When it all Falls Down: PhDing with Learning Disabilities and ADHD, in a Culturally Insensitive Society by Lara Bertholdo Jimenez (She/Ela)

I have a distinct memory from when I was in first or second grade of my mother kindly erasing my homework because my handwriting needed to be bonitinho. Even as a child, homework was unacceptable if it was messy. Growing up in Brazil, her schooling was the opposite of mine, and her expectations sometimes felt unrealistic or too harsh. Although her always correcting me helped my success in the long run, I always felt defeated when I couldn’t explain how I loved school but could never get excellent grades – something had always felt off. How could my classmates seem to get straight A’s effortlessly, and my hard work could only pull off B’s and C’s? I always thought I had a learning disability, but my mother (through no fault of her own) didn’t entertain the possibility: you just have to try harder. After years of jumping through hoops of not being able to afford the services to be tested, at age 25 I was diagnosed with adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and at 26, I was diagnosed with learning disabilities and slow processing speed. 

When defeat starts before the journey has even begun. 

My Ph.D. nightmare started when I fought to get accommodations for the admissions requirement, the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). I had not been diagnosed with learning disabilities yet, and my adult ADHD diagnosis was not enough. Without a diagnosis as a child and even with months of phone calls and paperwork pleading (“I just need a little extra time”), I was denied accommodations.

As expected, I bombed the GRE’s, even though I studied for 10-30+ hours a week for four months in between my full-time job. My results reflected six and one points higher on the verbal and quantitative sections, respectively, from when I had taken the exam without studying four years prior. My score came out to 188, 12 points lower than what my program asked as a minimum. I used all the affordable resources, I bought the books, downloaded the apps, read articles, watched videos, did countless practice tests, and practiced, practiced, and practiced. Yet, when that timer would start, I would stop. Panic started at my toes and spread like fire throughout every inch of my body, clouding my brain with distressing thoughts. My test anxiety felt like a vertigo sensation, except instead of the room spinning, I experienced an internal tornado spiraling out of control. Even without a history of self-harm or violence, my GRE panic attacks led me to repeatedly hit myself in the head, punch my books, my pillows, or whatever was in front of me, frustrated that I was too damn slow

With my background in social justice and education, I knew that standardized tests in the United States were created to oppress historically underserved students. Still, with every practice test I failed, every comment I saw about “average scores,” my mental health and the hope that I would survive, let alone get admitted into a Ph.D. program, steadily deteriorated. I would wail hot tears to my partner as those thoughts kept repeating inside my head, and it weren’t for him refusing to let me give up, I would have dropped out before I started. All because a standardized test made me believe that my soon-to-come learning disability diagnosis equated to me being unworthy.  

I thought it couldn’t get worse, but it did     

Lo and behold, I was accepted as the team behind my current program rightfully saw my potential outside of my low GRE scores and 3.1 undergraduate and 3.3 graduate school GPA. Somehow thinking I was healed from my GRE trauma, during my first semester, I unexpectedly was hit with a debilitating mix of impostor syndrome, Ph.D. and remote learning adjustments, Covid-19, and political distress. My life immediately began to crumble, and similar GRE panic attacks arose when I spent eight hours reading one 40-page journal article during the first weekend. My classmates assured me this was normal; once I found my groove, it would be fine, but fine never came. My ADHD made me hyper fixated on every little detail, every word I didn’t know, and I would read and re-read lines over and over and over again. I would read and not process anything, my mind hyper-focused on my irritations over small noises kids running upstairs or my partner’s laugh or mumbles while playing video games. This experience prompted me to relive that internal downward spiral of losing control.

Yes, everyone struggles with a Ph.D., it’s an adjustment for all. But I wasn’t just struggling; I was completely defeated. My partner would look at me helplessly as I would wake up early 7 days a week to do schoolwork, sometimes averaging 14+ hours a day. I had stopped eating, working out, I abandoned my relationship, friendships, my house chores. I quickly dropped 15+ pounds, and I couldn’t even hold my phone because my carpal tunnel made my hands weak and painful. I would curl up in a ball, sobbing on my partner’s lap, asking the universe why was I so slow?  Why did it take me forever to read or make connections between things? Was I not smart enough for this? Sometimes I received harsh comments from professors that suggested I was not trying, but I was. I was trying so goddamn hard that I completely lost myself as my whole life became dedicated to finishing my work on time.  

 Why we need culturally sensitive professors for students like me

I had two life-altering realizations during my first semester. The first occurred in my class that my advisor happened to be teaching. For our class discussions, he created a comfortable space that I used to capitalize on why I started a Ph.D. in the first place. I was able to unapologetically discuss my unfiltered feelings on the injustices occurring in our field, pouring out my personal experiences and criticism about our weekly readings and academia as a whole. Having similar views, I would see my advisor’s eyes beaming with pride on Zoom as I spoke about things that my anxiety would usually not allow me to.

