Where to start?

Hi!

Welcome to my blog and thanks for coming.  The plan is to write semi-witty posts about my journey to become an academic- whatever that means- and the twists and turns along the path.

Recently, I was asked for my first “official” bio to be published.  It sounded simple enough- what topic would I know more about than me, and I’ve never been accused of being short for words.  Turns out, it was super hard.  I struggled to find a balance between humblebrag and clearly-suffering-from-imposter-syndrome (those are tones, right?). Ultimately, I settled on a glorified list of my degrees and work experience- and managed to forget a degree until after I submitted. When I read the final draft full of objective facts about me, I hardly recognised it as me.  It’s not me, it’s a sanitised, professionalised version of someone with my name. Is that who I’m going to become? A list of intellectual accomplishments?  On the other hand, anything less formal would seem equally inappropriate given the context and purpose; plus sarcasm does not translate well on the interwebs, so it’s probably best if I use my Adult Voice.

I’m finding that same problem as I sit here, trying to figure out “where to start” with this entry.  So let’s see where this goes… and bear with me… (219 words before I actually say something about myself…)

My Australian name is Mel but my actual name is Melyssa.  I am, and was, always Melyssa back home in America.  Most of the time in Australia, I am Mel- much more informal, shortened, and considerably more likely to be spelled correctly- but I’m Melyssa in formal contexts.  (Already there’s a bit of an identity forming theme developing here- and in the next few posts I have planned.)

I’m in the second year of my PhD.  I’ve just passed my Confirmation and am waiting on ethics approval (so starting a blog seems like an excellent way to procrastinate…).  I’m exploring how rurality may impact on careers educators’ professional identity and practice.  I wound up being not only a rural careers educator, but also in charge of overseeing the school’s careers education program.  Let me try to explain to you why that’s a bit remarkable…

I grew up in western Massachusetts on a small llama farm in the woods with my parents and younger brother.  I was one of about 2000 students at the local suburban high school and was quite certain I wanted to be an aerospace engineer.  Probably the most defining aspect of my teenage years was wrestling.  I was the only girl on the wrestling team and despite an uphill battle, became quite good.  In high school I won two national titles and competed internationally on the women’s junior USA team.  I loved it.  I loved the discipline and strategy required.  I loved the physicality of it.  I loved the sense of fighting “the man” and persevering (I wasn’t really aware of the concept of  ‘the patriarchy’ or didn’t have the word for it).  Things were upended abruptly in senior year when I was injured and also discovered I couldn’t really do advanced calculus.

At the private, liberal arts college I attended, I learned three significant things outside of my Classics degree.  One, there are serious athletes who are also serious and intelligent students.  I was pleasantly surprised by my teammates and through them, I learned quite a bit about balancing academics, athletics, fun- and that all of those parts benefit each other.   Two, drinking alcohol is fun and can contribute to some great adventures with friends!  The incredible and crazy stories from uni days do not belong here, so onto number three… I enjoyed living abroad.  I spent my junior year (3rd year) abroad in Athens.  It was meant to be for a semester, but I enjoyed it so much, I stayed on.  Living in such an old and different culture was eye-opening, and maybe something to delve into in another post, but it also proved to be another important turning point in my life: it put the nail in the coffin of my wrestling career, introduced me to my first “academic” friends, and made me realise I didn’t have an actual career pathway/plan.

Finally, I found a level of acceptance while at uni that I hadn’t expected and still touches me deeply to this day.  Not only was it a relief that my male teammates were literate and numerate, they were also supportive and encouraging.  While I was different to most of the team (I trained with them but didn’t usually compete against the men. I only really competed at women’s nationals), I still felt a part of it.  Sharing a flat in Athens with future academics, and the conversations we had, seemed to have sparked a deep desire to belong to that world.

So, without a realistic path to a career at the end of uni, I jetted to Australia for a shortcut- in one year of study you could earn a teaching qualification for a third of the cost of a year’s tuition at home.  Mom and Dad said post-grad expenses were my responsibilities and Melbourne sounded like a cool place to live for a year… 10 and a bit years on and I still haven’t left!  I enjoyed living in Melbourne and found Australians amusing, so deciding to stay and build up some experience before trying to figure out how to become a teacher back in Massachusetts was easy.  I sent out applications to literally every corner of the state, was rejected from schools all across the state, and went on interviews all across the state.  I received a call in my little flat one day from the assistant principal (of the school I ended up teaching at) and after a brief greeting he promptly asked if I knew where the school was.  It turns out most applicants don’t bother to look at a map and just assume it’s an outer suburb, not four and half hours away.

