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  • Writer's pictureTiffany J Chen

My Untold Story

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

My eyes popped open early in the morning, glancing at my phone. To my dismay, the alarm has not even gone off yet. It’s 6:00 a.m., and my body is fully awake, but deep down inside, I know it’s the exact opposite. This isn’t me -- this is the body of someone fighting a war.

I cannot remember when it started, but I remember every bit of that feeling. I wake up, put on make-up, and get ready to go to school. Waking up early has its perks, I have thirty minutes before I need to leave, which usually gives me ample time to take care of my morning grooming routine. I stare at myself in the mirror. Tears welled for no reason, and I just stand crying. I’m miserable, I want out; I want this all to end... but no one seems to hear me. Do they even want to?

Ten minutes before I need to leave the house, I pull myself together, reapply my smeared make-up, and trudged make my way to the door. I know I must leave; I just have no gumption or desire and dread the day.

This has now become a routine -- waking up, dreading the day, crying my eyes out, praying for God knows what, and then finally leaving the house. I feel trapped inside myself with no way out. How did this all start?

Year 1: Realizing Different is Not Good

Year 1 marked the start of my journey, which including finding an apartment in New York, figuring out where all of my classes would occur, how to get there, meeting new people, and adjusting to my new life in a new city by myself. There wasn’t anyone I could turn to, which if you’re a stranger in a big city is overwhelming.

It was during orientation for my classes. I walked into the lecture hall, hoping to find some sense of familiarity, someone who might look just like me. I saw no one, but I kept my hopes up. Each time a new student entered, my hopes raised, then quickly vanished. As orientation continued, the professor pulled up a PowerPoint slide with the map of the United States. On the map were several dots on each state. Next to the map of the US was one, single dot on Taiwan. That was when I had my first realization -- I am going on a journey where no one might understand. I’m the only person who carries a different story among everyone else in the room. Instead of embracing my identity, I felt excluded and more isolated than ever before. Recognizing one’s identity and embracing it can be exhausting with complications to follow if you’re not ready.

I finally made it through my first semester in graduate school and just as I thought I could eventually catch my breath, I logged onto the course selection system and realized there was a restriction on my status as a student. After emailing my advisor, she later informed me my grades were not satisfactory. Simply great; I no more needed to learn that than if I were told I didn’t pay my tuition. Walking into my course advisor’s office felt as if I was walking into a courtroom and receiving a life-changing sentence. Instead of giving me suggestions and advice on how to navigate graduate school better, I was faced with discouraging statements, “Getting a high TOEFL score does not mean your English is good enough, can you read and in English?”

“You have an accent; we need to start accent reduction therapy so you can work with young children.”

“You should go see an academic advisor and ask them what to do about your grades.”

It was like failure was being drilled into me by these words, which brought on pain, self-doubt, anxiety, and many other feelings. The worst feeling of all was thinking that there was something wrong with me. I was the problem.

Year 2: The Start with No End

The start of year two was relatively smooth. I learned to lean on my friends for support. I needed their insights to make sure I understood any underlying cultural implications brought up in lectures. I began to intensely observe each professor’s habits and carefully calculate my grades so I could slide beneath the radar and make it through. These days did not last for long.

As I began my clinical experience, the challenges, anxiety, and stress heightened to new levels.

In my second year, I began to transition from coursework to varying levels of clinical practice. In my third practicum sequence, I started working in the university clinic, taking on a caseload combining pediatrics and geriatrics with varying degrees of communication difficulties. I had three to four different supervisors, each with different expectations, writing styles, and understanding of cultural differences.

My supervisors had the audacity to say, “Your voice is flat and not excited enough when you work with a child. Is it because you speak Mandarin? Can you say something in Mandarin for me?”

Another flatly stated that my intonation, my prosody, and how I culturally interacted with children were targeted as areas of weakness. It was as though how I spoke English and what I looked like dictated whether I ended up as a success or as a failure. Each week I kept trying, and each week, I was approached with the feedback, “Keep trying; it’s not good enough.”

