Professor, Department of Linguistics
Being gifted and studious enabled me to be funded, first by missionaries, to attend one of the best high schools (after being kicked out of a junior seminary for insubordination—I asked too many why-questionsJ) and then by the State to attend college. I would not have been able to attend college if the government of the Congo did not then fund college education. My parents would not have been able to afford it. There was no bank loan system for education; nor were there any kinds of jobs that I could do with a high school degree that would have enabled me to save for higher education.
A combination of diligent work and good fortune brought me to the University of Chicago in the fall of 1974, on a Fulbright scholarship, for my graduate education. After earning my PhD in linguistics in the summer of 1979, I went to work as a lecturer (i.e. assistant professor) at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, for two years. Then I was lucky enough to be hired by the University of Georgia, where I taught for 10 years, before being invited to return to the University of Chicago as a professor in December 1991.
This trajectory has not always been smooth. I didn’t have personal books until I was in high school and I had no access to a library until I attended college. Before then, I simply borrowed books to read from the missionaries who taught us in high school. I read about anything that was available, especially in French literature and in philosophy. The system was very competitive, with typically the top 10-20 percentile being encouraged to proceed all the way to college. I was lucky to have been in the right percentile, though I worked very hard too, as I still do today! (You may say it has become a kind of addiction-J.) Being poor in a boarding school was not easy either. I was sometimes ridiculed for not dressing as sharp as those who had been to the capital city. I often did small work for missionaries, after school, for pocket money. I worked for a year after high school, as a teacher, just to save some pocket money for college. I did the same after the first two years of college, for the same reason. I also had to help my younger siblings!
Those time-offs from school were also opportunities for me to put my life in perspective and to work on my goals. They compelled me to remain highly focused when I returned to school. I had to deal with prejudice for not being an urbanite, and later on for not being born in the West and for not having the right skin complexion, not only from the point of view of race. My academic and socioeconomic success, which is beyond anything I could have aspired at while growing up in the Congo, has made a lot of difference. My goals have always been realistic and modest; I just aimed slightly higher every time I had reached the current goal. When you have my kind of background, it’s hard to believe that “sky’s the limit.” You just wonder whether you can run the next mile now that you have completed the last one.
On the other hand, I still have an accent, which is sometimes a strike against me, especially to the eyes of young students and sometimes junior colleagues who do not know me. It’s reflected in the course evaluations and requests for assistance. I can understand why some movie actors changed their names to hide their origins. When all this is also appear to be connected to your race or the cultural background (however ambiguous real life situations often are), which has shaped much of your behavior, you often feel like throwing your hands up in the air, with disgust or in despair!
There’s often also the discomfort of typically being the only different face, or one of the few different ones, at professional or social gatherings, of drawing attention in one way or another because you are different in your own way, of sometimes becoming invisible or inaudible when there is competition for visibility or voice, of being considered ignorant or incompetent before being put to test, etc. Just being different can often be uncomfortable, until you realize your uniqueness can be an asset in some ways. You have a different kind of experience that you can use to advantage. For instance, you may look at problems from different perspectives and offer alternative interpretations that are more accurate or propose solutions that work better. Of course, it also depends on whether or not you receive attention, and what you can do to get it in a positive way. It often takes time. You must learn to negotiate with your social environment. Yes, you can survive the odds, provided that you are wise and self-confident, and have a lot of determination too.
The bottom line is to prepare yourself for challenges: How do you face them? Do you let them destroy you or deter you from your goals? When is it too early to call it quits? This should not be the first response indeed. It’s necessary to weigh whether you can change your social or professional environment to accommodate you and to realize in time when you cannot… and then what is your next step. You must know to get up when you fall, and learn from that experience. You must also learn to think critically and not jump to hasty conclusions: not every setback is necessarily related to your different background, racially, ethnically, or culturally. Look well around you: there are others with similar experiences to yours who have made it. What’s their secret? Life experiences are so ambiguous that you must also ask what you may have done wrong. So, may have to keep fighting the odds, with changing strategies!
Information about what I am now at the University of Chicago and in the academic world, especially what I have accomplished, can be found at my website, at http://mufwene.uchicago.edu/