All posts by Ravynn Stringfield

I care a lot about books, and telling people about the books, and writing about the books, and writing my own stuff. I like reading comics and talking about race in America and reviewing things. And making things. I also really enjoy making things.

Surviving Postponement: Facing Fears During the Journey to PHinisheD

by Chantae Still

Three is typically my favorite number. I pledged a sorority and was the “Tre,” I am the first of my mother’s three children, and I grew up feeling comforted by the Holy Trinity (father, son, and holy ghost). However, this semester, entering the third year of the doctoral program and still completing coursework, felt oppressive. In 2016 I started this degree feeling confident that I could exceed expectations and do the four-year program in three. At the very least, I planned to graduate in December and complete it in three in a half. I registered for a full-time load every semester and probably could have finished my coursework in two years had I not picked up a graduate certificate that required an extra four classes. Either way, I was planning to finish my coursework the summer after my second year and take my exam in the Fall. Before life happened.

I was one of the doctoral students whose marriage didn’t survive. Even worse than experiencing a major breakup, a dissolution of marriage that I have to say was pretty amicable, my mother passed suddenly in the summer of 2017. Within one month I had suffered two major losses. One was legally gone with the banging of a judge’s gavel, and the other ended with a phone call that changed my life.

During the last conversation I had with my mother she asked me how school was going. “So when you finish they will call you doctor right?” The week after she passed, as my sisters and I picked up her ashes from the crematorium, I thought back to that conversation and realized I had to finish. It was the last thing she knew that I was doing. I was going to be the first in my grandmother’s bloodline to obtain a doctoral degree; quitting was not an option.

Despite advisement from close friends and relatives, I didn’t take any time off. I believed that even the smallest break would result in me becoming another statistic: the failing fifty percent of doctoral students that dropout, often before doctoral candidacy. I continued taking a full-time load while working forty plus hours a week to support myself as a commuter student who lived over an hour away from campus. When things got too challenging I quit my job and relocated closer to my university to make sure that school remained a priority. I was dead-set on finishing by any means necessary.

This August I met with a committee member to discuss the qual question that I would be given for the qualifying exam and my fueled freight train was forced into an emergency halt. “To be honest, based on what I am seeing, I don’t think you’re ready.” In a fourteen-word sentence, my confidence was hit with a figurative bullet and one of my academic fears was realized. I almost didn’t make it out of the office and to the ladies room. It took me digging my nails into my thighs and looking away to prevent a premature breakdown. Initially, I couldn’t tell if it was anger or sadness, but part of me wanted to flip a desk over while another part of me wanted to crawl under a table and lay in fetal position. I entered a stall and began to cry with a convulsing pain. I have never before experienced a panic attack, but this may be the best way to describe what I was going through. Looking back, I think I cried the tears that I suppressed for my failed marriage and the children we didn’t stay together long enough to have. I cried the tears that I stifled after my mom passed before I could experience a healthy mother daughter relationship or make her a grandmother. I cried the tears that I generally concealed when I felt insecure about, unsure with, or unworthy of the opportunity to enter this graduate school journey. I cried with intensity for eighty minutes straight without an ability to talk without hyperventilating.

I survived that day.

After a lot of face-washing in the College of Education bathroom I even attended a campus event that I previously committed to and went to class that evening. In bed that evening I reflected heavily, as what I identify as Imposter Syndrome related thoughts, crept in my mind.

I was raised by a bipolar single mother in Los Angeles, California so I knew how to survive and exist; but, I wanted to obtain this degree and the tools necessary to confidently declare that I was a researcher. I want to stand at the intersections of all my margins, covered by the shadows of people’s suspicion of my aptness, and remain feverently undisturbed or distracted. To do that, existing wouldn’t cut it. Doctoral students need to thrive.

I decided to heed the professor’s advice and postpone taking my Qualifying exams to the next semester even though doing so would push back the anticipated graduation date I worked so hard to maintain. Several times I considered taking the exam anyway to show that my abilities should not be doubted. I concluded it was just too big a risk, and not worth the appeal process that would be necessary if I took them and failed.

I had not told many people, but at the beginning of that third year I was so full of anxiety that I did begin seeing a counselor. Sessions had been sporadic due to my busy work schedule; but the day after this breakdown, I quickly made an appointment and committed to consistent visits with my counselor. I also made an appointment with a previous professor who I admired. She was a well published Minority Scholar whose class I thoroughly enjoyed. I emailed and informed her that I was in need of a “come to Jesus meeting.” When I took her class, she encouraged me to perfect my craft and made me feel that my work would be a valuable contribution once published. I was in need of the morale boosting that she supplied. The following week I went to the church I had been visiting and decided that I would join. I also began reviewing the course catalog to identify additional research methods courses that could strengthen my research skills. This experience of presenting my work to someone and having them dismiss it due to their doubt about my abilities was actually one of my biggest fears. And I faced it.