Nobody told me the constructive criticism I needed, I only kept hearing that I wasn’t good enough. I needed more to rise from this dark abyss and acquire answers. Where should I start? What I could try? Was I working toward their expectations? Still, I was not prepared for what was going to happen next, answers or not.

I remember it clearly, anxious as I was, that the end of my nightmares was about to arrive with the last class of Practicum 3, finally. We started celebrating with drinks and snacks to relieve our stressful journey. Finally, academic torture was about to end and at least I believed my hard work would pay off. It didn’t.

After the class celebration ended, I was called into the office. In this program, if you are ever asked to go to someone’s office, and the door is closed, nothing good ever comes out of it. That is what I learned in these three years.

I was immediately told that my progress was insufficient, with no further explanation provided. They told me my next step was to repeat the process and practice the same clinical sequence again. I was horror-struck and mortified. We were one week away from ending the term, and I had interviewed and believed I would be moving on to the off-campus practicum. I later received an email from the Student Progress Committee formed by people I have never spoken to or interacted with during my clinical practice. The decision to repeat Practicum 3 was final and that they wished me good luck.

A good luck wish wasn’t what I needed. I wanted answers. Ever since I was told I was not good enough, I desperately wanted to know why, and kept searching for answers. I attempted to meet the supervisors that claimed my insufficient progress. I wrote emails after emails to the people from the Student Progress Committee, asking for an explanation and an open discussion. Their response was to state that they were away for summer vacation. I felt defeated. I wanted to stand up for myself, and I wanted to know what I could do to make things different. No one would tell me. Did they have answers? Were the answers withheld from me?

I gave up and accepted my fate. Maybe I really was not good enough. Within two weeks, the next semester began. I started the process by repeating Practicum 3. Instead of trusting I was going to become better this time, I was met with skepticism and more doubt.

Some of my supervisors approved of my writing, commenting the content was clear and complete, with minor suggestions on grammar and punctuation. While other supervisors had a completely different view, questioning how I had made it this far in my studies, stating they have never seen such poor writing in an SLP student before. Every day of the week, I spent hours making sure my reports were clear, concise, and good enough according to each supervisor’s standards. I read, rewrote, and read my reports repeatedly. I asked my cohort and peers to check my work, but nothing was good enough. Have you asked your classmates to help you and review your work? Have you been reading and proofreading your work before you submit? The answers are yes and yes, but it didn’t matter. Those supervisors did not hear what I had to say.

It didn’t end there. It got worse, and this was just the second week of the repeated clinical sequence.

“The student is required to go to the Moses Center to seek resources for learning disability,” read the email I received from the Student Progress Committee. “If the student continues to fail to meet expectations, then a semester leave is required.”

I was shocked and mortified. An interaction of fewer than ten minutes with a new supervisor was what led to this email. I waited outside the supervisor’s door, hoping to clarify and rectify the situation, but received no response. I wrote back to the Student Progress Committee asking for a meeting, but they determined this decision was the best course of action and that it was already well-supported by the faculty.

I approached the academic support department of the school. I wanted mediation and support that were not received within my program. Instead of empathy or support, I was told again, “You aren’t trying enough.”

“Did you ask to speak to your supervisor? Did you email your supervisor to schedule a meeting? Did you wait outside your supervisor’s door? Do all those and then speak to me again...

“…Yes, yes, and yes.” I did all of those things, and I did not get the support I had hoped to receive. The academic support representative did not listen yet again and insisted I keep trying.

This was not the end of my struggle; it became worse.

In my next meetings with the program supervisor, this is what I was told, “You’re trying… but you just aren’t good enough.”

“You need to do testing for learning disability.”

“Maybe you need to start thinking about changing careers.”

“Have you considered taking leave or transferring?”

My struggles became more and more difficult. Every day, I would wake up early before my alarm went off and dread what would happen that day. Every day I wondered if this was going to be the end of my path at CSD. I cried, I prayed for someone to help me, I wished and wished that someone could put an end to this, and I openly struggled not receiving any help or support.

I started going to the school mental health counselor, looking for an empathetic listener. I was again told that I was “overthinking” and I needed to look at the facts rationally, and just try harder.

