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  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Biology Section

Tom Silva is a senior lecturer in the Plant Biology Section and chair of the SIPS Diversity and Inclusion Council. The Our Stories series profiles diverse members of the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) community.  Here is Tom’s story:                                            

I was a first-generation college student. My father came to this country from the Azores in the early ‘60s. He was unable to speak English and had a ninth-grade education.  While my mother was always supportive, being raised in a patriarchal culture meant my dad had a large influence on my upbringing. 

I grew up in an unwelcoming community, watching my dad ridiculed and assumed to be ignorant because of his heavy accent. He was even harassed by those in power who assumed he was not worthy of their help. 

I never learned to speak Portuguese (my family’s native language) because my dad didn’t want us to have any kind of accent. That way, we could more easily assimilate into the existing culture around us.  Today, it is part of my cultural identity largely lost because of a need to fit in with those around us.

My dad never understood why I’d want to go to college instead of finding a “real job.” I went ahead anyway.  I worked my way through college at a supermarket to pay for school and commuted from home, because I had a responsibility to help take care of the family.  My choices as a senior earning a botany degree were to either go to graduate school or take a job offer to manage the deli department of my local supermarket.

I could tell many stories (and I do try to share them with students and advisees so they don’t feel out of place) about the anxiety and imposter syndrome I experienced while navigating college and graduate school as a first-gen student with my background.  From feeling out of place in a different community, having been raised in a culture with family obligations a top priority, to a faculty member who would occasionally refer to my “Portuguese fisherman” heritage, implying that I just wasn’t as capable as other graduate students. It was not an easy journey. 

For me, navigating school and then my early years as an RTE (Research-Teaching-Extension) faculty member felt like an act.  I compare it to “putting on a suit.”  It's time to be “Tom the Student” or “Tom the Researcher” or “Tom the Teacher.”  It is exhausting, and there are days that you just don’t feel like putting the suit on and would rather stay in bed.  Gradually, though, I learned that my “acts” were just really part of my personality – part of me and my identity.  Confidence grows and it gets easier.  But even now, after decades in academia, there are still days when I need a break, and that is okay.

tom silva

Years later, I find myself confident in who I am.  I found my life partner in my wife, who overcame quite a struggle herself.  She brought me two stepchildren who are on the autism spectrum, and we have one wonderful little boy together.  

I’ve always known I’m neurodivergent.  My wife is as well.  We’ve dealt with anxiety and depression related to that and my kids’ struggles with life. I’ve watched the older two attempt to navigate school in a small town where spectrum conditions are not well understood. They are adults now, and they have had successes, but it is a battle some days. And as any parent knows, you never stop worrying and wishing you could do more to help. 

As a result of my struggles, I try hard to stress well-being in my classes.  In my 25 years as a teacher here at Cornell, I have had five students take their lives.  It affects me deeply, and my approach to teaching and mentoring in this environment has changed each time.  I care about each student as a whole, not just about what they learn in my class.

My service on the SIPS Diversity and Inclusion Council comes from my history, and it is important to me that individuals in this community thrive – not just “survive” this system, like I did.  With enough effort, my hope is that we can continue to create a more and more welcoming culture here at SIPS for all members of our community.

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