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Charlena is currently a PhD student in Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University who plans to begin a their PhD, in a new program, at SOAS, University of London in fall 2018. Follow them on twitter at @cmichelleart or their Facebook.

While the 2017 national average for graduate degrees shows that about 9.3% of the population has a masters degree, 2% a doctoral, and 1.5% a professional, graduate education amongst Black people is lower than their white and Asian counterparts according to a 2016 census on educational attainment. It should be noted that the study may be skewed, as Indigenous people were not accounted for and Hispanic persons, regardless of their race, were included in one category, making it difficult to see the full scope of people of color who earn a graduate degree. Historically, Black people collectively have not had the opportunities continue their education beyond high school, much less earn a graduate or professional degree. The social and cultural capital one learns in academia has not been passed down generationally to first-generation graduate Black students, which can leave students feeling alienated and struggling. As a first generation graduate and PhD student myself, I had little to no experience with critical texts during seminars, a heightened awareness of my Blackness during difficult conversations, and felt like I had left others in my community and family behind. All of which led me to question my being in graduate school. Now that I have earned my Masters degree and am working on my Ph.D., I have learned a few things along the way. What would I tell my younger self and how to prepare for graduate study as first generation Black graduate student?

You Belong

To get into a graduate program is no easy feat; therefore, if you were accepted into a graduate program, you deserve to be there. Imposter syndrome is all too real for students of marginalized backgrounds, particularly when they enter classrooms with one or few others that look like themselves. We often find it hard to overcome that self doubt when it seems other students are more well-versed in a particular subject matter. GradHacker author Stephan J. Aguilar, for example, writes on why we are not imposters and how to push back against the self doubt. Measuring oneself against others is critical to this idea. Aguilar says “Impostors are pretenders focused on maintaining an illusion of belonging in the spaces they invalidly inhabit. That isn’t you.” Others’ accomplishments and intellect do not diminish yours. Your program saw something in your application and selected you - remember that! If you are struggling, turn to your advisors or directors for advice. During a discussion with my program director, she outlined why I was selected and the professors who supported my admission. While this may not be feasible for everyone, remember there is a reason you were selected and your insight will help the program continue to grow. Also, use the areas that you feel that you are lacking in an opportunity to learn and bond with your cohort. You will be surprised how many people in your cohort who might have a blind spots that your unique expertise could fill.

Find Your Tribe

Building community and networking is essential to any graduate student’s toolkit, so finding groups and organizations that can support you is critical. Groups like Graduate Student Associations (GSA) that focus on a particular field or marginalized group identity helped me tremendously to develop professionally and maintain good self-care as I navigated graduate school. My university GSAs regularly hold happy hours, trips to museums and other local venues, and plans events to facilitate meeting other graduate students. Also, don’t forget your cohort! Your cohort can be a great source of help, so reaching out can be a good way to feel comfortable in your program. During my first year of graduate study, my cohort and I had potluck dinners, held study sessions at local coffee shops, and worked together to make our graduate student space comfortable. These bonding activities were helpful to connect with other first generation graduate students and share ideas with one another. You will be amazed at how many people have similar stories to yours! Don’t forget to reach out to mental health services and your diversity office on campus as well. Folks are there to help you and can direct you to the right resources.

Trust Yourself

Be honest about how you feel. It’s okay to not love every day of graduate study - you’re human. Trust how you feel and what’s going on around you. Bullet Journaling can be a great way to help you sort out your feelings in this time of transition and to see a full picture of your day, week, and month.Tracking your progress is one of the many ways to validate your feelings. Suppressing how you feel will only make you angry or sad, so being honest about what is troubling you is important. I used my journaling as a means to track microaggressions I experienced in the classroom. It was a good way for me validate what I knew what happening and if needed, bring to the Dean of Students or diversity office. Documenting my experience has been helpful in connecting with other students and foreseeing changes for my department. While I don’t suggest that historically underrepresented students take on the burden of emotional labor of educating and advocating for changes without privileged folks doing work as well, I do think documenting your experiences can be helpful for your own well-being and that of those who come after you. I have been lucky to encounter people in my program who have listened to my experiences and utilize them to do better and have reached out to me to connect with other students who may be going through similar issues.

Do What You Love

Just because you’ve entered a graduated program, that doesn’t mean you can’t continue to do things that you love. Staying connected to your culture or activism can be helpful in grounding your experience. For many students of color, maintaining these connections is essential to our overall happiness. Taking time to create art and engage with community resistance efforts has not only made my time as a graduate student more fun but has been influential in my research. I have learned so much from others and maintained my passion for community work, something I feared I would lose during my doctoral program. As academics, just like medical doctors, our job is to do little to no harm on the communities we work with. Therefore, taking time to do community work, participate in a cultural event, or make time for your favorite activity can be what you need. Practice and research do not have to happen exclusively. GradHacker author DeWitt Scott tackles the Grad Activist and how we can make time for our studies and doing work outside of the ivory tower. I believe these tips can be incorporated in other ways as well. Being a graduate student is more than just reading and producing, but the ways we connect to society at large. Use your passions and experiences to help you navigate graduate school and stay true to your beliefs.

What are some tips you’d tell yourself, before you began graduate study as a student of an underrepresented background?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user COD Newsroom under the Creative Commons license.]

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