Tag Archives: Graduate School

Week 1, or “Branching Out” and Growing Up

This post marks the beginning of my fourth– yes, fourth— semester at the College of William & Mary. Before I know it, this semester will have flown by and then I will be standing at the precipice of my last semester of coursework in the fall.

This semester will be great. I’m speaking it into existence. I am currently enrolled in a Comics course, Histories of Race, and an independent study on Black Arts Movement literature. I’m bringing in a student activist from Clemson to speak at a Porch Talk for the Lemon Project. The Lemon Project 8th Annual Symposium will be in March. Johnetta Cole, Henry Jenkins, and Nikki Giovanni will all be coming to speak at the College this semester. And I had a paper accepted to a conference in April just a few days ago.

I already had an amazing start to the semester with Branch Out Lemon Project Alternative Break. If you don’t remember me raving about Branch Out, feel free to check out my post from last year’s trip. Students at William & Mary can sign up for Alternative Breaks, which are typically off-campus service trips– the Lemon Project Alternative Break is the only one held on campus. During the course of the weekend, the students learn about the Lemon Project, conduct their own original research and participate in a variety of other workshops. This year, as we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of residential African American students at William & Mary, our project was timely: the students conducted interviews with the first residential African American students and created an Omeka exhibit based on their findings. (For a more detailed description of what went down, check out my article about the weekend on HASTAC.org.)

As amazing as the final product was, as happy as the students were with themselves, as much as they praised the trip afterwards, it was still extremely nerve wracking for me. Not because I wasn’t enjoying myself– I love the Branch Out Trip. It’s been a highlight of both of my years at William & Mary. The problem was that the bar had been set exceedingly high for the trip because the Lemon assistant before me put her heart and soul into organizing a project that would be meaningful, productive and effective. I had a large pair of shoes to fill.

Through a few well timed pep talks with Adrienne, who helpfully tagged along for the entire weekend (you the best, Adrienne!), I came to realize that I was gripping onto the project too tight. I was taking any minor setback too personally. And I was doing it because I cared so much. I wanted the same effect, the same magic, that I had come to love from last year’s project. But in trying to recreate the magic, I neglected what unique skills I could bring to the table. I was trying too hard to teach in someone else’s comfort zone instead of my own.

I did some growing up last weekend. I realized that I don’t teach like anybody else– and that’s a good thing. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but there’s so much to be said for making your own path. I think the next time I try this, if there will be a next time, I’m going to not be so afraid to be myself. It was also encouraging to realize that despite all of the difficulties I was going through, the students didn’t see it. They thanked me for the trip and said all kinds of nice things about me as a person and as someone to look up to. One of the students spoke about me as if I were a role model for her but, little does she know, I feel it is the highest honor to know her at all. I’m proud of one of the site leaders for going from the quiet girl in the corner last year to the leader of the pack this year. And she still has two more years to go! Who knows where she’ll be by the time she’s a senior.

What these students don’t know is how much they are an inspiration to me. It brings me so much joy to be around people outside of my program, in particular undergrads who are so bright, intellectually curious and genuine. They make me laugh, they challenge me and make me want to work to be a better teacher for them.

If this was only week one, I can’t wait to see where I go from here.

Chaos Before This Black Girl Does Grad School

Often times I am asked why I’m applying to graduate school. That’s followed with questions about my area of study and, upon me explaining it, most ask why I’m choosing to study fine arts. And I appreciate the concern. Making money is a requirement in the game of life. However, there is a seemingly huge contrast between income and studying the arts, you know, music, film, and writing.

A lot of my family and friends ask me, “what do you plan to do with that?” and ‘that,’ being a Master’s of Fine Arts. If they catch me on a good day, when I’m not being stubbornly sarcastic, I tell them that I plan to write, with all of me.

Many people frown upon a fine arts degree as if it’s worthless or something to study just to pass the time. And that may be true for some, but I am an individual who is fully invested in my craft. We don’t ask the pre-law student or the student studying pharmaceuticals, “what do you plan to do with that?” And it should be no different with a student studying arts. Granted, the road may be a bit harder or longer to achieve my dream but I don’t belittle the steps in reaching it.

