Wow. Can I just take a minute? And say that? WOWWWWWWWWWW. A lot has happened this year.
First year of graduate school, check.
I am well on my way to earning my Master of Social Work degree. I’ve already started looking at the most effective ways I can prep for the ASWB exam. It’s 170 questions, 4 hours and really intense. It’s passing percentage is about 79%. Kinda freaking out. But I’m only one year in to my program…so I need to cool it.
Anyway — This year has been the LEARNING CURVE year. I don’t really know exactly what that means, except that I needed this year to really get the swing of things. I realized just how important having a foundation in whatever you are learning is.
I am a first generation college graduate who has no immediate family to turn to. I don’t have the ability to ask — mom — dad — “how do I navigate graduate school?” I didn’t have that for my undergrad and it was by far one of the most anxiety provoking parts of my education thus far. I could have prevented some sleeplessness nights, several failed classes, and a couple of food poisoning incidences, with some much wanted and solicited advice. Alas, I didn’t have that luxury. So it feels like I’m navigating the system alone on TOP of my education. However, I have received help from higher education programs and resources here and there. But come on! It’s not the same as having that support system already integrated into my family. If you’re first gen, you understand. You get it. It’s wild. It’s exciting. But it’s pretty panic inducing. I already have a hard enough time asking for help from my family, let alone others.
So I’ve made it this far. But it has NOT been a walk in the park. Nothing worth having ever is. So I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned about my first year of graduate school as a first generation college student. Take it as you may.
#1. Don’t do it alone. I think we get to a point in our lives where we finally feel independent. It’s a wonderful feeling. You kinda feel like you’re the shit and you’re invincible. WRONG. No matter how badass you look in your Wonder Woman costume…even Diana had a team behind her. Fortunately, this past year, I have had the incredible experience of having three other students in my cohort. We are extremely TINY, but we are powerful. Together, we have supported each other through this experience. We have been courageous and vulnerable. We have disclosed some pretty personal parts of our lives to one another. We are like family now. So whatever your support system is…find it…lock it down…and brace yourself. Because challenges are coming. And you will need them.
#2. You are not more just because you earned your education. This is a hard one to learn. I used to think that just because I have a college degree…that I am now somehow more. More educated. More powerful. More driven. More prepared. More happy. More satisfied. More ready. Gosh, this lesson really makes you realize your biases. Most of the people in my life…are either first generation, like myself…or have never attended or completed college. This does NOT mean I am more than them. We all find our happiness, drive, satisfaction, power, education, etc. in our own ways. That does not always mean via post secondary education. I am not more. I am not better. This does not mean I don’t want to do better. But not in comparison to others. In comparison to my past self. I am climbing a ladder that I try not to stack up next to other’s. I am focused on climbing high enough that I can see my own beautiful, captivating and exhilarating view, and help others see their own beautiful, captivating, exhilarating view. Whatever that might be. However high. However meaningful. I’ll likely need to be reminded of this later…but hey…I’m only human. I’ve been socialized to believe people with a degree somehow hold the keys. This simply is not true.
#3. Get involved. This is still relevant to graduate students. Undergraduates have a reputation of joining all the clubs, sororities, fraternities and attending all the events, parties, etc. But, grad students are fun too! Haha! We are building our resumes, too. This is also a great way to build that support system I was talking about.
#4. Traditionalism is overrated. Whoever said you could only go to college if you’re young, eager, and able…was NOT the 90 year old man who just graduated with his bachelor’s degree at my University this year! If you are not a “traditional” student, then more power to ya! EDUCATION IS FOR EVERYONE. At least…is should be. That’s another political story I won’t get too much into…but…college is full of all kinds of people. Most of my classmates have children, spouses, and even grandchildren! And I’ve learned more from them than some of my classes. Embrace untraditional settings. They will impact you in ways that are unexpectedly beneficial.
