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Gerson Rosales, San Francisco, CA

Born in El Salvador and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Gerson Rosales is driven about getting his history PhD. Research for him is not just about a love of reading and writing, but intensely personal. He grew up hearing stories from his parents and extended family about their life in El Salvador and California, and this motivated him to learn more about the larger historical processes that shaped their experiences. The history of Salvadorans in the San Francisco Bay area is understudied in the historiography on Latinos in the U.S., and so Gerson is focused on writing the history of his own community.

Gerson learned how to “do history” in a formal sense while working toward his undergraduate degree at Diablo Valley College, a community college outside San Francisco, from where he transferred to San Francisco State University (SFSU). To support himself, he worked full time at a warehouse driving a forklift. He slept only a few hours each night, going from work to school to work again, and traveling one hour by train into the city from his home in Pittsburg, CA. For many students, such obstacles would have made study and graduation impossible, but Gerson pushed through because he was passionate about what he was studying.

In his last years at SFSU, Gerson had an advisor who encouraged him to pursue advanced graduate studies. Despite his drive and desire, he questioned whether he should take this huge step. He had other important things to consider, including finances and living far away from his family. As a first-generation college student and an immigrant from a working-class background, a PhD seemed far from possible, even with his professors telling him otherwise.

A year after finishing his BA in History, Gerson began an MA program at SFSU. He had the opportunity to teach while writing his thesis, an experience that made him realize he belonged in academia.

That sense was only reinforced by his work experience after the MA. Gerson got a job with ETS, a company that offers GRE and K-12 testing in California. He worked in their support center and ran the e-mail department for two years. “Working in a cubicle from 9-5 every day finally pushed me to commit to academia,” he says. Doing a job he was not passionate about made him realize that he needed to give his dream a chance, even if that meant certain sacrifices.

Now in his third year in the History PhD program at Michigan, Gerson feels fortunate to have found a group of people in his cohort who made the transition to graduate school much easier. He has colleagues with similar backgrounds and has been able cultivate a community away from home. What he appreciates about being a History PhD student at Michigan is having so much time to just sit and think. Having spent most of his previous student life working long hours, he deeply understands and appreciates the privilege of being able to prioritize intellectual work.

After completing his PhD, Gerson hopes to teach at a community college or state university, the types of schools he came up through. He wants to be a professor like the ones who taught him how to be a historian, the people who connected with him and helped him navigate early in his academic career.