Truths to Be Told: The Path to Graduate School

Terri E. Givens describes her advancement through high school and college -- and how Ph.D. programs should value students from unconventional backgrounds who take on more than expected.

May 17, 2017

Preface: In case you missed my first post, this is a series of articles detailing the ups and downs of my academic career. I write this in the hope that others may benefit from my experiences. I have been gratified by the response that I have gotten thus far via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and email, so please feel free to contact me.

I also write this series in memory of my friend Mark Sawyer, another colleague, Will Moore, and all those who have had any kind of struggle in their career. We all have had our challenges, and it’s time that we started to open up about them. As I told a friend the other day, it is important to show our weakness at times. It makes it easier to reach out for help when we need it.*

People regularly ask me why I study Europe, and I have addressed this issue in a previous column. However, the question deserves a deeper look. I am the youngest of seven children, and my father was in the air force when I was born. Two of my sisters were born when the family was based in England in the 1950s. I often heard the stories of the trips my parents took to France, Germany and Italy, and I loved to look at the photos my father took of their travels. I was born in Spokane, Wash., and the only place we moved to during my childhood was Michigan for a two-year stint on the Upper Peninsula. I often dreamed of visiting Europe. When I had the opportunity to take a foreign language in junior high, I chose French because my mother was from Louisiana. I continued French into high school, learning more about French culture along the way.

In high school, I was a star athlete in track and field, as well as a straight-A student, but being a first-generation college-goer, I wasn’t clear on the whole admissions process. After I scored well on the PSAT and the college brochures began to arrive, I tossed them into a laundry basket, glancing at them only occasionally. When the track coach at Stanford University called, I was thrilled. Although I was more interested in school than track, I figured I couldn’t lose at a place like Stanford. A friend who was a year ahead of me had gone there and loved it. I remember looking through the catalog and reading about the different majors. I knew I had to major in international relations when I saw that study abroad was required. This would be my chance to go to France!

Despite support from my high school counselors, I didn’t really feel like I had many options for college. I couldn’t afford the application fees, and I was still hoping to run track. In the end, I only applied to Stanford and the University of Oregon. Luckily, I got into Stanford. This was 1983, and even though I was “recruited,” I didn’t get a track scholarship -- it was the early years of Title IX, after all. That was probably a blessing in disguise, as I didn’t feel obligated to continue running when I decided to quit the team after two years. I had lots of injuries, many of which I still deal with today.

I faced many challenges at Stanford, from dealing with a byzantine financial aid system that left me constantly in arrears to navigating the choppy waters of a racial hierarchy that I had difficulty understanding. However, it was at Stanford that I began to develop my networking ability. My financial issues required me to work several jobs at the same time, including one in the Center for International Security and Arms Control. It was there that I took courses and worked with luminaries like renowned physicist Sid Drell, future U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and her friend, my adviser Chip Blacker -- all big names in security studies. In the case of Rice, although our politics weren’t the same, I learned that it was possible to be a successful black woman in international politics and to break stereotypes in a white-male-dominated field.

I also developed an understanding of the importance of connecting with people in your field of study who could provide connections later on and open doors. That lesson would prove to be crucial as I made my way through the many challenges of graduate school, years later.

When I went to France at last in 1986 during my junior year (yet another reason to quit track after my sophomore year), it was with a bit of trepidation. It was the year that the far-right French National Front hit the headlines with their first electoral success. I expressed my interest in race and immigration politics in France and met with some families and students there to talk about the issues. The stage was set for my future research in Europe.

Despite my love of Europe, I wasn’t certain that grad school or a Ph.D. was for me. After four arduous years at Stanford, I was ready for a break. I felt burned out on school, and I wasn’t sure that a life in academe was what I really wanted. I decided not to apply to graduate school right away and instead went into the job market, focusing on the nonprofit sector. It would be five years before I would make the decision to apply to graduate school -- and this time, my choices would be constrained by love. (More on that in the next essay.)

At times during my undergraduate years, I worked as much as 30 hours a week, or worked out on the track many hours, while taking a full course load. Yet I managed to finish and graduate in four years. I didn’t generally give myself credit for it, but that level of activity probably prepared me for life in graduate school. Although I didn’t have the highest grades or GRE scores going in, I ended up being one of the more successful graduate students in my cohort when I did move on to the University of California, Los Angeles. It’s those types of narratives -- of students from unconventional backgrounds who take on more and work harder than expected -- that should play a greater role when assessing who might be successful in graduate school. I have learned that lesson not only from my own experience but from the students I have mentored along the way.

Next: Entering graduate school.

*The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


Terri E. Givens is provost and dean of the arts and sciences at Menlo College.


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