#5. Participate in research. First of all…you learn something. Duh. Second…you can collaborate with others in an intellectually inspiring way. Do the hard work. It pays off. Plus, you will be more prepared to speak in front of people, gain confidence about your work, and + your work to the resume.
#6. You are not going to like everyone. This is a valuable lesson to learn. It’s applicable in general. The sooner we learn this…the sooner we will stop trying to please others. It’s so time consuming and energy draining. It’s okay to vent about it. I get it. It sucks when we don’t get along with everyone or mesh with them…but once you get those stressors out…move forward to more productive relationships. You are not going to like all of your professors. You won’t agree with all of your supervisor’s methods. You certainly won’t like those annoying classmates who consistently whisper in every class while your professor lectures. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. Haha. It’s impossible to like everyone and have everyone like you back. You may choose to be more obvious about your dislike than others…and that’s your prerogative. But I realized that being respectful toward people, but NOT FAKE, despite your dislike-ness…is going to get you more places than being petty.
#7. You deserve to be here. If you’ve ever experienced that feeling where you doubt your accomplishments and wonder if you are actually a fraud…it’s okay. It’s a thing. I promise. It’s called “Imposter Syndrome” and it’s a psychological mindfuck. Excuse my not so eloquent word usage… but come on! YOU DESERVE TO BE HERE. You’ve worked your ass off. It’s not as easy as saying “Quit it, bitch. You did this. You’re not a fraud” but I found saying it out loud in the mirror sometimes helps. Also, slapping yourself on the face has been semi-successful. Haha. If you continue to have thoughts like this that persist throughout your education then my next thought might be for you.
#8. It’s okay to ask for help. Wanna know a secret? EVERYONE gets stressed. It’s perfectly normal. If you don’t get stressed…than I would worry. It’s the over-the-top, constant, overwhelming, and unwanted stress that is problematic. Regardless of where you stand on the stress monitor…it’s still okay to ask for help. Being a college student, you likely have resources on campus such as: counseling. My university offers free counseling for individuals, couples and groups. It’s amazing. Even if you just need to vent ONE time, or need a weekly appointment to meet with a professional. It’s okay to ask for help.
#9. Don’t get sucked into the drama llama cycle. Family. Friends. They come with some DRAAAAAAAAMMMMMMMAAAAAA. Being there for your family and friends in hard times is different from obsessing over their shit. You have your own shit. Having boundaries is going to save you. This one is the truest for first generation students, because…we have this feeling of obligation to take care of our family and friends…because we are “the educated one” and the one “making the money” and suddenly this responsibility of solving all “their problems” is hitting us like a ton of bricks. And we want to help…so bad! But we cannot help them…if we don’t help ourselves first. DON’T GET SUCKED IN TO THE DRAMA LLAMA CYCLE. You gotta have your back first. And that’s okay. Then…once you have your shit together…which…let’s be honest…in this country/time…you might not ever get it completely together. But hey…we work with what we have right now…so find yourself first.
#10. Higher education is NOT free from problems. We have got to STOP putting post secondary institutions on a pedestal. They are still built by people. People who are imperfect. People with biases. People who have agendas. People who have power. People who have been socialized to believe education is for the elite. For the rich. For the white race. It’s a place that often needs to be challenged and questioned the most. Don’t let your guard down and always remain skeptical. Don’t believe everything your professors says. Just because they have the letters Ph.D. behind their name…does not automatically make them all knowing. This may be an unpopular opinion, but hey…that’s why we deserve to be here! Because our opinions…matter. And the more voices that are underrepresented. Underserved. Misrepresented. Misunderstood. Overlooked. etc. etc. etc. The better off these institutions will be in realizing their biases. I realize my biases everyday. There is always a judgement…a thought…a moment…I have to take a step back and remember. I am human. I have been socialized a certain way. And I have had so many privileges along the way…but I have the power to correct them. Once I know better I can do better.
Thank you for hearing me out. Take it with a grain of salt or a slice of cake. It’s up to you.
Make your education what you want it to be.