Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering 9/11 and Giving Thanks for Grad School

Strange how life seems to circle back in on itself. I commented on a blog post about women and our last names in academia about friends (specially a friend) of mine with whom I did my PhD. I started to think about all of the different people I met and interacted with through my PhD program. I wanted to write a blog post commemorating these people who directly or indirectly had such a huge influence on my intellectual and personal development. What does that have to do with 9/11, you ask. I started my PhD in September, 2001.

I had just moved across the country, far away from just about everyone I knew and loved. My roommate and I had barely arrived after driving for three days. We had an apartment and a tv, but no furniture. The former tenants hadn't canceled their cable so when my roommate's friend called us early in the morning (we were in the Mountain Time Zone) and told us to turn on the TV, we saw the pictures of the Towers in vivid detail. I had to pull myself away because I had a scheduled meeting with the chair of the department to discuss my teaching duties and course requirements. But of course, there was a TV set up in the office, and it was a surreal experience to be talking about which classes to take while the Towers collapsed in the background; all I wanted to do was to go home. 

It was under the shadow of this tragedy that I met my colleagues. Many of them were late getting back to school because of increased security. Comparative Literature celebrates the study of literatures internationally, and our program boasted students from all over the world. One of my first and closest friends was from Lithuania. We were the same age, and we had both been on debating teams in high school. The main difference was that she had lived under the Communist system and debate, for them, was a new privilege and opportunity, available just after the Iron Curtain came down. For me, it was something to pad my applications and indulge my love of a good argument. She remains active to this day in promoting debate in areas of the world where open discussions are still a very new concept.

She ended up marrying a student a year ahead of us. He was born in Canada (the Northwest Territories, to be exact) to Indian parents. He is Sikh, studied the mythological and symbolic significance of professional wrestling, and now lives with his wife and two children in Lithuania. He may have studied wresting, but do not mistake him for an intellectual lightweight; he was the one we all turned to when we were having difficulty with our theory or understanding the significance of a given work. Both his older brother and younger sister came back from extended trips to India with spouses. Always the jokester, he announced his engagement on April Fool's Day. We didn't even know they had been dating. Or maybe courting would be a better way to think of it. 

There were two women in the program who were originally from Iran. It was fascinating and eye-opening to talk to them about Iran, Middle-Eastern politics, and women and Islam. There were many more who grew up in other Eastern European countries under communism. The person who would eventually introduce me to my husband was from Poland. English was his seventh language, and he spoke it with difficulty. But when he found out I was from Quebec, he broke into perfect French, complete with a Parisian accent. He had been my future-husband's Spanish teacher (his research area was Latin-American literature).  We had students from China and Indian, Canadian students studying classical Japanese women writers or Danish folk tales. We crossed boarders in a literal and figurative sense every day.

We were from everywhere across Canada and around the world. The politics and reaction to 9/11 were as varied as where the people were from. But we had to get along and support one another because we had been thrown together in the same program by fate and by choice. None of us, thankfully, lost anyone close to us on 9/11, but we all acutely felt the tragedy, albeit in very different ways. And for that, I am grateful.  I was in an environment where my beliefs and assumptions were challenged and changed, ultimately for the better. I became a more well-rounded person because we were forced by the events of 9/11 to confront and comfort each other. 

Without 9/11, we probably would have just focused on taking and teaching our courses, writing our comps, and writing our dissertations. Instead, we learned what an international experience really can mean. 

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