’s. It was very unusual at that time.
Professor Shirin M. Rai at the University of Warwick (UK) had a visionary idea – to study aspects of ceremony and ritual in Parliaments, through a gendered lens. Having spent time in India, I sent a letter of interest and she wanted to have me on board. I got that confirmation on September 14th, 2007. And so another leg of the journey began, this time funded by the Leverhulme Trust – the one of the largest providers of grants for research in the UK.
I was 20 and I remember seeing a magpie on the way from Manchester Airport. And a whole new chapter in my life began. Through that journey, I would be standing at the House of Lords, the Indian Parliament, the Romanian Parliament, speaking at various universities/conferences and evolving through to the next phase of my life.
I was seriously ill for a great part of my PhD, and I fought through it. I faced some of the hardest challenges in my life to-date, physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. And looking back at it all now – I wonder how I did it.
My PhD was passed with minor corrections – I remember the examiners being overjoyed – one them said, during the viva ‘thank you for writing this’. I did ask her about it later, and she said she meant it, she really felt I did good work. (I am my harshest critic … so hearing that meant a lot). In its final version, my thesis was 111,000 words and I could barely lift it. I remember submitting it, and it was about as heavy as a newborn. I had just turned 25.
Through the 5 years I spent in the UK, I learnt so much. I began to expand and blossom in so many ways through utterly debilitating circumstances. I made deep friendships and set sail for a new trajectory in my life.
When I had my actual graduation at the University of Warwick in 2013, race was an issue again. And that graduation felt as though I was in a battlefield, once more. Because the PhD gown was so markedly different from the other undergraduates’, I got started at sharply in a very unpleasant way – it wasn’t just one person, quite a few people did and those with me noticed it. I didn’t understand why … till one of the parents went out of her way to make it clear.
In the most condescending way possible, she wanted to know whether ‘I had problems with English’ and whether ‘I had borrowed the gown’ – she was unhappy her son didn’t have it. I didn’t get why she was asking me such strange questions at the time, but I managed to deflect it politely.
Friends I have mentioned this to were utterly scandalized by it, as was someone working within the University. I don’t think it’s a representative experience, but it did happen. And I am so grateful I did not have to go through that alone, but I cannot say that it was a pleasant experience.
My parents were sadly not able to be there, but my mentor was – and my supervisor also arrived just in time for me to emerge from the gowning – a very key rite of passage.
I didn’t have that feeling or sense of achievement. I felt weary. Weary that thousands of miles away, I was still the unwanted Tamil girl who couldn’t be allowed to be her best without someone trying to put her in her place. Not that I let them, but I had hoped I wouldn’t have to face it again, after so many years.
A year later, when I received an invitation for another graduation ceremony, to celebrate the achievements of local graduates who had their PhDs from the UK – I snapped up the opportunity instantly. My parents could of course, attend!
So yesterday, I had those big moments. The ones I yearned for. My dad was waiting for me with his camera as I stepped out of the gowning. My mum and dad were so proud. And it was a relaxed environment. People were celebrating one another, rather trying to put anyone down. I could hold my head up high. And any looks I got were of mutual recognition (of achievement) or happy admiration as part of a festive occasion.
But I wasn’t celebrating. I felt heavy with the weight of release … of a wound I’d held so close to me, deep within for 21 years.
The idea that my skin made me less worthy. That it meant I could never achieve anything. That I was ugly. That I was never going to be celebrated for who I was.
That wound finally healed yesterday.
I was waiting to get gowned again, and I realized the significance of this ceremony in my life, and the complete release that it was giving me, at long last. Taking it all in, I could barely stand. My legs felt weak, but I took a deep breath and kept going on.
My achievements – whilst I’m cognitively aware of them – are never ones that I really celebrated or took deep pride in. I was happy, but I never thought of them as big things.
Standing in a crowd of my peers, as the only dark-skinned woman in a saree, with that much coveted PhD plush hat and shimmering robe … I knew this was a lot more than being ‘just about me’.
It was an act of Representation. For my family, for the Tamil community in which I am a public figure, for every dark skinned child who has ever had their soul crushed through prejudice. I represent the undeniable statement – of YES, WE CAN.
I say we because I could not have done any of this alone. I worked like a machine through all those years – but this is not the achievement of just one person. But of many.
I couldn’t have done this without the upbringing I had, my parents’ emotional support, and also financially when scholarships did not cover it all. Not without the opportunities that people who had faith in me gave me. Opportunities to prove myself. To do something. Not without the Grace of the Divine and its Blessings. Not without friends whom I consider family.
And so, after a day of ceremony and an evening of celebration with my parents, as I lay in my bed, I finally released the emotions I’d been holding so close to my chest for 21 years. And I fell asleep crying, saying these words over and over again…
Thank you. We did It!
And In Tamil:
~ Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD