Joel Willison: Hello, my name is Joel Willison and this is 61401.
This episode is called Statistics, and will focus on Tianna Cervantez. Tianna is an Anthropology and Sociology professor here at Knox as well as the Director for Center for Intercultural Life.
This episode will focus on her time enrolled here at Knox as a single parent.
Joel: So, first off when was that?
Tianna Cervantez: I was a student, I enrolled here in the fall of 2004. Ummm as a Junior I transferred from Carl Sandburg Community College. So I was here 2004 and graduated 2006. And so Tavian my son would be Kindergarten, First grade.
Joel: And what was it like, just having a kid and going to college?
Tianna: Ok so it was different right. So I didn’t live on campus. So I’m commuting, so my. My relationship with campus was different in that sense. I- I wasn’t as close to whatever was happening on campus because I lived here- you know in town. So I’d get up in the morning, I’d get Tavian ready for school, get him off to school, come to class, I might stick around in the Gizmo or the Library to do homework in between classes, and then I’d leave, right? Umm because I was a single parent I had to work and so a lot of my. My. Employment was evenings or weekends. So it also hindered my ability to participate fully in any co-curricular stuff. Now I did umm uh I attended Lo Nuestro events, I table- attended a few ABLE events. I was an active member of the Non-traditional Student Club. But all of that was always seemingly interrupted, right? By the fact that I didn’t live on campus. And so, in that I wasn’t part. I never really felt like I was a part of the fabric of the institution. Ummm in addition to that my experiences in the classroom were different. Because not only was I a single parent but I was just about… 10 years older than the students I’m in class with, right? If I’m – If I’m in
Joel: So you were 30?
Tianna: I was close. You know. Being junior, senior on campus I think I graduated in. When I graduated I was 29. Or I would be 29 that year. So, my life lens was different. Umm and that, and that created a few different differences right. So, I felt like I appreciated my education more than some of the folks I was sitting next to in the classroom. Because I was paying for it very directly. Both financially and in the commitment of time that it was taking me. That took me away from family stuff, right? and not really getting an understanding that really probably wasn’t much different for students on campus cause they weren’t around their families either… umm… But they had developed families on campus and those were their support systems. And not that my family wasn’t a support system but a lot of it was interrupted, right? Because I might have to come back to campus. Umm. Because I had to work. So my days were pretty. My days were pretty. My days were pretty structured ummm, to the time that I woke up umm to the time I had class, to the time I had to get Tavian from school, to the time I’d go to work right? So everything was pretty scripted. And umm and I was under the similar curriculum that some of our students were under now and the same kind of foundation requirements. Key element requirements, the experiential learning uhh so I had to be very creative with the way in which I structured my time in those commitments because I had this added umm responsibility of parenthood.
Joel: Umm how did people at Knox react to you when they found out that you were a single parent? Did you… Like, how did you interact with the student body? You mentioned how you weren’t doing as many co-curriculars based on the fact that you weren’t living on campus but did you make just as- like what was your social life like? in between classes or while you were doing homework in the Gizmo? were you just doing it by yourself or were you doing it with your friends.
Tianna: Mostly by myself unless there was some kind of group project required. I can name one classmate that I felt umm somewhat close to. But I can tell you right now I have no idea where in the world she is. I also had- because I was a McNair Fellow while I was on school- at school. If I would say I was close to anyone? it was probably my Mcnair cohort? which actually graduated the year behind me, right? So I actually just. I actually just saw them on campus for homecoming. And I’ve kept up with them on facebook. In that sense we are friends umm and when they came back I was excited to see them, they were excited to see me. As far as the way students interacted with me. I was vocal in classrooms. Looking back probably a dominating voice in classrooms. I was probably known as a student itching for an argument. I probably, at that time, still had a naive sense of the student body here at Knox too.
Joel: How so?
