Blogmas Day 4: Reflecting On My First Semester of Grad School

My first semester of grad school ended a week ago, and I’ve had some time to reflect on the past fifteen weeks. To be honest, I couldn’t wait until the semester was over, not just because of the long-awaited break I’d need, but I was also itching to write up a cheesy and flowery-worded blog post about all the things I’ve learned and how much the one semester has changed me and my life. With all of that being said, once I finally sat down to write up that blog post, I was hit by a freight train of writer’s block. Finally concluding that one semester of experiences was probably a little premature for a “OMG grad school is awesome and my life is forever changed and look at me and my awesome education” blog post, so I figured I’d try and do something a little more grounded, putting that retrospective blog post on the back burner for now. On my Instagram story, I asked what topics and questions would want to be answered about my experiences so far, and got a handful of good questions to answer.

At what point in grad school do you start saying that you got your undergrad at Cal Poly Pomona?

I don’t think there was ever a moment where I tried to hide that because of a few reasons: 1. Introductions and ice breakers are a thing, especially when you’re in a cohort of about twenty other people who you will be following throughout your entire Master’s program and 2. I didn’t really see a need to hide the fact that I went to Cal Poly. In fact, my alma mater served as the basis of my research proposal for one of my classes. This past semester, I learned a lot about the foundations of the higher education institution and how we, as future student affairs professionals, should serve students of all backgrounds, taking things like geographical location, ethnic identity, and socioeconomic status into consideration when you tackle topics like college access and retention. The higher education institution was founded on serving a very specific demographic –  privileged White men. Today, the demographic of higher education institutions have drastically changed, being accessible to students of all ethnicities, gender identities, and socioeconomic status. However, because higher education began on such a narrow foundation, institutions today still find themselves entrenched in that White, masculine paradigm. Cal Poly Pomona is renowned for being a pioneer in steering away from that paradigm, and in taking strides to properly serve all students. Cal Poly Pomona, considered to be a Hispanic Serving Institution, is among the top 25 colleges to award bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic students. Just this past year, Cal Poly Pomona was ranked among the top 3 universities in the country to promote upward socioeconomic mobility for low-income students. Cal Poly Pomona is ranked among the top 8 most ethnically diverse higher education institutions on the west coast, and among the top 10 in the country. In 1997, Cal Poly Pomona became the first California State University to employ a full-time coordinator for an LGBT center on a college campus. So to answer the original question of when I decided to share the fact that I received my bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona – the answer is immediately.

What was your overall journey like throughout grad school and what were some misconceptions you had?

Overall, I would say that the journey thus far has been an interesting experience – this past season has probably been one of the most confusing seasons of my life, but so rewarding nonetheless. I don’t know if this would be considered a misconception, but I definitely vastly underestimated the amount of work and time I would have to invest in my school work, which meant that a bunch of other things had to take a backseat. There were many nights where I felt like I wasn’t stewarding my time well, and focusing too much of my attention on school and not enough on my relationships. Luckily, all of my friends were incredibly understanding and made sure I knew that it’s okay that this is the season in my life where maybe I need to focus on other things. One major lesson I had to learn this season is that it’s one thing to be given grace by others, but it’s another thing to accept that grace. I wasn’t allowing myself to accept the grace that I was being given, and that resulted in frequent panic attacks and questioning if furthering my education was worth having my close friendships take a hit. Once I accepted the truth about accepting grace and began to intentionally live it, my quality of life changed for the better. As you could probably tell from my response to the previous question, I’ve learned a lot from my classes, and it’s information that I’ll most likely retain in the foreseeable future. With all of the information that I was absorbing over the course of the semester, I slowly felt the Lord revealing the desires and passions of my heart to me. My passion for ethnic identity and desire to work with students of color began to grow, and in all of that, I also began to learn a lot about myself. I’m so stoked to see how these desires will evolve in the coming semesters.

What are some things you wish you knew before attending grad school?

