October 23, 2023

How I Became a Professor: My Parents’ Gifts for Pursuing the Impossible Dream

Stacy Torres author photoBy Stacy Torres

 The good things of prosperity are to be wished; but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired.

                                                                                                 –Seneca, Letters to Lucilius (28 CE)

Whenever I think about the winding path that led to my current position as a sociology professor, I can’t help but hear the lyrics of the iconic Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime.” How did I get here?

How do any of us become who we are? As a sociologist who studies aging and the life course, the myriad influences that shape us on our life’s journey fascinate me.

I’m the first in my family to go to college and the only of my three sisters to earn a degree. I almost didn’t get there. Like many from the working-class, my road was studded with obstacles. Through a combination of persistence, luck, support, and other mysteries, I stayed on track. Barely. 

Mentors from elementary school teachers to college professors have provided crucial guidance. Given the growing lack of socioeconomic diversity in higher education, I’ve had a relatively straightforward time identifying their influence on my intellectual development. Understanding my parents’ contributions, beyond a vague and obligatory appreciation, took longer to understand.

With both of my parents now deceased, I’ve reflected more on their investment in me, despite their limited finances and educational opportunities. Only my mother completed high school. From the perspective of midlife, like a hiker pausing during a strenuous climb to survey the heights scaled, I see with greater clarity how I draw on my parents’ gifts in my work.

They never pressured me about academics, but they did foster my curiosity, interests, and growth. Mom said I was already too hard on myself. A kindergarten teacher I bumped into in my 20s described me as a “thorough little girl.”

My family didn’t have money, but we had other wealth. Growing up in 1980s New York City provided fertile soil for our imaginations. Mom sought out free and inexpensive things for us to enjoy, such as parks, beaches, libraries, pay-what-you-wish museums including the Museum of Natural History, and lunchtime concerts on the World Trade Center plaza. Musicians performing on street corners and subway platforms gave us daily mini-concerts. Weird and wonderful, sometimes slightly menacing, street scenes offered ample people watching and exposure to a wider world.

Mom navigated the dizzying maze of New York City public education, enrolling me in a progressive elementary school, P.S. 3, that forever improved my life chances. I attended school with the children of ex-hippies and artists, where I heard about a place called “college” I couldn’t picture but wanted to go to, since everyone else seemed headed there. Movie scouts visited classrooms and plucked the cute and talented kids out for screen tests (spoiler alert: not me). P.S. 3 luminaries included Adam Hann-Byrd, who starred in Jodie Foster’s directorial debut Little Man Tate and later Jumanji. I rode the school bus with the daughter of Andy Warhol superstar Viva, child actor Gaby Hoffman of Uncle Buck and Field of Dreams fame. She scampered home to the storied Chelsea Hotel, while I headed to the affordable housing complex where my family and I lived.

Dad scavenged the trash for books, giving me a guide to plants for a garden I didn’t have, random encyclopedia volumes, and Pablo Neruda’s poetry. His newspaper delivery friend passed on papers that “fell off the truck” for me daily. Theater actor tenants in the building where Dad worked as an elevator operator gave us free tickets to their Broadway shows.  In my thirties, after ending a 13-year relationship, he offered words of support contrary to the family pressure many peers faced: “I don’t want you to get married again or have children. I want you to travel and become a famous writer.” Working on it, Dad. Thank you.

Every day I recognize my parents’ gifts and talents in my work as a sociologist and an ethnographer.  I inherited my secretary mother’s record keeping skills, quirky organizational systems, and jotting tendencies, helping me with the painstaking labor of writing and analyzing fieldnotes. Scattered among baby feeding logs, grocery lists, and monthly bill calculations, she left a Vivian Maier-like treasure trove of personal writing. Stacks of sepia-colored notebooks browned from age contain decades of thoughts about herself and us growing up.

When I was 5 months old, Mom wrote about parenting without money:

I can’t invent a large family and many friends and being rich. I will drive myself crazy trying to get things for Stacy I can’t get. She will have to make the best of her life. I must do my best with what I am, what I have. I just want her to love me and not be ashamed and to have good opportunities for growth. I know now I cannot provide these avenues—good toys, clothes, schools, etc. It is painful. But, I can give her my best love and concern and wherever possible seek good things for her.

She died when I was 16, but I’ve carried her love and concern with me my entire life.

When observing people and places and building relationships with research participants, I draw on Dad’s curiosity and interactional skills. As I write up my findings, straining to render vividly the people who shared their lives with me, I smile at Dad’s storytelling skills and memories of how he entertained us with tales of his building tenants’ antics and colorful personalities.

Sociologist Ilana M. Horwitz advises doctoral students to think of themselves as entrepreneurs of ideas to succeed in graduate studies and beyond. She interviewed me for the book she’s writing on the topic. I’m not sure I consider myself an entrepreneur, but speaking with her helped me recognize how my parents' hustle and enterprising spirit has shaped my career trajectory and persistence.

The example of my parents’ resourcefulness powered me through different challenges during my doctoral studies and inevitable setbacks on the tenure track during the pandemic. Dad piled on side jobs like housecleaning, pet care, and hawking t-shirts in seedy Times Square. After getting laid off from her secretarial job in the early 1990’s recession, Mom babysat, stuffed envelopes, and sold homemade candy and Avon cosmetics.

It’s taken me decades to move from shame to pride in my working-class roots and in the places that made me. With greater distance from those early years, though I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy, self-consciousness, and uncertainty, I’m shifting my focus on my background’s deficits to the bounty my parents’ left me. My father and mother never had the opportunity to fully develop their skills and talents but cultivated my creativity. Their personal deprivation is bittersweet, but I strive to honor their devotion in my work and sharpen the tools I inherited to pursue my career—an impossible dream for far too many.


Beautifully written, I nearly cried reading this probably because it somewhat resonate with me. I wonder why parents are so willing to invest in their children.

The journey is truly admirable. Perseverance is the factor that creates success for you in your current position. Share stories that are truly inspiring.

Thank you for such a wonderful article I liked it very much I was interested in reading it and now I advise everyone to read it!

This is such a cool and interesting article. Would like to read more article similar to this. Thank you! Great break after playing Snake.io

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