Tianna: So, my job, part-time out of Knox was bartending. And there would be times, senior night in particular, aggravated the hell out of me. Senior night, it just got under my skin because I would be at a bar working. Trying to balance and understand that it was yet another night. There were four evenings: Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays that I worked at the bar. So, it was another evening that I’m not at home with my son. I’m trying to sit at the bar, serve patrons, get my homework done for class and inevitably around 12:30 a group of Knox students would walk by because they would be leaving Cherry Street or somewhere else because of Senior meeting. And they would come in for like last call. And, overhearing sometimes the conversations about how they might be contacting their professor the next day to tell them that “yeah I didn’t get my paper done because I didn’t feel well”. And knowing that it was because they were out. And the privilege that I felt that that displayed, if you’re gonna tell the professor that then that means that when- if I make an email or I say “ I didn’t get it done because of life”. Like. is it- I mean, how is the professor going to look at that. Is the professor going to assume that I’m making it up? is the professor going to understand that, no my life really did get in the way? Because I was here serving a Knox student as they are intoxicated and not going to get their paper done because they chose Senior Meeting over paper. Ummm, so there was in some ways, some resentment at that time. Because I felt like they had all the opportunity in the world. They- this was their time to commit to learn, to you know not just party and because of my sense at the time and my interaction. My lens was such that, you know, they party and they are irresponsible. Umm in the classroom conversations were very ideologic and very – from my perspective naive too. And I’ve come to learn differently, right? So a lot of the conversations that we were happening- that were happening in our classes at time were around the concept of capitalism and its detriment that it has to small businesses and to sustainability and things like that. And I didn’t have the luxury of thinking about it like that because I was on food stamps and I was on a medical card and I had, you know, cash assistance as I’m trying to raise my kid and go to school and better myself so that I can leave those social nets behind. And listening to students talk about how they “only shop at Cornucopia” or “they only shop at this” because those are the small shops. And I’m thinking to myself “but you can afford that” in my naivety, thinking that many of those students that I was surrounded with were coming from wealthy backgrounds. And we’d get into a lot of disagreements in the classroom. And I remember at one point I was being particularly umm combative and I pulled my link card out. It’s a purple link card. And I said “I don’t have a luxury of shopping at Cornucopia because it’s gonna take more money than I can afford. So forgive me if I have to shop at Walmart and that’s not suitable to your. To your sensibility.” And, and so when I say combative and and, right? My lens was much different umm being in the space I was in, and in some ways I probably had a chip on my shoulder. Because uhhhh I was starting to recognize and see my identity differently even though I didn’t have that language around it yet. I was starting to see my identity differently, I was starting to see how having a biracial son umm who society perceived as black. People looking at me and still trying to figure out who or what I was, and our last name being ‘Cervantez”, and so there was also a lot of other stuff going on my world, right? I’m a single parent, I’m a statistic you know, where’s the baby daddy at? you know, all that kind of stuff and and the kind of classes I was in, being Anthropology and Sociology classes were having those kinds of conversations and not really having language but really remembering feeling that I was different than the other students in the classroom. And it felt like it was my responsibility to tell them that, you know, their bubble is going to be burst when they leave this institution because that is not the way the world acts. ummm, interesting right? because it’s much different now that I’m working here.
Joel: As a professor working here now. When someone tells you they can’t do their work because they weren’t feeling well or they couldn’t finish an assignment or… all that you just mentioned. Do you still look at them and see the naivete that they had? or do you do you give them second thoughts when they say they weren’t feeling well? or do you accept it?
Tianna: ummmm. I mean hindsight being what it is, and experience being what it is. As a lecturer now I actually don’t. My first thought isn’t they were out getting drunk the night before. Ummm, and because I’ve – I like to think of myself as a pretty intuitive person. I know when folks are not being completely honest and as long as it’s just like once it’s not a problem. When it becomes a habit that’s when, you know I’m gonna sit a student down and say “ you know ok help me understand whats going on. If it’s illness I want to – you know, let’s get you better, if there’s stressers going on I want to help, I want to find some support system so that we can help you understand what those stressors are and help you deal with them because now knowing what I know not only from lived experience but from my graduate work I understand that this time of a student’s life particularly if you’re here between the ages of 18-21 like a traditional student or walk in with a lot of life that you haven’t all been provided the tools to deal with. Like this your time to figure out how to figure out how to deal with them and I didn’t really understand that, even being older as a student here. Um, because of my lived experience I just dealt with it, you did it, right? Having my social work background allows me to think about it more nuanced so now my question is more: how can I support you? Help me understand what’s going on. Because now for me it’s not just “oh they might not have gotten their paper done because they were drinking” it’s “why were they drinking, is there something else going on, is there another conversation I need to be having with that student possibly, let me kinda reach out to some other folks, is this behavior just happening in my class, is it happening otherwhere?” So now it’s from this lense of supporter. Um, and that comes from a longer lived experience but also my education and understanding development at this point.
Joel: And the final question I have is why did you do it? Why did you go to college?
Tianna: (laughs) Why did I do it? Because that’s what you did. Um, I grew up —
Joel: Do you want me to stop recording?