Like I was alluding to before, I knew that my work load was going to look a lot different and be a little more demanding, but I think I underestimated how much time and effort I’d need to put into my school work. So in terms of life things, I wish I had known how to better manage my time. A lot of my assignments over the semester for my research design class involved reading multiple articles and chapters in my textbooks, and then answering 2-3 reading questions and writing a brief reflection of what I read. One thing I wish I knew in regards to completing those assignments is that there’s a difference between working harder and working smarter. Being the aspiring over-achiever, it was really important to me to read every single word multiple times over in each article and chapter so that I would be able to get a solid understanding of what I was reading. What ended up happening was that I would be too consumed in trying to deeply understand the readings that I got too burned out to retain anything, much less finish the other readings. I also came to the realization that I don’t ever intend on going into research in my career, and so most of what I was reading wouldn’t be relevant to what I eventually wanted to do. I realized that maybe this was just one of those classes where I needed to just do my assignments and nothing more. I wish I knew the difference between working harder and working smarter before going back to school, and that sometimes it’s okay to have the simple end goal of passing a class.

What is the application process like for grad school?

One major difference between applying for grad school versus applying for undergrad is that for grad school, you need to apply to both the school and the program. In other words, in my case, I had to fill out an application for the Higher Education Leadership master’s program at CSUN, separate from the general CSU application. The CSU application consists mainly of the quantitative information about your undergrad – grades, GPA, etc. The application for my master’s program looked for more of the qualitative information – my specific application required a few essay question responses and a few letters of recommendation. I had to submit my application to the program first, and then once I got into the program, I submitted my CSU application to “reserve” my spot at the university. Depending on the program you apply for, there may also be an interview process before they give you their final decision. For my program, they only interviewed candidates if they wanted more context behind the person submitting the application. I was one of the candidates that was interviewed for my program. While I had a relatively low undergrad GPA, I also had unusually high GRE scores and exceptional grades in my humanities classes (#humblebrag). The interview itself was pretty casual and I was interviewed by the program coordinator and one of my professors. This was an opportunity for them to get to know me better and to gain a better understanding of who I was as an undergrad student and who I would be as a grad student.

What are some tips on how to stand out on your application? How do you survive grad school and work?

One of the great things about my particular program and the application process is that the department wanted to look past GPA, and wanted to get to know the candidate holistically. I feel like I almost had a bit of a leg up in my application because I was a pretty dynamic student during undergrad – I was a Math major, worked a lot of jobs in academic and student affairs, got involved in a diverse array of student clubs, and had a bit of a creative background as well. More practically, in order to make yourself stand out in your application, one thing I would do is try and find faculty and staff members who know you best to write your letters of recommendation. Approach the professors you took the most classes with or went to the most office hours with. If you regularly saw the same academic advisor throughout college, they would also be a good person to approach for a letter of recommendation. It’s also important to reserve one of those letters for someone who you’ve worked directly under that can speak to your professionalism. No matter who you choose, make sure the person or persons who write your letter of recommendation knows you well and can confidently speak to your abilities as a student and as a professional. Most, if not all, graduate school programs have an essay portion in the application. Try and avoid super flowery language, and don’t put so much of an effort in trying to appeal to what you think the department wants to hear. Put your own personality into your application – they can immediately tell if you’re being disingenuous. What will make you stand out from other applicants is honesty and speaking from your own experiences. If you went through a great struggle, use that. If you learned something during undergrad that was mind-blowing or life changing, talk about it. It’s important for them to know how you process through certain situations and what you learned coming out if those situations. If you want to find a good balance between school and work, try and find a program that’s willing to accommodate you as a working professional. One of the huge draws for me in the program I’m currently in is that the workload was catered to the working professional – my classes are once a week in the evening, the program is only 4 semesters, and I’m able to incorporate my job in my studies. One of the things that they made sure to emphasize at one of the information sessions was that the last thing they wanted to do was make their students compromise their professional life for school. The reason why we were in the program was to further our knowledge in higher education. In their eyes, it wouldn’t make sense for them to force us to prioritize school, where we were obtaining an education about a field we were already working in. If balancing work and school is important to you (i.e. you need to somehow pay for your program without taking out loans), there are a lot of graduate programs that are catered to the working professional. In terms of getting my assignments done on time, I knew that I didn’t want to have to worry about them during the week – the last thing I want to do as soon as I get home from work is to do more intellectually draining work. I made sure I got all of my assignments done on the weekends, so that I could properly compartmentalize my work brain and my school brain.

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