Historically, it was always easier for me to stay quiet than potentially looking dumb if I had not understood the class materials. However, this class was different. Relief would wash over me like waves as I would see comments on my assignments saying, “Yes!” “Fantastic!” “Excellent point!!!” This was my lifeline of hope, entertaining the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I did belong in a doctorate program. Despite my mind continuously asking, “What was I, a first-generation student, born to Brazilian and Dominican parents, who graduated from a public high school with a 2.8 GPA, while being raised by a low-middle-class single-immigrant mother, and on the side, having a borderline illiterate father who never even went to high school, actually doing in a friggin’ Ph.D. program?! Yes, I worked hard (and also had many privileges that brought me here). Yes, me, along with others like myself, are absolutely needed in these positions, but still, these thoughts went through my head every. single. day. 

My second saving grace happened in an urban education class when my professor brought up culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP). Through this discussion, I learned that White educators often do not know how to work with the cultural identities      of non-White and primarily Black and Brown students. This means that educators continuously fail to adequately integrate their identities and experiences into the classroom. Having had mostly White teachers and professors and also recognizing my privilege being White-passing, I reflected on moments when I did not feel culturally understood in school. I reminisced how teachers did not comprehend how my ethnic identity affected every aspect of my life, or the strength of my oral and expressive communication skills, compared to their one-size-fits-all pencil-to-paper learning methods. For the first time in my life, CRP made me feel that maybe it wasn’t me. I wondered: What if I had been given the opportunities to process information in a way that made sense to me? Would I still be feeling this slow, behind, or incompetent? What if I had teachers who had paid attention to my struggles and advocated on my behalf? Was I one of the countless students of a failing U.S. public education system that convinced me that I was dumb?

I was never able to name the feeling of being suffocated by the perimeters set by my White educators’ needs, wants, and styles. I had endlessly struggled through these moments and was in disbelief that it took 27 years for an educator to assure me that my academic strengths were real and needed in academia. This is a reality that countless underserved, especially Black and Brown students, face throughout their lives. By learning this information, it was no surprise that during my first semester, when I was tasked with the freedom of loose and creative guidelines from professors that understood these issues, I thrived. I made slide shows with Tik-Toks, compared research to Rap and R&B songs, and contributed my narratives to make sense of what I had read. Showing me, yes, I might have some learning disabilities, while also feeling like my identity or background is not always welcomed in academic spaces. Yet, when I am given the ability to do assignments in a way that makes sense to me and is socially accepted by my professors, then I am great at it. I recognize that I will not spend the rest of my career only making slideshows with Tic-Tok’s, but that was what I needed in that moment to give me hope that I could do this. Something to grasp that made me believe I am an intellectual scholar.

Ready or not academic world, I’m coming, and I’m here to stay

I wish I could say I now feel 100% confident in myself, but that would be a lie. Living in a global pandemic, in a nation that is fueled by White Supremacy, and whose past and current leadership continues to deny us basic human rights, starting a doctoral program has been nothing short of absolutely the worst time of my life. However, I am proud of my growth, and I was recently able to share my confidence journey with my seminars. I opened up to my students about how I always feel nervous when I teach, making my voice shake or my mind going blank, prompting me to say “umm” too much. Nevertheless, if I am not confident in myself, those around me would not believe in me. I explained that we have to fake it until we made it, but better yet, we have to genuinely believe in our capabilities. I shared that when I feel self-conscious, I look myself in the mirror and say, 

I am a good person, student, and educator 

I have genuine heartfelt intentions 

I am good at what I do 

 I am beautiful

At first, I thought it was silly, but if I didn’t sincerely believe that about myself, why would anyone else? Like everyone, I still struggle with my insecurities, especially my constant frustrations of my ADHD and learning disabilities, but it is a journey that will last a lifetime.

In summary, I am proud of being a kick-ass Ph.D. student who pulled off a 4.0 (for the first time ever!) after the first semester. I am fulfilled by my sincere research intentions that will hopefully contribute to more equitable and holistic educational opportunities for underserved student populations. I am sometimes sassy and can have an attitude, yet my heart could explode with the love and care I have for students’ well-being. I have ADHD, learning disabilities, and a brain that sometimes takes an extra second to catch up, and I am learning daily how to love myself through that. I am a first-generation Latina, who descends from White Italian-Brazilian, Afro-Dominican, and Taíno roots and I always believed a Ph.D. was only for intelligent people, people unlike me. I have internalized traumas that at times make me want to cuss someone out for their oppressive measures, while kindly reminding myself that my reflexes are also a strength, giving myself the gift to stay firm in my beliefs and not care what others think.

I refuse to let those who cross my path believe people like me are not intellectual or capable of doing this work. Academia needs more non-White normalcies, more creativity beyond traditional ways, and encouragement to think outside oppressive boxes embedded in Whiteness. We deserve this seat at the table, and we are coming for it, and one day soon, those who said I couldn’t will be calling me Dr. Lara Bertholdo Jimenez. 

Lara Bertholdo Jimenez

Lara is a first-year graduate student at Texas A&M University and will be transferring into their Curriculum and Instruction Ph.D. program in Fall ‘21. She is passionate about addressing systematic racism in education, especially within the transitions between high school and higher education. Lara’s research also focuses on the racism and disparities against Black and Brown athletes within college athletics. In her free time, Lara enjoys traveling, trying new foods, listening to R&B, and collecting sneakers.