Nothing worked, nobody helped, no one heard me! I felt hopeless and lost with no help or relief in sight. Now what?

The Pits, the Abyss, Simply no Way to go from Here but Downhill

October 24th, 2016. 3:45 a.m. A time I will never forget.

I heard screaming and yelling in my apartment. “Emergency, 911!” yelled the voice over and over again.

Half-awake at this point, I bolted upward. Who would go out drinking and come home drunk on a Wednesday night or Thursday early dawn? I wanted to roll back to sleep, but I couldn’t. The yelling and footsteps up and down the stairs continued. Within seconds, I heard more yelling. “Your building is on fire; you need to get out now!”

Those words sent adrenaline throughout my otherwise tired body. I opened my door to check on my roommate, who also came out of her room. As we turned on the lights, we saw smoke wafting into our apartment from our unit door. It was real. Our apartment building was on fire.

My roommate and I quickly grabbed a few things. What does one grab and bring with them in an emergency? Well, of all the belongings I had, the first things I retrieved were the bag of therapy materials and a clean set of clothes that I had planned to use for my clinic practice the next day. Not my ID and certainly not my prized possessions.

Within minutes, soot seeped into the rooms. My roommate couldn’t leave through our front door; the black smoke engulfed the stairway and obstructed our view. We tried the back door, but no luck either. Smoke had made its way throughout the hallways. The only way out was through the fire escape.

Right after most of the tenants followed us down the fire escape, we saw flames billowing out of the windows. The roof was ablaze. We had to accept the reality that our apartment building was completely destroyed with no way back in. I was homeless.

It was later that day in the news where I found out that one neighbor who lived one floor up from my unit had passed away in that fire.

What happened next? My roommate and I were lucky enough to have a friend in the area, who picked up their phone at 4:30 a.m. and graciously took us in. Once it was bright enough outside, I trudged outdoors, not searching for housing options, not looking for help, but to the CSD department building. I could not bear to risk a day without fulfilling my clinical practice and lose my career.

My fight and flight instincts finally calmed down when I reached the department building, but then reality kicked in. I had escaped a terrifying, life-threatening situation, with no computer, no place to live, no clothes, and no ID to apply for another apartment. As I attempted to explain to staff and people why I looked disheveled, that I cannot turn in my work in time, and to please not expel me at this time, I broke down in tears. I remember walking into the office, where I was guided to seek emotional counseling and global services, which helped me expedite a request to re-issue my ID.

I remember walking miles and miles that day back and forth to apply for a new passport. Back to the department office so I could personally explain to every supervisor that I was trying, I had no home now, and if I could, I would be on my knees begging for them not to expel me if I could not turn in my assignments.

To this day, I still believe that this fire, although life-threatening, finally made people hear me and empathize with me. My supervisors communicated with me more delicately and ultimately supported me. I did not overcome my struggles because of my face, culture, and differences were finally acknowledged. I overcame this struggle because I was part of a disastrous event, and my efforts to continue school were bound to be recognized.

I finally passed my practicum while rebuilding my life. My life has never been the same again. Part of me died, not in the fire, but within the experience, I had in my practicum.

Year 2.5 Here We Go Again

“You are trying hard, but that’s not enough anymore... you just need more time.”

I had finally reached the last leg of my journey. In July 2017, I walked on stage to receive my diploma as I was in the process of completing my final practicum. If everything went smoothly, I would finish my last semester in the summer with a job offer lined up.

My last practicum was in a short-term nursing facility with mainly English-Italian patients. Again, almost no Asians or no diversity in ethnics and culture in this facility. My supervisor was a recently licensed therapist, and it was also her first time taking on a student clinician under her. Although I was intimidated by the predominantly white population in my setting, I was hopeful that maybe things would differ from my previous experiences.

Things never turn out the way you think they would. They never do.

On the surface, I had a cordial relationship with my supervisor. She shared bits and pieces about her experience and her enthusiasm for the job. I would nod and echo my agreement. As the weeks went on, things started to go awry.

