It’s a big risk, but I know I’m going to do it.
When I tally up the application fees for the four programs whose applications I’ve already started and the fifth that I know I’m going to do but haven’t started yet, it comes out to over half of the money I currently have in the bank. My seasonal job has ended for the season and though I’ve applied and landed a couple of interviews, I don’t have another new job lined up yet. At this point, I have two major trips coming up in the next two months and will be out of state or out of country for a large amount of time, so it’s not even logistically possible to start a new job unless the job is online. My mother has offered to help me pay these application fees, but something in my gut is still reeling at the thought of spending so much money to apply to these programs. These programs that might not even accept me for the myriad of reasons that my brain keeps pushing to the forefront of my mind every time I sit down to work on my personal statement.
Minus the personal statement, my first four applications have been done for about a week. And it shouldn’t be so hard, the question is simple, why do I want to pursue a Ph.D. in Portuguese? The idea of it really is so natural to me. I’ve always wanted to pursue a Ph.D., and I’ve always wanted to know more and more about Portugal. I have this notebook from when I was in third grade where I wrote a whole bunch of stories and thoughts, and there are three things that repeat over and over again: science fantasy stories (occasionally starring Sailor Moon), a desire to be a famous author, and a love of all things related to Portugal. To be honest, my interests haven’t changed at all since I was eight. I love most things SF, am a major otaku, I want to be a famous author (I’m not ashamed to admit it; someday I want the accolades), and I love all things related to Portugal. I want to write novels set in Portugal or about Portuguese-Americans. I want to write nonfiction books about women in Portugal during the Estado Novo. I want to write a family history of the ragtag group of siblings that became my aunts and uncles and father. I want to write about what it means to be Portuguese-American, why in this country the Portuguese ethnicity is often left out of the Latino identity but in Europe “os latinos” refers to the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Italians — according to my tia Catarina, whose kindness knows no bounds and whose love of literature runs deep.
I want to study all of this so that I can know it all better, more than just the whispered framework of my family history, more than the shreds of memories from the World’s Fair or the lemon trees in the backyard of a house we no longer stay in when we go, more than just the rolling eyes of my frustrated father as his sisters berate him once again for not teaching his daughters enough Portuguese when they were little. I want to sink into my identity, into my cultural heritage so far that someday I might stop feeling like a stranger in my own skin. And I want to approach this goal in the way that works best for me, the way that I know — academia.
I can’t pretend that I want to be an impressive research scholar for the rest of my life. I want to write novels and books of creative nonfiction. But I want my novels to be the best-researched books they can be, with a strong foundation in the literary traditions of Portugal and other Lusophonic nations. I want to do justice to that little nation by the Atlantic that once ruled the oceans of the world, and to the people who’ve left there and love it still, the people whose saudades run deep. In my heart of hearts, I know the way to achieve this, perhaps not the only way but definitely the most effective and enjoyable way, is to dive headlong into one of the Ph.D. programs I’m looking at. To do the research and develop the knowledge and skills necessary to making the books in my head a reality. So how come I’m finding it hard to articulate all of that in a way that makes me seem like a good candidate?
I know that I have the drive and the passion and the intelligence to succeed in a Ph.D. program. That’s not the question. I’ve wanted to go for a Ph.D. ever since I learned that my mother had to put her doctorate on hold and then never had the chance to go back and finish, but it took me a long time to finally decide what kind of program I wanted. At first, I thought I’d do another English degree, or perhaps go further with creative writing than the MFA. Then, for a long time I was convinced that the right course for me was Gender Studies, and I spent two years scoping out programs across the nation that were both fully funded and diverse and interesting, only to panic when it came time last year to begin applying for the Fall 2015 semester. I couldn’t decide what to do, I didn’t know which route to take. I decided to wait, take a year off after my MFA and apply for the Fall 2016 semester instead. I hoped the extra year would give me the motivation to pick a direction, and it did.
I decided to abandon English and Gender Studies, to pursue something which I hadn’t even fully realized I could do — Portuguese Studies. Growing up in central Pennsylvania, it was hard enough to find people who even registered that Portugal was a country or that Portuguese wasn’t just a dialect of Spanish, so it had never once occurred to me that a person could study Portuguese history and culture in this country and get degrees in the field. By the time I knew it was a possibility, I was already halfway through an English degree with my heart set on an MFA, and I believe that this was the right track then. Just like I believe a Ph.D. in Portuguese Studies is the right track for me now.
But just because my heart is in the right place, that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a gamble. I’m coming at this thing sideways, whereas other applicants will be coming in headlong. And it’s a lot of money to invest in something that could easily blow up in my face. Basically, I’m betting half of my savings that at least one program will take me into their fold. And if I’m honest with myself, it does scare me a little.
But if I’ve learned anything from Sailor Moon, it’s that we take risks for who and what we love.