Tag Archives: Graduate School

On Graduate School and Loss

by Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown

Graduate school. Those two words were a tough road for me. I am a young black woman, first-generation PhD, seven months post-graduation. I wrote and defended my dissertation, yet this piece feels infinitely more difficult to write. It’s been a year since we lost you and committing that to paper hurts. I only hope that by sharing my own experience, it reaches someone and encourages them.

I don’t know exactly how to begin, so I guess it’s best to go to the very start. One of my earliest and most vivid memories of you is your first birthday. You were sitting in your high chair, brown, big-cheeked, and smiling at the small crowd and the sugary cake sitting before you. I’d watched you grow all those months before, curious, bright, and the most beautiful baby! The cake was like a puzzle you needed to figure out. You plunged your hands inside and brought it to your cute little face. Perhaps it was the shock of so much sugar at once, but immediately you recoiled; then, like a child, you attempted to taste it again. Baby’s first cake. That’s how I think of you now. That’s how I will always remember you. Curious, precocious, beautiful, bright. That’s who you were. And as I sit to write this now, it’s who I wish you still were. But you’re gone now. To where? I can contemplate and imagine, but I won’t know for certain until I leave this plane myself someday. But wherever you are, I write this for you, little cousin (little sister). I’ll carry you always.

Being in graduate school is a struggle, one that is hard to navigate even in the best of circumstances I presume. As I sit and write this, one year removed from the initial trauma, I still struggle to find the words to describe all I went through. However, I recognize the importance of talking about my experience, not just for myself, but for others as well. So, being vulnerable and honest, here I go:

It was January of what turned out to be the final year of my graduate study. I was in the midst of waiting to hear back from positions I applied for and dreading rejections, as well as the possibility of offers, as those would come with interviews and job talks—both of which terrified me to no end. It was just a few days after my 31st birthday when my phone rang, a call from your dad. There was nothing unusual about that. Your dad was (is) like a second father to me, so I answered hoping maybe for a second birthday surprise. But it wasn’t. Instead, he asked if I was sitting down, told me to sit down, and immediately I felt my heart stop. Rarely does anything good come after someone asks if you’re sitting down, so I’ve learned in my experiences. Unfortunately, I was right. Your dad called to tell me you were gone, that you had hung yourself, that you had died. An instant after the words left his mouth I went numb. I was devastated, disbelieving, heartbroken. You were thirteen years old. Exactly what it was that caused you to leave us as you did remains unclear to me, but whatever it was removed a light from my heart, a light from this earth.

That you could’ve taken your own life is still unfathomable to me, but perhaps it is not my place to understand. Nevertheless, I realize that there is no easy way to lose someone, a child no less, of that I am sure. But losing someone to suicide must be among the most painful. You weren’t my child to lose, you were my cousin, my little sister, but still my love, and I lost you. I lost you at one of the most difficult points in my adult life, and even today, a little after a year later, I am not sure how I am standing.

Writing a dissertation is not an easy feat, at least it wasn’t for me; yet, somehow in the wake of losing you, I somehow had to manage to put words to paper while dealing with the meaning of losing you. Advisors expected chapters and job applications expected responses. Yet I could barely breathe. All I could think about was the you in that beautiful dress, looking as if you were asleep within the coffin. Looking like yourself, but not at the same time.

How could I think about my next steps, knowing that you had taken the last of yours? How could I write, apply, or try, knowing that you’d never have the chance?

So I didn’t. For days I did nothing but cry. Remembering your face, your smile, your laugh. Days went by and the darkness around me grew. I was lost. Deeply and utterly lost. It took someone else to pull me out of the hole I had fallen into, one shrouded in pain, hurt, darkness. But her hand held mine, pulled me back to myself, back to happier memories of you. The you who supported me, the you that looked up to me, made me see things in myself that I may have otherwise missed. So slowly, but surely, I picked up a pen again. Put pen to paper and wrote. I dedicated my dissertation to you, the light in my darkness. My little Elira.

There is no easy way to write a dissertation through grief. The only advice that I can give, the only words that I can say, is that it doesn’t happen alone. Rely on your village, your person (or people) to help guide you through. Remember yourself and what you came to do. Pick up a pen, open a laptop, and let the words flow (even if they don’t make sense). I did. Eventually I found my way in words, using my writing as a way to remember you, as a way to move forward. It wasn’t a smooth process. It was rocky, marred with sleepless days and nights, tears, rewrites, curses, a trip to the hospital for insomnia driven psychosis, and feelings of hopelessness. But I wrote. I went to dissertation boot camp and I wrote. I went to write in sessions with my best friend and I wrote. I punched pillows, and cried for hours, but I wrote.

It was painful. Moving forward. Breathing. It hurt. It still hurts.

But with the help of my village I finished my dissertation, defended it and graduated in July 2018.


