Jaira Harrington

The original posting of this conversation can be found on the Graduate Education website.

Jaira Harrington is a PhD candidate in Political Science, and recently “chatted” with GSA via email about her experiences as a grad student at UChicago.

GSA: Tell us a little about yourself – where are you from, where did you go to College?
Jaira Harrington: I was born and raised in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. I graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, a historically black women’s college.

GSA: What was your first exposure to Political Science, and what made you interested in pursuing a career in your field?
JH: My initiation to Political Science was through the Program of Excellence for High School Juniors and Seniors at Kenwood Academy High School, which was sponsored by the University of Chicago. This initiative was launched by Professor Melissa Harris-Perry while she was a Political Science department faculty member. The program sought to build a bridge between the community and the University by providing self-motivated public high school students access to college-style coursework. The experience of working with her, the graduate students and my peers encouraged me to seriously consider political science. Initially, I thought that this course of study would help prepare me for law school. On top of that, there was some pressure from my family to pursue law school after undergrad. Students who are from low-income and working class families like mine can possibly identify with these expectations: college education translates into greater earning potential, graduate/professional degrees are supposed to provide more beneficial financial outcomes, and eventually one can forge an improved socio-economic path for the family and financial independence for the student. I didn’t really want to be a lawyer and I was deeply impacted by the educators in my life that I met at Spelman, Princeton and other institutions I at which I had studied. So, after some checking in with myself, I figured what better way to spend my life than in education and position myself to create opportunities for students like me? I ended up right where it began: the University of Chicago.

GSA: In a nutshell, what is your dissertation about?
JH: My dissertation is about the union politics of paid household domestic workers in Brazil and how the intersection of race, class and gender in their labor market informs how they understand themselves as rights-bearing political subjects. I conducted qualitative, semi-structured interviews in municipal unions in Brasília, São Paulo, and Salvador, Brazil.

GSA: What’s the best thing about working in Brazil?
JH: The weather was generally excellent! Even the most rainy days had an occasional peek of sunshine. I also appreciate the friendships I built with fellow researchers in Brazil. Although I was always scrambling to get interviews, collect books and set up meetings, I still took the time to absorb the culture of each city and town that I visited. It’s a country that’s easy to enjoy.

GSA: Can you describe your UChicago experience? What were the biggest surprises (if any) after you arrived on campus? Was it weird to be back “home” (but not really)?
JH: UChicago was an experience that I frequently juxtaposed with field research in Brazil and the realities of being a Lawndale Chicago native. Each summer since I enrolled in my program, I spent time researching and studying Portuguese in Brazil. When I returned to Chicago after some time away in undergrad and working as a high school teacher, my community had not changed much since I had been away. In fact, a friend who was conducting research on Lawndale told me that statistically, I am almost non-existent in my neighborhood, at least on the basis of educational attainment data. Many residents have not obtained a high school education. With this knowledge and reflections on my personal experience, I became more self-confident and intrepid. Although, like any graduate student, I have my moments of anxiety and fear, I quickly realized that I have so much to gain and very little to lose. To see young people lose the ability to lead full and rich lives due to the violence they encounter their entire life, really puts things in perspective for me every day, because I live in my community. In some ways, UChicago was a relief. Even if I didn’t always have a community to discuss the specifics, I was able to systematically consider these problems in a rigorous way.

While in Brazil, I was exposed to similar conditions of urban violence, racial injustice, gendered oppression and social disparity. At the same time I took and studied Portuguese in private language schools and took courses in some of the best universities in the country. My close friends of African descent in Brazil frequently reminded me of how their experiences with discrimination and prejudice were flippantly disregarded or minimized. Some personal experiences as a black female researcher in Brazil echoed their lifelong challenges with marginalization. In each place, I’ve always had to find a balance between my personal privilege and deal with culture shock.