It’s been almost three years since I completed my undergraduate career and the thought of pursuing a degree again is daunting. So, a little encouragement from my loved ones wouldn’t hurt. The specific school I’m applying to wants a passing GRE test score, a statement of intent and a 30-page sample of my writing that will blow them away. I’ve had the honor of studying for a test that I probably won’t use again in my professional career or life, and writing a paper pleading with admissions to let me in. Sound familiar?

Yup, applying to grad school is just like applying to undergrad except you already have a degree and probably loads of experience in your specific field of study.

I juggle a fulltime job, two part time jobs, a social life, and family relationships with hours of studying, days of blogging consistently and desperately trying to get a freelance writing career afloat. But in the end, I know my choice will pay off.

Like many black women, I have lofty dreams of going back to school, getting a degree or two, making more money, etc. however many of us are intimidated by the application; not to mention the internal conflict of not being smart enough or not having enough time to follow through. This explains why many of us quite soon or never start at all. There’s a part in me that still wonders if I still got it. Its been a while since I had to research and write papers on a deadline so I’m wondering if I still got the juice! But before I can even begin classes though, I have to be accepted. The school I’m applying to is pretty prestigious, given the amount of application materials they require of me, so the acceptance or rejection thing is a big deal.

And to make things worst, I can’t find out if I got in until three months after I submit my application, like people, at least give me a little hope. I have to twiddle my thumbs from February until May. Honestly, in grad school I have to get over my fears: fear of not being enough or being too much. There are plenty more things to lend my emotions to and fear isn’t one of them.


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Shanisha is a passionate writer and soon-to-be grad student. She writes over at Honestly Me where she promotes transparency among women of color.

Week 14, or Believing in the Path

A friend called me yesterday and wanted advice about grad school– finding programs, applying, doing the work, staying sane, etc.

A part of me thought, I am probably the least qualified person to give him any advice, and another part thought, This is probably a good moment to think critically about my grad school experience so far. It was a bad moment to ask me because this past week I’ve been walking around with my disdain for grad school coming to a boil. I contemplated quitting. I was told by a different friend that if one of us quits, both of us quit– and she’s not quitting.

If we’re being real, a little bit of everything is getting to me. I’m lonely; I feel isolated in my pursuits; and I have a nagging feeling that at least one of my professors thinks I don’t know what’s going on. There’s a part of me that wants to give into this nagging fear and accept that I don’t know, but there’s a fighting part that is disgusted with myself for believing myself to be stupid for even one moment. I find myself walking that strange tightrope in grad school of trying to speak up so as to be heard and not speak too much, because speaking too much can come off as self-indulgent and not speaking seems to imply ignorance. Still, I want to make a space for myself, I want to be heard, I want to be seen, almost as much as I want to just be still and listen because there’s so much I have to learn.

My friend then asked me for a general piece of advice about grad school. After a beat, I told him to know when to sit down. Know when to get off your soapbox and listen. Keep your ears and mind wide open. But you also have to know how to stand up for yourself. Know when to fight back, know when to lay down your arms. Fight the good fight, but protect your energy. My dwindling energy tells me I’m not taking my own advice. I’m fighting, but not protecting myself. Despite having been worthy of admission, I still feel like I’m fighting to prove that I belong in this Academic space.

After an hour long conversation which explored every way I felt hindered, I started to feel a weight settle on my soul. If I was this unhappy, I had to ask myself– why am I still here? Why am I still doing this?

Ultimately, my answer is the same as it’s always been: I want to be a Black professor. I want undergraduates to have more Black professors. I want Black people to represented in the Academy. I want to be proof that you can be whatever you want to be. I never got my 40 acres and a mule, so I’ll happily take my free education from the state of Virginia instead, an education that worked hard for. I want to teach. In my mind, very few things are more political than helping shape young minds. And I don’t want to teach my students to regurgitate what I’ve taught them– I want to teach them to think critically and for themselves, so they can make the final call on what to take with them when they leave my class. I never want to stop learning– I have too many questions. I love the idea of getting to spend my life in a career where I will be constantly inspired to explore intellectually– and to write about the process and results.

I’m still doing this because I believe this path was meant for me.

Sometimes, I think I just need to remind myself of that.