I was told by several faculty members that you will receive a lot of “no’s” before you get that one yes that you need. This experience drove home that point for me. The next time someone expresses their disbelief or disinterest in my work, my world won’t fall apart. I have now learned how to navigate after academic rejection by utilizing campus resources and accepting the support my support system has been attempting to provide for the last year and a half. The next time I encounter a person with an opinion like this I plan to encourage them to “say less.” They won’t be the first and they won’t be the last and they won’t be able to knock me off of my journey to PHinisheD.


Chantae Still is a Los Angeles, California native, third year doctoral student, attending a university in the South Eastern United States. She holds a Masters in Adult Education, with a concentration in Counseling, from North Carolina A&T State University and recently obtained a graduate certificate in Evaluation. Chantae has a heart for Qualitative research and is interested in investigating the role of Spoken word venues as contemporary learning environments, Mandated Parent Education classes and parent behavioral change, Protective Factors against Colorism for Black Women and Evaluation as a tool for community improvement.

Twitter: @D_Chantae

Week 7: Fall Break Reflections

Fall Break is often a time of reflection here on Black Girl Does Grad School. In the past, I’ve taken the break in classes to reflect on the first half of the semester, assess my progress on my goals, and even highlight some of the better texts I’ve read.

So, as I enter the fourth quarter of the year, I think it would be a good practice to assess the goals I set for myself a few weeks ago in “Week 1, or Goal Setting for a New Semester.

  1. Get through this last semester of coursework in one piece.
    1. ASSESSMENT: At half way through the semester, I think I can say that I’m getting through coursework okay. I’m reading the assigned material, I’m completing the writing assignments, and I’m going to class and participating. Fall break means it’s time to finalize those final project/paper ideas so that when I come back next week, I’m ready to start the projects in earnest.
  2. Finalize my Comps Committee.
    1. ASSESSMENT: This is done! I’m working with my advisor Professor Lynn Weiss on the first half of my African American Literature field, Professor Hermine Pinson on the second half, Professor Mel Ely on African American Intellectual History, and Professor Liz Losh on Comics and Media Studies.
  3. Set a date for my Comps Colloquium.
    1. ASSESSMENT: This is also done! I had my colloquium three weeks ago on September 21. I even set a date for my exams at the colloquium: April 29-May 3, and May 9th for the oral examination.
  4. Start reading for Comps.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m rocking and rolling on comps prep. I have a color coded, multi-tabbed spreadsheet where I itemized every text I have to read, and then started a tab where I planned out my reading schedule for each week until December. (I’m reading on average 10 texts per week: a healthy mix of peer-reviewed monographs, articles, essays and fiction/poetry.)
  5. Prioritize my health.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I don’t know how well I’m doing on that front. I started cooking for myself again, which is a step up from existing on popcorn and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In “Goal Setting for a New Semester,” I said, Instead of laying in bed watching all of my favorite CW shows, I think I’ll take my iPad to the gym and walk on the treadmill while I watch instead. That, in all honesty, has not happened. In a half hearted defense, my favorite CW shows just came back on this week. (Okay, stop judging me, I’ll go to the gym, I promise.)
  6. I am going to prioritize my joy.
    1. ASSESSMENT: Because I’m reading for comps and doing coursework and trying to work for the Lemon Project, I haven’t been doing too great at prioritizing my joy aside from making time to catch up on TV. I did paint one small quotation for my new office last week, but I think I need to just take myself on an outing to Michaels and get new craft supplies so I’m inspired to make something with them.
  7. I am going to write again.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m doing it! It’s been hard to do but I started a new novel, I’ve continued to work on Black Girl Does Grad School, and I have a few ideas for a new short story that I need to just sit down and write. I’m not going to let rejection turn me around. I wrote more about my relationship to my words last week after meeting Nell Scovell.
  8. I am going to spend more time with people.
    1. ASSESSMENT: I’m definitely doing this. I’m not sure why all of a sudden I’m so social. Perhaps because this is my third year in this city and I know people from my last two years who want to catch up, or because I’m in my second year in a position that has brought me in contact with a lot of undergraduate students, or because I simply am feeling up to making new friends or connecting with old ones, whatever the case may be, for the first time, my network of friends in Williamsburg is big enough that I feel taken care of here. It’s ironic, because the last couple of weeks I’ve been wanting to withdraw again, but I’m reminding myself now that my goal was to embrace sociality.

