• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


R.I.P. First-Generation Graduate Student

One GradHacker reflects on being the first in her family to earn a graduate degree.

October 22, 2015

Regina Sierra Carter is doctoral candidate in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Read more about Regina here.


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I was on the verge of tears.  My family and friends were on standby for moral support.  I vividly remember flowers, fans, and programs.  It was May and sweltering outside. Everyone was seated beneath a wide-brimmed tent to shelter us from the heat.  I tried to focus on the speaker’s message, but I just couldn’t concentrate.  It was too much.  After the speaker finished, we sat in silence for what seemed like hours.  One name was called and then another.   


I heard my name: Regina Sierra Carter.


Slowly I rose from my metal chair and walked to the front.  I shook hands with the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) Dean.  She handed me my diploma and then we posed for a photo.




In fewer than twenty seconds, I had inherited three special letters to my last name--Ed.M.--just like that.  Well sort of...




When I received my acceptance letter to attend HGSE, I was elated.  I got my praise dance on and bounced around the house.  I read and reread my letter.  I was shocked beyond belief.  So were other folks.   


Some (who will remain nameless) began expressing doubts.


You got into Harvard.  Now…how are you going to get out?

Who is going to pay for that Ivy League education?

So…where do you go to school again?


Even my mother was nervous.  She constantly reminded me, “Baby, it’s okay if you come home.  Do you understand?  Don’t stress yourself out.”  She meant well but it wrecked havoc on my psyche.  My mother—my number one supporter—was worried that I might not make it.  That I might not graduate.    

I cannot begin to describe how abandoned I felt during the first few months of my master’s program at HGSE.  I began doubting my abilities.


Who am I to be at Harvard?

What if I slip up and “accidently” use African American Vernacular English?

What will people think if they knew about my educational background and where I come from?


What if…this?  What if…that?


My whole life was turned into a whole series of “what ifs?”


Would I have been so sensitive if I had not elected to complete my master’s degree at an Ivy League institution?


The answer: yes.


Why did I doubt myself?  I will tell you.  I felt like an anomaly.   In Graduate Study for First Generation Students, Jess Waggoner shares her story of being a first-generation graduate student from the rural South who struggled to fit in and find her place.  Yet she did.  I sought to do the same.


I grew up in rural South Carolina and attended one of the poorest school districts in the state.  My grandmother attended school up until the ninth grade.  My grandfather never learned to read.  My parents finished high school, went to technical college, but they did not receive their associate’s degrees.  Despite this, education was highly valued in my home.  My whole family (especially my mother and grandmother) believed being educated was the key to a better life.  They encouraged me to go to college, but the finances simply weren’t there.  


So when I expressed an interest in going to college, I whispered it at first.  I did not have any money so there was no sense dreaming about a degree.  Plus, I was afraid some dream slayers would hear me and slash my aspirations to smithereens.  Thankfully, I received the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Gates Millennium Scholarship, which enabled me to go to college and graduate school.   


Although I was okay financially (please don’t misunderstand me, I was not living the lavish grad school life), I was missing something.  That something was my sense of self.  One of the biggest mistakes I made when I began my graduate coursework at HGSE was starting with a deficit mindset.


Instead of asking, “Who am I to attend Harvard?”  I had to adjust my thought processes and attitude.  As time passed, I eventually got to the point where I asked, “Why not me?”

I began to own my intellect, exhibit grit, and adopt an “I am just as qualified as you” attitude.


I am not trying to be boastful.  I am simply trying to elucidate my awakening process.  I eventually realized that thriving within (not merely surviving) graduate school required that I undergo a psychological metamorphosis.   


Older, wiser folk advised me to be flexible so that when change came (e.g. changes in my physical locale, personal and professional networks, financial situation, etcetera) I would bend instead of break.  


Discernment granted me the ability to tell the difference between friends, frenemies, and outright enemies.   Faith helped me to hold on and be strong when the graduate school “process” threatened to usurp my soul and sanity.  Wisdom taught me this truth: knowledge without understanding is useless.  I needed book sense, common sense, and an unshakable sense of self.  Above all, I needed God.  I still do.


Graduate school was brutal.  However, I am grateful to say that by the end of my master’s program, I was fully “woke.”  I was comfortably and unapologetically me.  Now I have been blessed with a master’s degree.


In an attempt to help first-generation graduate students navigate the tense and (at times) uncertain processes of graduate school, I offer the following advice:


Embrace imperfection.


Our imperfections are blessings rather than bans.  They give us something to continually strive towards.  You are in school, so you will get schooled.  Remember: the act of learning entails making mistakes.  Do not allow your errors to undo you or cause you undue stress.  There are some things you will know and other things you will not.  Book sense is good.  However, there are some things you really need to know that will never appear in a book, be taught in a course, or exist on the World Wide Web.  Learn by doing, learn by experiencing, and learn from others.  DeWitt Scott’s article, Graduate School for the College Athlete, shares how mistakes are essential to learning, growth, and development.


Be an active listener.


Listening entails the act of paying intent attention to what is being conveyed (both verbally and nonverbally) and making a conscious effort to process, reflect upon, and (when necessary) respond to the information that has been relayed.  Listening expedites the learning process.  Not only does active listening make you more knowledgeable, it may also make you a better, more attuned friend, colleague, and scholar.  




No, I am not suggesting that you devour anyone (or everyone) who crosses you or uses micro aggressions. The bestiality I reference refers to your natural prowess.  If you are gifted in a particular area (whether it be academic or not) do NOT conceal your abilities.  Do NOT apologize for your skills simply for the sake of making others feel comfortable.  This will be a disservice to you, your peers, and society.  I am not suggesting that you be a braggart or belittle others.  I am, however, suggesting that you thoughtfully and generously share your genius.   




You are the first person in your family to go to graduate school.  Now it is your business to be the first person to get out.  Network, go to conferences, publish, and make a name for yourself...if you so desire.  However, please do not lose sight of the end goal: graduating. Remember, you are the first.  Do your part to ensure that you are not the last to acquire an advanced degree.


Doing anything less is unacceptable.



In May 2010, I laid my first-generation graduate student status to rest.  I graduated.  To all my first-generation graduate students, not only are you at the graduate level, you are more than capable of graduating.  So just do it.     


If you are a first-generation graduate student, what were your biggest hopes/fears about being the first?  Are you determined not to be the last?  What lessons have you learned along the way?  Please share your wisdom in the comments section.


Dropping knowledge,

Young, Gifted, Black Graduate


[Image by openclipart user raimondi1337 and used under Creative Commons Licensing]


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