Tianna: (crying) My father… My father instilled it. I don’t even, I don’t know if he understood even himself why education, I think in his mind education was a way out, um, a way out of what I don’t know. He was raised by two hard-working individuals. My grandfather was a railroader and I believe had an eighth grade education. I have to double check that. I know he didn’t finish high school. My grandmother was a factory worker, she worked at Maytag. He grew up and ended up working on the railroad, um, so growing up it was kind of just the conversation. You need to get good grades because you’re going to go to college, because going to college is going to afford you the ability to not have to live paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s going to afford you the ability to have a better life. But I also think behind some of that was hurt and shame. And he was trying to leave something and he thought that education was the way to leave it. Um, I tried to have that conversation with him a few times but it really didn’t go anywhere. And I don’t know if he even understood or recognized that. Although, he may have because there were some family members that would tease him mercilessly about how he left the South side for the North side. Or how in moments of disagreement or anger people would say that he thought he was better than other people. And I think it was entrenched in this idea that he didn’t want his children to have to work long hours, hard labor to have a better life. And I think for some of it he thought education was the way for us to be more accepted. And the only reason why I struggle with that is because I remember when first applied to school right out of high school I got a notification that I was being considered for some sort of scholarship having to due with the fact that I was Hispanic and we got into an argument because he wanted to know why I put that down. And I said “What do you mean what I put what down?” “That you’re hispanic” and I said, “Because I am”. And we got into this argument about how he wanted me to not have to be that. “That’s not all you are.” And remembering that I felt like he was telling me that I could pass. Did he ever actually physically look at me and say “you could pass”? I don’t know. In my brain, you know, it’s thirty years ago. But it was this idea of being something better. So, for him it was about — right, so, why did I do it? That’s why. I first attempted college at the University of Illinois because his dream was to have someone graduate from the University of Illinois but it was too big, you know, being a first generation student I didn’t know the questions to ask about the kind of institution I would be great at, right, that would challenge me — so I went to the big university and he was a very proud father and I wanted to make him proud. And for a variety of reasons I left a year and a half after I started and and then had Tavian and then started at Carl Sandburg College and that was probably the first time I understood what a small classroom environment allows for me to do, allows for me to question, allows for me to really get involved. And so when I started to look at schools to transfer to I started to consider whether or not a small classroom is what I needed. And if you’re looking at small classrooms you’re not looking at big state universities. I did apply to Illinois State University and was accepted and went so far as to go in and meet an advisor and register for classes because at the time I thought I wanted to be a teacher and they had a great education program. And I met with my advisor and he made a comment about, I had made a comment about family housing, asking him questions, he was my advisor. And he goes, “You need family housing?” and I said “Yes, I have a — I think at that time Tavian was going to be one — and he said “Oh, it’s going to be really difficult for you to do this program as a single parent.” And I walked out of that meeting and I looked at my mom who had been waiting with me and I said, “I’m not going to this school.” She goes “What do you mean?” I said, “I’m not going here. That interaction right there, if he can’t support me, if I can’t feel like he is going to be in my corner, why would I come here?” And I walked off that campus and never came back. Ended up finishing an associates degree at Sandburg and then as I was at that point where I was going to finish the degree and I knew that I didn’t want to just finish there I wanted to earn my bachelors so I started to look and that’s how I ended up here at Knox because I was in Galesburg and there was a great financial aid package and I would be able to have the support of my family in classes and things like that. And when I met with folks here, they were supportive. They were like, “That’s a wonderful story and you’re gonna to add value and you’re gonna learn a lot about yourself and people are gonna learn from you. And sold me, so I came. And I never would have gone on to graduate school if it weren’t for the support of the folks here. You know, I had no intention of going to graduate school. My dad only told me I had to go to college! And so, it was the support of my minor faculty member, my McNair director at the time and another professor, actually the social service internship professor, the class that I teach now, the professor of the class at that time, looked at me and said “No, you’re gonna apply to graduate school.” And I went like, “No, I don’t want to apply!” And they were like, “No, you’re gonna apply.” And I did and ended up at University of Chicago and it would never have happened if it was’t for the support of the people here. I think that’s why I give the way I do here.
Joel: You don’t need to answer the next question but is your father still alive? Do you think he’d be proud?
Tianna: (crying) He saw me, sorry, he was at my graduate school commencement. He was very proud, except he wanted to know when I was going to go back to law school. So for him my education was great but he always wanted me to be a lawyer, because he always saw me in politics. And for him and his knowledge of the political world, lawyers go into politics. Um, so, really up until a few weeks before he passed away he had been joking with me about when I was gonna go back to school for law. I’m like, “Dad, I have a career. I have a masters in social work. This is a bonafide thing, I’m doing it. I have a career. Working at Knox, it’s a career, not a job.” And he would like “yeah but you’d make such a great lawyer, Miha!” and I’d be like, “oh my god Dad” and so it kinda became a joke so yeah he was proud of me but I think for him, again, it was about status. And he always thought I could go further. Nothing was ever good enough. I could always do something better or I could always do something bigger or whatever. So now actually, funny that you ask that, I’m debating personally, professionally “do I go back to school?” Do I go back for a terminal degree? Do I finish that road and what does that mean for me? Do I need it professionally? What doors does that open for me? Am I doing it for me? Um, am I doing it for someone else? And ironically… ironically or coincidentally, I never know which word I’m supposed to use and my son laughs at me every time because he corrects me. Um, the program that I’m looking at, is at the University of Illinois.
Joel: I would like to thank Tianna Cervantez for letting me interview her, TKS for letting this podcast become a reality and you for listening. Thank you and have a good day.