When I finished undergrad three years ago, I told myself a thousand times that I was never going to graduate school. Finishing a Bachelor’s degree was hard enough, why would I willingly put myself through more academic torture at an even higher cost (both mental and financial)? It seemed unnecessary at the time and even if I were to go, I had not a clue what I would study. My career path upon graduation was uncertain to say the least – the last thing on my mind was another degree. Now fast-forward to today… *cue maniacal laughter at my previous naiveté* …and I am headed back to grad school this coming fall. Yes, I said back, as in for my second attempt. It has been quite an interesting chain of events and along this journey, I’ve learned that sometimes where you need to be is right where you started from the beginning. *clears throat* Let me explain.
As a Virginian who grew up near Charlottesville, UVA was an obvious choice for college. I knew a lot about the University and had been there for football games and that sort of thing. From what I had experienced prior to enrolling, UVA offered the quintessential college experience, the kind you see depicted in the movies. When I got in, I was thrilled, proud, over-the-moon– but I was also nervous. My mom didn’t go back to finish her Bachelor’s degree until she was pregnant with me, so her college experience as a married woman with a family looked very different than mine would and my dad did not attend college at all. Not being able to rely on my parents to give me advice on what to expect as I ventured into unknown territory was scary, but I knew that I would figure it out. What I didn’t know was that most of the lessons I would learn throughout my undergraduate career would not take place in the classroom but in my day-to-day interactions with other students and other members of the University community. The biggest lesson that I learned about myself during those ever-important four years? I have anxiety. At times, borderline crippling anxiety, and the worst part was not that it took me until college to figure it out. The worst part was that I was unaware that it wasn’t normal.
Growing up in a small, rural town in Central Virginia, mental health was a rare topic of discussion and during instances where it was actually acknowledged it was always with regard to extreme cases of mental health disorders. In high school my classmates would make ignorant jokes toward others about having multiple personalities or being “special.” So that was really my only exposure to what constituted mental health issues. At home, there was even less talk of it. My parents maintained a very traditional black household where things like “what do you have to worry about?” and “mind over matter” were phrases that framed anything stress related. They always made it seem like my sister and I were too young to know what anxiety was so I didn’t know any different. Maintaining the idea that nothing was wrong kept me from seeking help, kept me from understanding that it’s okay to talk about my anxiety and depression, especially when it came to being a young black woman studying at a very prestigious predominantly white institution.
The source of my anxiety and depression while in undergrad was this: I never thought I was good enough. I compared myself to everyone at every turn. I had no concept of my worth. Then my self-esteem hit the lowest of lows following a bad break-up that took place during my first year of college. I didn’t know it then, but I was seriously depressed for over a year after that split. College is hard, breakups are hard, finding confidence in yourself as a single black woman when it feels like the world is on your shoulders at all times is hard. Finally getting my diploma at graduation and reflecting on all of those tough experiences had me thinking, “there’s no way I could ever go back and do this again,” but then I landed an unexpected job offer. Four months after graduation I was hired as an Admission Counselor for UVA and I found my passion– working with students who don’t see their potential, students who struggle to see their worth. Students like me. That’s when everything changed.
After finishing two admission cycles at my alma mater and loving the work that I was doing, I decided that I did want to go to grad school. So I applied and was accepted into UVA’s Master of Higher Education Administration program and I began taking classes part-time while I continued to work full-time. However, juggling both work and school simultaneously proved to be a challenge that triggered my anxiety in a slightly different kind of way than before. This time, my anxiety came from feeling stagnant. I got antsy with the idea that I was “stuck” at UVA, being that I had studied there, worked there, and was still studying and working there while many of my friends had moved on and found higher-paying jobs in cooler cities. I started to compare myself to others again, I felt like this whole “adulting” thing was a competition and it seemed like I was losing by a mile. So in an overwhelming state of frustration I made a rash decision. I chose not to enroll in grad classes for the coming semester and I applied for jobs at other universities until I got an offer to work for a school in DC. This was like a dream come true! I could finally move out of my parents’ house and have my first real apartment on my own, I would be in a city that was full of young black professionals, and I would be making more money (or so I initially thought). Well, life has a really funny way of humbling you when you least expect it and that’s exactly what happened.
I took the new job and hated every second of it. The leadership was awful, the electronic processes were archaic, the office culture was unhealthy, and given the higher cost of living in DC I really wasn’t making more money. This is when my anxiety and depression caused me to hit rock bottom. I started taking the prescription anxiety medicine that my doctor had given me several months prior hoping that it would make a difference in my day-to-day functioning, but I still had days where I could barely find the motivation to get out of bed. I was broke, unhappy, and I had never felt so alone. Emphasis on alone, living by yourself in the city sounds cool in theory until you realize that you come home to an empty apartment everyday. That’s not something that makes you feel any better when your work life is hell on Earth. I lasted six months in that position before I quit and decided to come back to UVA for grad school full-time. I’m even taking a class this summer to catch up so that I’ll still be on track to finish the program next spring (yay!) and it finally feels like I have my life back on track.
This time last year I never thought that I would be so excited to be moving back home and starting grad school again, that just goes to show that sometimes we have to go through difficult situations before we can see things clearly. It’s so true what they say about how the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I definitely learned that the hard way but that’s okay. Not every lesson we learn in life will come easy. Moving forward I know that my anxiety hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s something that I will have to deal with through grad school and beyond. The difference is that now I’ve been through things that have taught me that I am stronger and wiser than I used to think I was. I have found ways to better manage the moments where I feel like I’m on the verge of a panic attack. Those are life skills that I may not have learned as quickly if I didn’t take that leap of faith and accept that other job. It may not have been where I needed to be but we gain insight from every experience we have as human beings, good or bad, and that’s the silver lining.
Do I still have moments where I question my worth? Absolutely. Are there times when I doubt myself? 100%. But at the end of the day, I don’t beat myself up about those things nearly as much anymore. What brings me peace of mind through those inevitable ups and downs is the reassurance that, despite the detours I may have taken along the way, I know I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.
Alexis Richardson, 25, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia in 2015. After three years of working in college admissions she has returned to UVA as a full-time grad student to finish her Master of Higher Education Administration.