30412161_10105763080272873_6484055218454528000_nLetisha Engracia Cardoso Brown is a Presidential Pathways Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech University. Her research focuses on social relationships and food practices, as well as media representations of black female athletes. Her work can be found in the South African Review of Sociology and the Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education, as well as the online publication The Shadow League.

I’m Good Luv, Enjoy: Navigating Other People’s Dreams While Reaching For Your Own

by Trayc Freeman

If you think it’s annoying to constantly have the “what’s next for you” conversation during undergrad and grad school, just wait until you start having the, “Oh no you should actually do _____!” conversations in the adult/professional world.

I found my research passion my very first semester of my master’s program when I took a class called Civil Rights and Education. After writing a paper on Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Virginia during massive resistance, I was hooked on oral histories, and talking about the benefits of segregated education for Black students. That semester, I was presented with an opportunity to attend the ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History) conference; The other two semesters flew by and it all contributed to seemingly showing me the career path I wanted to embark on. While I haven’t gotten to the path yet, I have a (somewhat) clear idea of how I’m going to get there.

The idea for this piece came to me as I sat in a conference on the recruitment and retention of minority librarians. With the few academic conferences I’ve been to prior to this one, I’ve always walked in feeling immediately that I was “home” and left out feeling renewed and re-energized; I’ve left ready to put in even more work! And while this conference was interesting, it didn’t give me that feeling. Fast forward to a week later, I was able to attend a good friend, and personal Sheroe’s, dissertation defense; being back in that space, even for a short while, gave me all of those feelings I mentioned earlier. That’s how I know where home is for me.

I’ve been working as an evening manager at a library for 2 years now and have never said to myself, “I think this is where I want to be for the long haul.” Yet, as of late I’ve had a lot of co-workers seemingly become convinced that I should get an MLS (Masters of Library Sciences) degree for no other reason (that’s been expressed to me) than, “well you’re doing the work anyways.” No one has explained what the degree track looks like and only one person, who actually wasn’t even a co-worker but a fellow conference goer, has told me how it could be even slightly beneficial to any of my interests and goals. When I tell these same people what I actually want to do, I’m rarely offered any resources or advice; I’m only reminded that I should really take advantage because my job would pay for library school.

Being a 2-time PhD reject, who’s about to go into admissions attempt number 3, I can say first hand just how much it sucks when you finally figure out where you want to go in life, only for the door to constantly be slammed in your face. It’s even worse when someone who’s trying to be helpful, whether it’s a co-worker, a friend or family member, tries to nail the door shut with their own ideas and suggestions for your life. The good news is that no matter how frustrating I find these conversations to be, I’ve also found them to be extremely valuable. Having to constantly, for lack of a better word, defend your education and career goals really causes you to sit down and fully think about what you’re trying to do. I’m sure we’ve all departed from at least one dream career we thought we had in life; for me that was being a singing lawyer (I was young and liked Ally McBeal, don’t judge me). But by having your choices constantly called into question, if for nothing but your sanity, you really sit down and ask yourself, “what is it about this that makes me want it so bad?” You also discover that not everyone’s dream for you is a bad deal; in fact, some of them are very logical and, for a few minutes, really will have you reconsidering your life. However, while logical, if you can’t see yourself fully immersed in that dream, you have to learn how to communicate that that’s not for you. I’ve learned this while dealing with several family members who think I should try out a teaching career (bless their souls).

The point of this entire piece was to say you should always follow your dreams first! I feel like that’s lowkey cliché, but I’ll say it anyways. With our personal dreams comes the eventual vision to carry them out. It also comes with unshakeable faith and resilience, and the ability to revamp our blueprints accordingly (I’ve revamped mine about 8500 times– I’m 26). Your dreams also come with an understanding that you may make others uncomfortable, especially when it comes to a career because they aren’t able to see the ideas and strategies that are all turning in your head. But it’s important to understand that most folks honestly just want what’s best for you even if their presentation does not come off that way. And if you change your dream, or at some point even take on the dream that someone else had for you, that’s cool too. So long as you worked to achieve what you want to do and didn’t just allow others to cast their dreams onto you because it makes it easier to deal with them (i.e. our parents). With that being said, I hope everyone who reads this finds and goes for their true dreams regardless. And, if in a few years I actually do decide to get an MLS and take on a career as a librarian, send me a link to this piece and laugh at myself for putting it off for so long.


Trayc D. Freeman is a “Double Hoo” from the University of Virginia, earning a Bachelors in African American Studies in 2015, and a Masters of Education in Educational Psychology (with a Social Foundations concentration) in 2016.  She currently works at the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library, but hopes to eventually pursue a Ph.D, focusing on Black education, more specifically, the benefits of segregated education for Black students. From there she’d like to go on to academia, becoming a professor and historian of Black education. In the meantime she runs her own Black history blog, and is working to add an “Executive Producer” notch on her belt, working with UVA graduate and professional track athlete Jordan Lavender on her up-and-coming bi-weekly Youtube vlog “#DoItLikeJLav.”

