© 2017 by Cierra Kaler-Jones

What I Wish I Knew About Grad School

March 9, 2016

 

As I’ve been contemplating topics to write on that are real, I’ve realized that for a lot of what I’m experiencing, there’s a common thread of “what I wish I knew about (insert here).” As a 20-something, I’m still learning, still adjusting, still thriving, striving, and simply trying to survive. There’s a lot of uncertainty and instability that comes with being at this pivotal point in life, where many times I feel like I’m a ‘fake’ adult.

I live on my own, provide for myself, and am financially stable to go about the day-to-day, but I still don’t have the added pressures of a responsibility to others or financial obligations. Every morning I wake up, play dress up, and pretend I’m an adult, like I used to do when I was a little girl, except now I actually fit into the clothes and don’t smear lipstick all over my face. I still have a lot of unanswered questions stuffed into the pocket of my dress pants, only to have the answers revealed through lived experience and personal truth.

 

With almost one academic year of graduate school under my belt, I’m still asking myself unanticipated questions.

 

This is the first in a series of ‘What I Wish I Knew…’

 

I would be lonely

 

I packed up my apartment and drove down to Virginia in my cramped four-door only hours after I walked across the stage at graduation to start a new internship the next morning. Essentially, I was running. Some people cling to what’s familiar, but not me. I was ready for something novel, something exhilarating, out-of-the-ordinary, in search of figuring out who I was supposed to be. I thought moving to a new city that I’ve only dreamed about would be the answer to all the questions I crafted about my self-identity. I anticipated making new friends, frolicking through the city; I thought the world was mine. 

 

Little did I know that grad school can be very lonely. With my weekdays dictated by 9-5 work and back-to-back meetings and my weeknights consumed with class, there is little time to breathe, let alone frolick around the city. My weekends are spent in the books, delving into readings, writing papers, cleaning up the messes I made while rushing throughout the week, grocery shopping, laundry, errands, and pursuing my passion projects. My planner specifies my movement by the hour, making sure to get in just enough time to complete tasks and deliverables before I walk into the office Monday morning.

 

Everyone in grad school is settled in their lives, especially in my program where many are already teachers in the field coming back to school to climb the administrative latter. I came in with the same mentality as undergrad, where everyone is coming in looking to make life-long friendships and get involved in as many organizations as possible. In grad school, the organizations available are centered around your area of study, and I’ve strayed from those simply because I don’t want my day to begin and end with just my work.

 

Admittedly, it’s even difficult to maintain previous relationships, as some have moved on to careers, some are still in college, and others simply do not understand the complexities of balancing classwork with work responsibilities. I don’t put myself in positions to make as many friends as before because this time has forced me to look intrinsically and figure out what I really enjoy doing, not just what I think I’m supposed to enjoy doing. I wish I knew that loneliness can sometimes yield fruitful opportunities for personal exploration and cause you to find enjoyment in the little things. This time has compelled me to redefine who I truly am, rather than continue to play the role others project on me.  

 

My body would change

 

I swear that once I walked across that stage and was handed my diploma, my body changed. I really thought I would be livin’ it up in DC, but honestly, my bed calls me. My RAs know that I strive to be in bed by 10:00pm, and that each night I force myself to stop working at midnight, even if that means I have to wake up earlier to refresh and finish any last-minute tasks. My body grows wary without enough sleep and I can no longer rely on numerous cups of coffee to keep me alert and on task throughout the day. I don’t even think about pulling all-nighters because my body will shut down on me without warning.

 

I wish I knew that sleep is important. I wish I knew that water and hydration were keys to keeping your body functioning at its potential. I wish I knew that self-care was of the utmost importance, especially in a position where you’re constantly being asked to interact with and give your energy to others. I wish I knew that sometimes you have to respectfully say ‘no’ to additional projects because you cannot pour from an empty cup. Also, I wish I knew that a few glasses of wine could be equivalent to a wild night.

I wouldn’t be writing a lot, but I’d sure be talking a lot

 

Grad school is based off participation, group projects, and papers.  I was under the assumption that I would be writing endless papers, but that hasn’t been the case. I have a stack of books to process and take in to be able to properly articulate myself while connecting readings to current events and lived experience. In a class of six students, you cannot hide. Even if you’re not confident in your answers, you have to speak up in order to succeed. You have to be willing to coordinate tight work schedules with classmates to ensure group projects magically come together before the due date.

 

I wish I knew that insecurities are loud and confidence is quiet.As I sit amongst others who have much more experience than me, I have had to break out of my shell and become more outspoken and have the courage to recognize that my voice is valuable, too. It’s different where in undergrad almost all students are of the same age, but in grad school, people are coming in from all walks of life. I wish I knew that it’s up to me to validate myself daily and affirm what I bring to the table. 

 

I would question my decision on a daily basis

 

I remember sitting down with family members during winter break over dinner, as the words pierced through my heart. “So are you ever going to get a job? Or are you just going to be a ‘professional student’?” I remember gushing to others about plans to attend law school after earning my master’s, in hopes of using my developed background and experience in education to make real, tangible differences in policy. “Don’t you want to start your life? Don’t you want to start your career?” These jabs usually come with nervous giggles, as if they’re trying to make a joke out of my decision to go to grad school. I’m sure that I’m not the only one in grad school who has been discouraged by those in their circle.

 

Trust me, as I’m struggling to meet the page count on more papers and highlighting textbooks to prepare for class on shuttle and metro rides, there are many times I become discouraged and ask myself if this work will truly be worth it. While others around me are makingmoney for their laborious days, I am paying to have these strenuous days. While other friends are making plans, I’m confined to the books, with little time for excursions. A part of this is knowing myself and knowing my own priorities, so when pockets of opportunity for me to unwind present themselves, I take advantage(usually this means sleep).

 

I sometimes find myself looking at successful people without master’s degrees, wondering if it’s absolutely necessary for me, only to be reminded of why I’m here as I sit in class and my perspective changes on a topic I once knew relatively little about. The light is far ahead and I can’t see it yet, but I’m walking by faith knowing that one day I will be completely equipped to make the change I strive to see in the world. Each day I get to stretch my knowledge base. There are no limits to the amount of knowledge you can chase. It excites me knowing that there is always something new to learn and ways to challenge myself. Education is the one thing that no one can ever take from you. I may not be rich in terms of monetary value, but I am sure rich in the knowledge I have to offer.

 

Keep pushing. 

 

 

 

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