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Author: Laura Tan

Double trouble: my experience of studying part-time as a mixed-race individual

Updated Thursday, 7th July 2022

In this article Dr Laura Tan gives a fresh mixed-race perspective on having twice the cultures, twice the workload… so it was only right that she had twice the celebration at graduation!

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I was born in London in the summer of 1991 to an English mother and a Singaporean father. They grew up on opposite sides of the world and have both emigrated for the other over their time together. They have experienced two different cultures and in many ways are polar opposites – mum is loud and extroverted, dad is quieter and reflective, mum never went to university and doesn’t see herself as academic, dad studied at university for seven years. 

Almost 30 years later, in December 2020, I finally completed the long-awaited and rigorous two-hour doctoral viva voce online exam in my little home office just 10 days after moving into my first home with my other half, Lewis. This was at a time when Covid restrictions meant that I could not see my mum and dad on the day but instead took what I could from seeing their happy faces on the all-too-familiar Zoom calls that the nation was using at that time to keep in touch. The pandemic stole a lot from all of us but I am very pleased that we were still able to capture the post-viva non-stop talking and excitement as best as we could and that the celebration was just put on pause rather than put off altogether.

woman sitting at a desk about to write

This brings us to May 2022 where Covid is still around but ceremonies have been back and my oh my, do the families of graduates know how to celebrate! I graduated in a beautiful cathedral and will forever have the memory of the stained-glass windows, the lanterns and the joy all around that you can’t help but absorb even when your minute of high-stakes walking is done. The OU are fairly relaxed so despite the formal outfits and hand-shaking, the audible whoops and just looks of pure elation to the rows of supportive families is something you just have to see for yourself – a virtual graduation might be for some people but it wasn’t for me, I needed this day to have closure! It’s a moment frozen in time and it helps you to figure out that all along people were willing you on. I think another big reason why I would say you should definitely go to an in-person graduation is because when studying, it can feel like when you’re talking about it with others they look at you like it’s a different language altogether. It can be a little isolating in that way as something you could talk or write about all day, for others merely just being polite or a five-minute conversation. However, it is heartening to realise come the day of the ceremony that a lack of being able to fully understand/engage is not the same as not caring, it’s actually the opposite. You realise on graduation day how almost in awe we all are of each other for having those things that make us who we are, that we can shout from the rooftops about and that if we all perfectly understood everything, then there would be no point having different topics to specialise in and the world would be a much, much more boring place. Speaking of opposites, I also felt that for five years, I did feel like I belonged to my family, to my other half, to the organisation (as I work for them as well) but at conferences and work-in-progress seminars especially at postgraduate level, there is that sense of maturity, of being able to show up, respect others’ opinions and respect the hours and hours of work that might go into a poster or a presentation or workshop and being about to generate a sense of community. I certainly felt that on graduation day, that feeling of we are all so much more similar than we realise and that people in the audience as you walked past would say well done and smile even though we had never met but as they knew someone who had gone through it, the family and friends sort of sympathized with you too!

Dr Laura Tan standing outside Ely Cathedral with her father following graduation ceremonyDr Laura Tan with her father at Ely Cathedral

Studying towards a doctoral degree is a marathon and it is important to remember that much like real marathons, it doesn’t matter how long it takes, whether you have to take the pace down a little and whether you need a bit more cheering on at points, all that matters is that you cross the finish line. Studying part-time at The Open University means you have so much flexibility and autonomy over how you study. However, it can be difficult not always being at a similar point to others so it is important to try not to compare too much (as hard as it can be!). One upside of the Covid pause was that I was able to graduate in-person with slightly less concern about Covid, with Lewis, my mum, dad, brothers (Chris and Benji) and in the end, three of my friends as well. I was really touched that my EdD mentor and now friend drove all the way up from Worcester to celebrate with me. 

I am a daughter, sister, long-term girlfriend, female, mixed-race and I now realise that all of these parts of my identity were what helped get me over the line. But that it’s a double-edged sword of sorts as these same traits can sometimes make it harder to continue studying or achieve highly for reasons that OU academics are still trying to uncover. I know all too well that there is an attainment gap between UK students and Black and Minority Ethnic students and despite feeling like I have a foot in both camps, it is hard knowing that so many people who really want to go to university might be prevented from doing so because of barriers relating to ethnicity. I also know all too well that women in their early thirties often have societal expectations of being a wife, of being a mother, of having children put upon them and while I certainly hope for that one day, I would like to hope that in another 30 years, there won’t be as much expectation for someone like me to keep studying despite being over 21 and being female. 

I sometimes get the sense that some narrow-minded individuals can’t get their head around extra study as not being self-indulgent or just using it to ‘put off other life milestones’ but instead as a vehicle to show yourself that you can complete a challenge, that you are resilient and because you might enjoy learning! I strongly believe that life stage rather than age is what is important and that you have to do whatever is best for you even if that means you wish to pursue your own personal challenges at a time that is different to others. It is my view there are huge advantages to achieving qualifications (at any age) that nobody can ever take away from you, to help in accessing a better paid or even just a different job or for building back up some much-needed self-confidence after a knockback. If I can pass on any kind of wisdom from my lived experience of studying part-time as a mixed-race individual, it would be this:

  1. Do what you can while you can! – you never know what might happen and there will never be a right time so just go for it. Life is more fun when you embrace the twists and turns.
  2. Know your ‘s***’ and hold your nerve! – this in a nutshell was my two-step plan for anything during the doctorate! Prepare and plan but at the end of the day, knowing you’ve done all you can do and that ultimately it doesn’t define you really does help you relax, whether it’s preparing for a viva, for an assignment or just going to a tutorial.
  3. We are all more similar than we are different – I began this article thinking about the different sides of my family but I have learned through 30 years life experience and 5 years doctoral study, that people are just people! It doesn’t matter how many letters they have in, before or after their name. The labels and the titles themselves are not what matter but the meaning that we place on them. My family often called me Dr Tan because they know it makes me shy and quiet and just laugh but under it all, I do think it’s OK to be proud of what it presents, that I’m a grafter! I think there are huge similarities between the British sayings ‘keep calm and carry on’ and ‘if tea can’t solve it, then it’s really bad’ and the Singaporean-Chinese grit and grafting and soldiering on to achieve well and the love of tea also exists there too! I think that being mixed-race has been advantageous in some ways because it makes me more aware of how we are not half but doubly aware of cultural differences and similarities too.

 

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