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Don’t Hurt Yourself: A Survival Guide for Graduate Students of Color in Their First-Year

New Professionals and Graduate Students
September 12, 2017 Shaunda Brown

The panic started the summer before I started my MA program as one-by-one my cohort members were added to the super exclusive Facebook group.  While many of my peers scoped out their new Facebook friends, I was simply looking for another Black face.

Little did I know; the feeling of panic and anxiety would become familiar and frequent.  Fast-forward to the end of my first year, I was burnt out beyond repair and dragged myself into the summer.  I could finally say that I made it (*barely*) through the hardest year of my life.

Graduate school is survival of the fittest, and this is especially true for students of color.  We are battling with White-dominated institutions for validation, recognition, support and spaces for us to be authentic.

I was motivated to write this piece as I reflected on the vital advice I received and hard lessons I learned during my first year as a masters student.  I hope these tips provide you with the clarity, advice, and validation that you may (or may not) need. 

For students of color entering HESA masters programs everywhere, I offer these eight tips. 

  1. Make Time for Counseling
    While we all can relate to these scenarios, the feelings of emotional distress that stem from graduate school can get overwhelming.  Counseling is the most self-explanatory advice I have for you.  I can openly acknowledge that mental health has been a huge factor, and barrier, in my graduate school journey.  Please, be proactive.  As all the memes about our pain migrate across the Internet, the humor covers a need for real concern about mental health in graduate programs.
  2. You Are Your Strongest Advocate
    Now, this might have been the hardest lesson for me to learn.  Advocate for what you need or deserve inside your class, lab, internship, assistantship, and program.  Do not be afraid to voice your opinions, problems, and concerns.  The worst thing you can do is suffer, or watch, in silence, because if it all falls apart you are partially to blame.
  3. “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk”
    Those five words reminded me that blackness, or other minoritized identities, are not single qualifiers to what makes a community or shared understanding.
  4. “Find Your People”
    Of course, you will not hit it off with every person in your courses or cohort, but you will find one or two with whom you can easily relate.  Making friends in graduate school can help you stay motivated, as well as help you to sustain and reaffirm your goals. You can study together, bounce ideas off each other and add some laughter to the process of graduate school.  A core group of friends will get you through the storms, provide you with lifelong memories, give you advice, and will offer unwavering support.
  5. Learn How to Read Strategically
    If you are reading a book this means you should look over the table of contents, then read the entire introduction carefully.  In academic books, the introduction is where the author(s) states their main points, the framework they will use, and an outline of what information will be covered in each chapter.  This technique was a great way for me to become familiar with suggested readings that I did not have time to thoroughly read.

    As you are reading, you should take notes simultaneously. Otherwise I guarantee you will not remember any details you need to recall in class, in your paper, or in your own research down the road.  Develop a system of your own whether it is sticking a post-it note in the book or jotting something down. Whatever you do, remember that future you will have no idea what present you is thinking, no matter how brilliant a thought it is.

    Tip: If you are reading as preparation for a class, make sure you are write 3-5 questions, observations, or provocations that you can use in class for participation.
  6. Group Reading Will Save You Time
    Group reading saved me so much time, and was a way for me to connect with other students in my class.  Assign one reading per person in the group and take notes on your assigned reading, then come back together and discuss your finding and share notes.

    Tip: When group reading, I still read the abstract or introduction to the text.  This extra step allows me to have an understanding of the text and the context of the group discussion. 
  7. Nourish Your Network
    Do not allow graduate school to disconnect you from the people who motivate you to be the best version of yourself.  Take time weekly to talk or video chat with family or friends.  These moments are able to remind you of why you are pursuing graduate education or, at least, take your mind off the hectic life of graduate school for a while.  In addition, reach out to those mentors!  Do not let those connections dwindle; let them know how you are doing, ask for professional or personal advice, and keep them updated on your progress.
  8. Not Sure? Ask
    There is NO shame in not knowing the answer to everything.  NOBODY knows it all in graduate school, no matter how much people act like they do.  We are on a journey of learning, critical thinking, and development.  Indulge unapologetically in the learning process of graduate school, for yourself and for your academic/professional career.

You will cry (cry, cry, and then cry again), you will doubt yourself, and some syllabi will not reflect the breadth of your brilliance.  On the bright side, you will make and find joy.  Your work, students, research, or involvement will make every moment worth experiencing. 

Never doubt the power of your magic to shine through, even in the hardest situations. 

We can (and will) make it out of our programs.  I am here to remind you, “always stay gracious best revenge is your paper”. 

Do you have thoughts on this blog post? Share them with us on Facebook @NPGSKC, on Twitter @npgs_kc, or on Instagram @npgs_kc! 

Shaunda Brown is currently a second-year graduate student in the College Student Personnel program at Bowling Green State University. Shaunda can be reached on Twitter at @BlkGirlBlues