GSA: What are the most valuable experiences and lessons you’ll take away from this place when you graduate?
JH: I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin here. The University of Chicago is a special place, boasting an impressive intellectual community. The professors closest to me have pushed me to become my best academic self, without asking me to change who I am. As a result, I have become a stronger, resilient and creative scholar.

I have also learned that you will always find your way. For most of my life, education had been programmatic: study hard, pass exams, write good papers and success will naturally follow. However, graduate school is not like that at all! Success is possible, but sometimes it has to be redefined on different terms to which you’re accustomed. Failure is often palpable and obvious, but achievement can be elusive. A mark of success may be receiving a thank you card from an undergraduate who asked for help on a graduate school application and was then accepted to the program of their choice. Success is collaborating with staff and fellow graduate students to prepare a conference and seeing an idea come to life. I’m now in a position to help many people and I don’t take it for granted.

Everybody has their own road to and through graduate school, so following what someone else has done will not always work for you. Although some circumstances in my life were simply about space and opportunity, you have to be present, ready and available to make things happen. I committed myself to a set of goals early and tried my best to stay on task. Not everything works to plan, but being flexible and going with the tides of change is what worked best for me.

GSA: You’ve been heavily involved in a number of campus and student life activities, committees, and programs like Graduate Student Orientation and GradUCon. What do you think those experiences have added to your portfolio, and how might they be useful in your future professorial career?
JH: These experiences enriched my experience as a graduate student. I could not have had this experience anywhere else. Being active in student life UChicago gave me a life! The opportunity to bridge conversations between multiple groups—administrators, graduate students, staff, faculty and the community at large—gave me a glimpse into what some expectations will be had of me as a future faculty member. Learning to effectively communicate among various players is a skill that will serve me well in the future.

GSA: What are your plans for the next year or two?
JH: I plan to write up my dissertation and fulfill all requirements for the doctoral degree of the Political Science department!

GSA: What are your top 3 pieces of advice for new grad students at UChicago?
JH: 1. Graduate school should not be a period of time where you stop enjoying life. It’s the time to do the exact opposite! At least, becoming in tune with myself and absorbing the world around me helped me to become a true social scientist. My dissertation project emerged from living in Brazil and allowing lived experiences to inform my research questions. All of the professors I admire are not only wonderful scholars, but also dynamic people. Work hard and enjoy the ride.

2. Embrace your quirks, the gaps in your knowledge and be open to the possibilities of life.

3. Also, remember who you are! There’s no need to change your core values or who you are to fit into UChicago. Our differences as graduate students are likely what made us attractive candidates in the first place. From my anecdotal conversations with fellow graduate students, most of us had never quite “fit in” neatly anywhere. Be resistant to the tide of conformity and give your inner misfit the chance to shine, perhaps for the first time in your life.

GSA: Now for some fun questions! What would you do if you found yourself with an unexpectedly free weekend?
JH: These weekends are rare, but I would definitely go for a long run in the park or on the lakefront. I would also go listen to a DJ spin, see a live music concert or comedy show. I’d probably do all of these things in the same day!

GSA: What’s your favorite book (nerdy or otherwise)?
JH: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It was one of the first books that I ever read that depicts a child having fun on a wintery day. Being from Chicago, I am intimately familiar with snow suits and snow angels. What was especially impressive about this book is that it featured the story of an African-American boy, Peter. This was one of the first American picture books to do so.

GSA: What’s your favorite Chicago neighborhood? Where should new students definitely spend some time while in the city?
JH: If I were a parent, this would probably be akin to the “which is your favorite child?” question. There are so many areas that I love about this city that it’s hard to choose. I say, just be open to exploration.

GSA: If you could land your dream job anywhere in the world, where would you go?
JH: For me, a dream job is much less about location and more about how I can spend my time. I would relish the ability to enjoy some weekends entirely to myself, family and friends. Any job that can afford me a rich social life in a context that can sustain my interests would be a winning position for me.

Thank you so much for sharing your graduate student experience with us, Jaira!