I accepted a scholarship position in a rural school to be the Literature teacher, meaning I had to stay for two years and three months.  Again, I haven’t left yet after 10 years by choice.  I threatened to, wrote up job applications, even started packing once or twice, but living in this town has had a bigger impact on my life than I would have ever imagined.  It’s probably worth stating that as a teenager who dreamed of living in a big city, the depressing possible fall-back job was high school history teacher.  So obviously living in a town with a population smaller than my high school and teaching History and English would be something I really enjoyed.  Living here has changed the way I view a lot of things, mostly for the better, but honestly, not all.  This is where I became an Adult- I have a real full time job, insurance, have responsibilities over students and leadership positions over older peers, I take myself on holidays, I have a house and dog to look after.  I have learned some things the hard way- but those are probably things that need to be learned that way.  I have also made amazing friends that have expanded my worldview (and taught me what good coffee really is!).  I became a permanent resident of Australia.  Other things I have learned here- I LOVE footy (AFL), I prefer my own company, I spend a great deal of my free time watching TV, and traveling is essential.  I need to escape this fishbowl regularly, whether it’s a quick trip to Melbourne for the footy (go Saints!) or a trip to New Zealand or home- traveling is essential.  There’s a lot more to say about my town, my school, and my experiences here, but I’m sure they’ll inspire or be parts of other posts.  My time here can be summed up as- it’s changed my life and I’ve loved and hated it.

Stick with me, we’re almost at the present!

One of the things I struggled with living in my small town was a particular type of boredom.  I don’t need or want a vibrant social scene; I actively try to avoid them.  My small town and small school seem to move at a difference pace to what I had been used to, for example people talk slower.  It didn’t take me long to grasp the rhythm of the school day/year and expectations… and got bored.  I kept dreaming up various projects to start and build up.  It wasn’t just about trying to fill my time, but to challenge myself.  I soon set my sights on school leadership- while being in a classroom kept things interesting (for better or worse), I didn’t really want to do it forever.  (I guess I still kind of struggle to see myself as a “teacher.”  I never wanted to be a “teacher.”)  Leadership seemed challenging and I was intrigued by the bigger picture, systems.  I enrolled in various emerging leaders programs and professional development, undertook more implicit and explicit leadership roles at school, and finally undertook a Master in School Leadership.  I was consciously building a CV to escape on my terms.  Two things happened that changed the plan yet again- I finished my Masters with a mini-research project and I became the Pathways Coordinator for the school (looking after the VCE and careers education).  I enjoyed the little taste of “doing research” and the Pathways role turned out to be frustrating in unexpected ways.  It was through the Pathways role, where I was in a position to see and assist students to make the transition to “real life,” that I truly began to see how unequal the playing field was for my students.  Trying to figure out these systems, what could be done about them, and why things were the way they were, led to me my first research topics.

Apparently, I have a knack for work required for educational research.  Each early success built my confidence and encouraged me to enrol in yet another course, leading up to the current PhD Adventure.  So now, I’m on a scholarship to work on my PhD off-campus (more on that later, I’m sure).  For the first year, I tried to balance my research with a reduced teaching load at school but remaining the Pathways Coordinator.  That left me doing all of my roles not as well as I could/should have been.  Now post-Confirmation, I’ve reduced my teaching load even further (a dream timetable and my two most favorite subjects!) and dropped the Pathways role.  This is my last year at my school in my little town.  Next year, I want to move back to the Big Smoke so I can be on-campus more to have easier access to all those resources during the final stages of my PhD- and walk away from my ongoing employment.  So, this year feels like a big transition… exciting and scary… and putting me in a bit of limbo.  I’m not really in either space- I’m not Teacher Mel or Academic Mel- I sort of play at both depending on the time and day.  But that’s All Part of the Adventure…

One of the ideas for this blog to try to explicitly examine the transformation from Teacher Mel to Academic Mel.  The next post “Talking the Talk,” I’m going to look at the different vocabularies and language conventions as part of identity making.

So there’s the mud map of my adventure so far.  I hope you’ll come back to see what’s next!

Mel

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