I’m doing well on 6/8 of my goals from the start of the semester! When I reassess again at the end of the semester, hopefully I will have kept my promise to myself to hit the gym and to prioritize my joy. Even though there are two goals I haven’t worked on, I take heart in knowing that there were six that I have completed or am working on. I’m always doing so much better than I give myself credit for.


As you enter the fourth quarter, how are you doing on goals you set for yourself this year?

Week 6: Meeting Nell Scovell and the Power of Words

This past week, author of Just the Funny Parts: …And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into Hollywood’s Boy’s Club, and creator of one of my favorite shows, Sabrina the Teenage Witch Nell Scovell, visited William & Mary, spending an hour chatting with a group of students, faculty and community members, answering questions, giving advice, and leaving me with much to think about. In that hour, I learned that Scovell’s favorite thing she has ever written was a script that was never produced; which answered the question: What if people were judged by who they were and not what they looked like? I learned that people like Sheryl Sandberg, Anita Hill and other people who display courage in the face of pushback inspire her. And I learned that common threads in her work are her curiosity and the thrill of the challenge of writing something new.

While all of that was great, and I enjoyed her candor and humor in answering those questions, I was most moved by the conversations we had around her writing: her process, her motivations, and her advice. “If you’re a writer,” she said, “you can move into different worlds.” Scovell got her start writing sports articles for the Harvard Crimson. She spent time writing first person columns for Cosmopolitan, and even articles about leasing cars. I was so entranced by the allure of her writing for shows like Sabrina and The Simpsons, that it never occurred to me that she had a writing career before she “made it” in television.

Her adventures in writing were so diverse. They were expansive. Though she never said it explicitly, all she wanted to do was write, and she’d write about anything; just as long as she had an opportunity to put pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard. She was hungry for challenges. Nothing was impossible, there were only obstacles to conquer. Her stories were like a new age Odyssey but with a female lead. Writing, it became clear, can take you places. It can take you anywhere.

Scovell gave some great advice on writing. She told us that when you’re just starting out, just say yes, you never know where it will lead. She told us that you can’t just write, you have got to write a lot. And she told us that you must put yourself into the world to be judged. As someone who is still feeling the sting of her latest rejections, I had to ask her, “If you’re putting yourself out into the world to get judged and getting rejected, how do you deal?” She smiled and told me to keep those who support me close, and ultimately, take the feedback you want and screw the rest.

During the talk, she said one thing that really stood out to me, “I don’t understand people who are scared to try something new. If you do it well, it’s great, but if you fail, you have the best excuse in the world: ‘I’d never done this before!’” Instantly, I thought about the time Micah encouraged me to write a script. I gave her all the excuses: I’d never written one so I didn’t know how, I didn’t have an idea, I didn’t have software, and so on and so forth. Then I thought about the time I sat in a dimly lit room on the second floor of Clemons Library with a group of other Black UVA students and wrote monologues. I’d never written a monologue before. I’d also never written something that would be used for performance before, but I had a story that I needed someone, anyone, to hear and so I wrote.

I still have that hunger. I still have stories I need to tell. I still need to write.

I don’t know if there will ever come a day when I won’t need to put words on paper.

So I met Nell Scovell, and after Professor Losh generously plugged my blog during the talk, Scovell asked me to write down my site for her. I’m always still amazed when anyone wants to read my words. I wrote the link on the back of one of my new business cards and chatted with her for a while after the formal talk was over. She asked me if I wanted to write for TV and “yes” flew out of my mouth before my brain had a chance to catch up. Looking back, even if I’d had a second to think before I spoke, I still would have said yes. Anyone that knows me knows that I would love a crack at writing for a superhero TV show, particularly a spin off about a certain superhero girlfriend with the initials LL.

Nell Scovell cracked my world wide open with one simple question. One day, if I keep writing, writing a lot, and getting feedback, my writing is going to exist in a lot more places than this site and amongst the piles of other essays on my professors’ desks. My words do not have to know bounds. They can exist in academic journals, literary reviews, blogs, magazines, newspapers, TV, film, novels, screenplays. So long as I continue to believe in my words and put them out into the world, they can take me anywhere. I just have to believe it.

And I do. I really, really do.

(Oh, and Nell? If you’re reading this, thanks.)