5 Tips and Tricks for Planning and Executing a Research Trip

As I type this, I am on my way back home from a four day long research trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. (Really, it was only two days because I spent most of days 1 and 4 sitting on a train.) I’ve had the entire train ride to think about my trip and I decided that I wanted discuss how to plan and execute a successful research trip by reviewing what went really wrong and what went so very right. So here are a few steps (which are not necessarily in order) to a good research trip:

Step 1: Decide on a research topic.

My topic (which I won’t discuss in detail because I am trying my hardest not to scoop myself) sort of fell into my lap– a classmate sent me an article about an African American Black Panther comic book artist whose granddaughter lives in Williamsburg– and everything sort of snowballed from there into a huge project that I’ve been working on ever since.

Step 2: Figure out where your sources are.

I found out that some of the artist’s materials could be found at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. Before I had even really decided to make this trip, I started imagining how I could get my hands on those documents. Once you start fantasizing about materials, you know you’re working on the right project.

Step 3: Make the decision to go.

I know this sounds obvious but I had to actively make up my mind to go on this research trip and decide that I would do whatever I had to do to see those materials, even if it meant doing a solo trip.

Step 4: Apply for funds.

I applied for funding through my program. PROTIP: If you think one source may not be able to cover all the costs of your trip, apply for funding from more than one outlet. Actually, just do it anyway.

Applying for the funding was the easy part: I budgeted how much it would cost for a round-trip train ticket, a metro pass, food and a room. ROOKIE MISTAKE: I did not include in my budget costs for reproductions. PROTIP: Always budget for reproductions. At the Schomburg, it was .25 cents per 8 x 11 page, but considering the nature of the documents I was looking at it, it would have been impossible to get enough money for all the reproductions I wanted anyway.

I anticipated that the whole trip would cost me $800. From the one source I applied to, I got $300. Fortunately, I had money from my fellowship that I had yet to use so I had a cushion. But had that not been the case, I would have very seriously reconsidered making the trip.

PROTIP: Be on the lookout for pockets of funding: apply through your program or department, apply through the university, leadership initiatives, through your graduate student association (just to name a few potential avenues.)

Step 5: Plan your trip!

This part includes the usual business: like booking a hotel room and securing your train ticket. For a research trip, however, you also need to plan your time in the archive, which means reaching out to the library or center where you’re going ahead of time to make an appointment. If you don’t know what materials you want to look out, reach out to a librarian for help looking for documents. If you do know what you want to see, compile a list and figure out what the appropriate avenue is for securing an appointment. At some places (like the VCU comic archive) they may prefer an e-mail, and at others (like the Schomburg) they may have an online form for you to fill out. In either case, make sure to include the location of the materials you would like to see, whether it’s a box number or a call number. If you don’t know, ask.

PROTIP: Librarians are amazing, usually very kind and always very knowledgeable.

PROTIP: Make sure to ask ahead of time if you can take photographs of the collections you want to see. I couldn’t, which sucked, but it also meant I didn’t have to lug my camera around.

Step 5a: Plan your (fun) trip!

Research trips are fantastic ways to explore parts of the world that you haven’t been to yet. Make sure to get your work done but, if you’re going to a place like NYC, always budget some time to do some fun things in the city too! My cousin and I spent afternoons in Central Park, visited the Met and caught up with some of my college friends.

Step 6: Go on your trip!

My trip was such a great experience. A family friend met us at the Amtrak station and took us back to it at the end of the trip, I saw two of my good friends from UVA, my cousin and I explored a little, ate some good food, and most importantly, I did a lot of good research. Even though I wasn’t able to take pictures, I did take about 9 single spaced pages of notes, from which I am planning on writing either a journal article or a conference paper.

Bonus: Find a travel buddy. (Optional)

If you, like me, find traveling alone daunting, see if you can find someone that would be down for the ride. Since I already had to book a hotel room, I offered my cousin the extra bed. All she had to do was pay her way. Having a buddy to pal around New York with was supremely fun.

After the trip…

After you’ve rested up from your adventure, spend some time looking through your notes from your visit. Write up more about your thoughts while on the materials while they’re fresh in your mind. Write a rough draft of something, a blog post, an outline, anything, but just write something so that you can refer to while writing up a more formal document.

Currently, I’m thinking about using the materials that I explored for the last few days to expand on a paper that I wrote last semester for my Histories of Race course and write an abstract for a conference or two. (I’m always happy to write a post about creating a successful conference abstract. Leave me a comment if you’d read that.)

I hope these tips and tricks help you plan your next research trip. Happy researching!