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Feeling Unwelcome


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Hello all,
I am in a bind, more emotionally than anything else, but I need to vent.  I have finished one year of my PhD successfully, but that is only academics.  Non-academically there have been some speed bumps, and I feel as though I have gotten no support from my university or department.  In fact, due to one issue, I feel attacked by my university.  Allow me to explain.
I live in family housing run by the university, and I can't afford to not live on campus.  One of my children has psychiatric issues, which were under control for quite a few years, but resurfaced in the Spring.  One incident required calling police for help so we could get them transferred to an acute psychiatric facility for better help than we were getting from her normal medical team.  Because we called the police for assistance, we got on housing's radar.  Not only did we get on their radar, we were told due to student code of conduct rules that governed me as the student, if we did not find another place for my child to live, we would be evicted.  Naturally, I have been fighting this, but I really don't have money to lawyer up if it gets to that.  As I stated above, I don't have the money to not live on campus either.  

As for my department, of course this incident had affected my program a bit, although not as much as you would have figured.  I had to drop one class, which is not ideal, but I am a family person as well as a grad student, and the department was aware of that from the beginning.  In fact, my background both personally and professionally are one of the reasons they chose me.  Other than that, I had to miss a couple of classes for appointments for my child, but I always told the prof in advance, and any work that needed to be done was done beforehand.  I felt bad for missing classes (it really was not that many, other students missed consistently more than I did), but I was always told it was understood and ok.  So, I ended the semester feeling a bit better about things, I got A's in my remaining two classes, and I was grateful to have made it.  Then, I got my first year review.  In this review I was targeted for having too many outside distractions (keep in mind, I got A's in my classes), I had too many absences, and I didn't complete a full time schedule.  In a five paragraph review, four focused on negatives, and only one said anything positive.  I have a 3.8 for the year, granted not great, but not terrible either, and a 4.0 in the worst possible semester I could have had.  It doesn't help that I have never quite felt that the department I am in is the most welcoming.  Most profs are never around, nor are most grad students.  I can count the number of PhD students I know personally on one hand in a program where it takes many more hands to count them all...the same for profs.

So, I feel unwelcome, and that maybe this is not the place for me.  But, I am also feeling stuck.  I have finished a year, with only one year of full time coursework left, and one class in one semester to make up for the dropped course.  I feel very alone, and the couple of times I brought this subject up with my advisor or the grad coordinator they insist everything is fine, which is not how I feel at all.  Even if I could leave, it is too late to find another ship to jump to for Fall, and how would I explain why I want to leave where I am at?  How would I get recommendations from anyone here, when it seems from my review that none of my profs have much positive to say about me?  I know the most important thing is getting and keeping my child well, which we have made great strides in.  But, my child also feels unwelcome here as we have to "hide" them so housing authorities will not know they are here.  And of course, I keep playing the "what if" game, as in "what if I would have chosen school B over school A, I wonder if they still want me." I just feel lost and alone and I needed to vent.  I don't know if anyone has any words of wisdom, and I understand if not.  Really, I just needed to vent a little anyway.  Thanks for reading, I appreciate it.

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Could you elaborate a bit more on why you feel unwelcome in the department? 

I can completely understand the housing issue making you feel unwelcome at the University, but I don't really see from what you've written why you feel unwelcome in the department. It seems like people aren't exceptionally present or social- and that might not be the type of program you'd fit in with- but it doesn't really seem unwelcoming. 

Is it from the comments in your first year review? Reviews aren't intended to make you feel better. They're intended to point out everything that the reviewer feels is lacking for you to correct. Mitigating circumstances, or the "whys" of the situation aren't supposed to be taken into account. That's for you and your advisor, not for the official review. The official review is supposed to, relatively dispassionately, point out what's wrong with performance, and what needs to change. If there was a life event that threw you off, you know that, and it makes it easy to change the next year. 

Your advisor and graduate coordinator say everything is fine- why do you not believe them? They've seen the grades and your reviews, and they know your situation. If they say things are fine, unless you suspect they have a reason to be lying to you, go with it. 

Similarly, you say that no one would have positive things to say about you in a recommendation letter, but why do you think that? Do you not have positive interactions with faculty? Or are you basing this off of your first year review? The point of a recommendation is different than a review. The review points out all the flaws, no matter how small, so the review-ee can work on them. A recommendation paints a whole picture of you as a person, failures and accomplishments.