I struggled to figure out what my supervisor expected me to achieve. Although my supervisor would give me pieces of information and suggestions, I tried my best to follow her instructions. However, it seemed that whenever I wanted to check in or ask questions, she was always busy working on other matters.

The first warning sign was midway during the summer practicum. It felt like pulling an arm and a leg to schedule a meeting with my supervisor, but after many postponed meetings, we met in a Starbucks on a rushed Saturday afternoon and sat down together to review my mid-term grade. After weeks of back and forth, guessing, trying, and getting mixed messages, my mid-term grade came back at best, borderline. I was confused, I kept getting verbal affirmations that I was doing okay, and I would pass eventually. How did this happen?

I explained what each score and rating meant to my supervisor, and she said her observations were final. This borderline put me on the radar again with my graduate program, and I was questioned once more whether I had it in me to become a speech-language pathologist.

The next few weeks were the beginning of my next nightmare. Every week I would ask for a meeting and focus my attention on looking at how I had progressed and what was expected next for me. Every week my supervisor told me to look at her notes, agree to meet, and then push back my request to discuss my progress. I then resorted to trying out everything by myself, asking my roommate for help and advice. But this was not enough, either. I could feel my demise coming quicker than I wanted.

I started going to work extra days, hoping this would serve as a convincing opportunity for my supervisor to evaluate my work. I stayed extra hours to prepare, check my work, and plan for upcoming sessions, but that backfired as well. These efforts were seen as inefficient and a burden by the supervisor.

I then started bringing work home. I would wake up at 8:00 a.m. and get to work by 10:00 a.m. My work ended at 6:30 p.m. I would go home and spend the rest of the night tackling my paperwork for the next day.

It was frustrating. I wanted clear answers. Would I fail or would I pass? How am I progressing according to your expectations, and what do you want to see more? All I received was that I needed more time to improve. Have you given me time? The time I needed for you to sit down and talk me through what went well and how I could improve.

Sadly, the semester was over by the time I had finally understood what my supervisor meant by becoming a “confident,” “opinionated,” and “independent” clinician. It was time for the final grade meeting, and I had once more failed to meet expectations for not demonstrating the aforementioned skills consistently. In my supervisor’s perspective, she wanted me not to ask her questions and problem-solve as if I were a working professional. She wanted me to lead and make decisions. However, from my perspective, I saw that as stepping on her toes and putting her license on the line if I did not consult with her before making my decisions.

My supervisor wanted me to voice my opinions more; however, she thought I did not receive feedback well. This confused me. How could I bring up discussions and show that I am receptive to her suggestions? Many things were mentioned as areas of improvement, such as being respectful, receptive to suggestions, and asking for help, were all listed as strengths by previous supervisors, but why was this supervisor so different?

My supervisor’s final grade landed me in the Progress Committee’s Office again in graduate school. The decision once more was for me to repeat the process and the practicum which would postpone my graduation date and potentially lose my job offer. This time, I decided to fight back. I had nothing left to lose. I wrote to the dean, the Progress Committee, and the chair of the program. I showed them the evidence and scores from previous semesters. I presented them with proof that I did everything I could. The Progress Committee finally agreed to see me. However, they denied all evidence and again stated that the best decision would be for me to repeat the practicum course. I fought back, and I did not accept no for an answer. After many letters and more collecting of evidence, I finally received a response on September 15th, 2017, that I had been approved to pass the course and graduate with my master’s degree.

This letter finally released me from my three years’ worth of living hell. This was the type of freedom that I have never tasted before. All the chains that tied me down from being understood, being who I was, being seen, and being heard, had finally been released. And now, three years after this living hell ended, I’m finally standing up for myself by sharing my story with you.

For anyone who is reading this, you are not alone. I am here, and I stand with you. Systematic racism and White privilege are real. Together we can unite and make a change.

While it is true that I was not fully supported in my story, I want to acknowledge my only support -- my two friends and roommate who at that time embraced me, validated me, cried with me, and shared my pain along this journey. Without them, there is no me. It is difficult to say whether, without them, I would still be here, breathing, and alive to this day.

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