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I don't know that I have any great advice for you, but its awful that you're going through this.  Some thoughts I do have......isn't threatening to evict you because you used law enforcements assistance for your child with a psychiatric illness some form of disabilities discrimination?  I am not an expert on disability laws, but I don't think it would hurt for you to look into that.  Your university should have an office that deals with disability issues that can either advise you or point you in the right direction to get better advice.  Learning what your rights are is free and you may not even need to escalate things to the point of getting a lawyer.

As for feeling unwelcome in your department, are you the only student with a family?  Even though the faculty felt you were a great fit that doesn't mean they're accustomed to having a student with a family that may at times have to direct their attention elsewhere.  Most universities have some type of support group for students with families that I'm told are amazing resources in dealing with not feeling welcome, balancing family and school, and even social options.  Check with your graduate student association about something like that.

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I just want to start by saying how much I feel for you and your circumstances. That sounds nightmarish. 

Like MarineBluePsy, I also am wondering what your tenant rights are in this situation. I don't know what state you're in, but you should look into that if you haven't already.

Also to piggy-back off of what Eigen said, it could be possible that your department (or whoever puts the year reviews together) doesn't know how to constructively critique a person's work without just listing off all of the things wrong with them without regard to their feelings. My husband had that problem in his program; by his third year he realized that despite the way his reviews sounded, he was doing better than many of his colleagues. 

It sounds like you are doing everything you can to balance your life. I hope everything works out for you. Please keep us updated!

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I can give you some advice as to the matter of your threatened eviction. I was a social worker for 10 years and worked at my (then) county's legal aid office.

What housing is threatening you with is both illegal and prejudicial. Your daughter's diagnosed, documented psychiatric conditions may qualify her for APD benefits, if she does not receive those already. Even if she does not qualify for APD benefits, you cannot evict someone as a result of behaviors that stem from a psychiatric illness. That is a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which you can read here: https://www.justice.gov/crt/fair-housing-act-1.

You can afford to lawyer up; here's how: contact your local legal aid office. Their whole existence is based on the fact that people without a lot of financial means need legal services, too. Call them, complete the intake process, attend your appointment, and they will be able to help you with this. 

I have to echo Eigen's remarks: end-of-year or mid-program reviews aren't designed to make you feel good. They don't have to say anything positive about you at all, although many professors or advisors do. The criticism isn't personal and isn't a sign of your being "unwelcome;" it's standard criticism given by mentors whose job it is to prepare you for a career in academia. 

You certainly don't have to answer this question publicly, but it sounds to me like you are under an enormous amount of stress between being a graduate student and a working mother of multiple children, including one with severe psychiatric illness. So my (rhetorical) question is, how are you? Are you receiving any treatment or support for anxiety? Perhaps it would be good to access some support in that aspect.

Please send me a PM if you need any help or have any questions about accessing legal services. I'm happy to do what I can for you.

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I want to thank those who have responded.  As far as the comments re: first year review: I understand that a review is a place to critique, hopefully constructively (mine was not  constructive) your performance.  I am in a very small cohort, and I have asked those in my cohort about their reviews, and they were either more even handed, definitely more constructive, or, in one case, completely glowing.  Trust me, I am not trying to play the victim, and I do not want to feel this way, but I cannot help but feel that maybe this is a bad fit, and the department feels that way as well.  As a result, I have begun reaching out to other programs to gauge their interest.

I really appreciate the advice on housing and legal issues.  I felt the approach taken by University Housing was wrong when I was faced with it, and they tried to play it off as they do not have to follow state rules regarding evictions, etc.  I have countered in email after doing some more research into Federal rules, and hopefully they will back off a bit.

Orphic, thank you for asking about how I am doing (although, I am actually a working father).  The service provider that was working with my child has offered us family and individual therapy, and we are getting that organized as well.  

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Hello @TVZ I'm really sorry you are going through this. It seems people have given you great advice and I'm glad to know that everything is getting sorted out.

I echo the end-of-year review observation. Those documents are meant to register how your semester has been in case a new DGS or new faculty comes along later on. In one of my reviews they included my performance as a student worker in the library apparently to show that I could do both things at the same time. This is only to better register your improvement next year (I'd expect). You can also talk about this with your advisors, if you feel the review was unfair. Only recently my avisor told me how it goes about at my department and he hinted that it can vary from faculty to faculty. 

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