This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Carissa McCray, PhD, is a middle and high school teacher who focuses on redefining the educational trajectory for students of color.
First-generation undergraduate college students have high expectations of themselves, and their families expect greatness from them. Imagine a first-generation undergraduate student who is becoming a first-generation graduate student and the tools required to be successful. The tools for thriving in graduate school can be overwhelming and sometimes we can fizzle.
I am a first-generation college student. My mother said that she did not feel smart enough to attend college because she did not have a teacher to encourage her to attend. As far as my father, I do not know much about his life. But for me, going to college seemed to be a requirement. I was, still am, the nerdy girl with the glasses and books in her hand. I was destined for post-secondary education, even though I lacked the skills and understanding of how to navigate and thrive in an undergraduate world. Of course, I went to classes, earned good grades (no choice because I had a full-ride academic scholarship), partied, and enjoyed my undergraduate experience.
I took this same mentality into my master’s and doctoral programs with a couple of exceptions. I attended graduate school online because I had started a family before beginning my graduate studies. My goal was to make sure I earned good grades. And I did. I worked hard as a mother, a wife, a full-time teacher, and a student. Yet, I was lost because I had ambiguous and unimportant goals. My goal was to continue schooling until I could no longer do so. School was my strength, it was what I did well. However, school is only part of one’s success.
As a first-generation undergraduate and graduate student my mantra was to “not quit and to keep moving forward.” Reflecting on this mantra, I would tell my younger self to stop and figure out what you want to do. I became a teacher because I needed a job. I earned my master’s degree in Educational Leadership because I thought I wanted to turn my job into a career as a principal. I earned my PhD in Education with a specialization in curriculum, instruction, and assessment because I saw disparities in education that I wanted to fix. But I still had no real plan, no real goals. I just assumed that with my graduate education I would become the go-to expert to transform education. While higher education does provide some expertise, I was so much all over the place that my expertise of any subject had little value to me because of my overwhelming thoughts and attempts to change everything.
Entering both my master’s and PhD program, we were required to do goal tracking for our careers that included professional development, participation in organizations, and publishing. I did the assignments and earned the grades I desired. However, there was little follow-through for multiple reasons.
- My goals were too broad and had little purpose toward a long-term or overarching goal.
- I had too much on my plate without support from my then-husband. I was responsible for everything: cooking, working, paying the bills, and taking care of our children.
- I needed an accountability mentor and an accountability partner. The mentor would have been one who has gone through the process and is where I would like to be. The partner would have been one who is currently going through the graduate process, a friend.
- I had no real plan. I know #1 and #4 are very similar, but I am stressing the importance of having a plan.
For those entering graduate school or who are in graduate school now, stop and make a realistic and detailed plan for yourself as a transformative scholar. Below are five steps that may assist in the planning process:
- In 10 years, what do you want to have as your career title, career description, and salary?
- Make a list of how you will support the development of this goal through the following:
- Professional organizations and social media
- Current job
- Professional development
- Time and resources
- Current network of family, friends, and scholars
- Products and/or services
- Make a list of what you need from each of the above to feel supported and to support others.
- Now plan as much as you can. Plan how you will spend certain hours or days of the week. Plan how you will dedicate your time and resources. Plan how you will communicate with and participate in your professional and personal networks. Plan how you will use your current job to achieve your goal career.
- Implement your plan and keep track of your progress. Dedicate time (weekly, monthly) in which you sit down and track your progress. Briefly list obstacles and victories.
I wish I would have done these steps early in my education process. However, I lacked a lot of knowledge that I pass onto my children, students, and others who are moving forward with their educational goals. I have made plans—detailed plans—and my biggest obstacle is step number five because I still do not follow through. One of the biggest reasons for my lack of follow-up is that I do not want to see what I failed to do. The idea to not acknowledge failure by avoiding it is one reason networking is vitally important to your success as a graduate student and post-graduate school—your network should be about transparency to provide motivation. This means that open and honest communication is necessary to move toward accomplishing professional goals. Your network should be able to share their strengths and weaknesses without exaggeration and shame. Your network should be able to help you or guide you to others who can.
When I created plans for myself as a graduate student, I was shy, nervous, scared, felt inadequate, and had many negative perceptions of myself which contributed to the poor implementation of my plans. One of my biggest mistakes was not networking. I attended conferences and national professional development seminars, but I did not network. I was, and sometimes still am, insecure. I did not want to come off as too Black, too ghetto, too unattractive, having bad teeth, or being too busty or too bottom-heavy, which I assumed would lead others to believe I was unknowledgeable. I feared judgment, so I feared speaking. This is foolish and if you feel, think, or act like this you must stop it right now. You are powerful; people will listen and respect you. In 2019, three years after finishing my PhD program, I have finally realized that I am the scholar people come to for my perspective and research on a topic.
Another obstacle for me was attending different functions to network. I am a single parent and in a career that does not pay for or appreciate days off. My family unit is not a nuclear family. I am divorced with extremely little engagement with my children’s father. However, my family can function due to extended family support. My mother is permanently disabled and is a stay-at-home grandmother, and my aunt is available on weekends if a conference extends through the weekend. Due to my extended family, I could attend conferences if I wanted to; however, the cost often prevented me from attending many conferences. With prices ranging from $300 to $600 (not including housing, food, or transportation), a three- to five-day conference could easily cost me $1600 without financial support from my job. As a teacher in Florida with ten years of experience, a conference would be an entire paycheck for me.
At some point, I came to the realization that others were helping and supporting me in my professional journey and I was spending too much money to settle for scared, shy, and awkward encounters and presentations. When I finally began to engage with others after my presentation, I found they appreciated my perspective and scholarly input. I found they learned something from me and planned to apply it to their classrooms or to engage in additional research. I found out that I indeed had something worthy to say. Networking has helped me realize my greatness because scholars are not perfect; seeing the obstacles others face while achieving their goals gives me encouragement to persevere. Join networks that support and challenge their members’ development as scholars through shared goals, differing perspectives, and diverse backgrounds. Find networks that debate, share, and discuss common interests. Fear has no room in your life as a graduate student.
Networking is for building confidence, traveling across professional pathways, learning, and mentorship. Join large groups and small groups. Join professional groups and social media groups. I have only been involved and engaged in networking groups for a year, and I have gained so much more than when I simply was a member. My confidence has grown tremendously, which as a scholar was my biggest obstacle. I have created a research focus to narrow my goals, specify my participation in networking groups, and have a driving purpose in my actions as a scholar. I have been outspoken in my agreement and disagreement in decisions related to my career and scholarship because I have become an expert scholar. Because of networking, I trust myself. I no longer allow rejection to deter me from my path.
When joining network groups, pay attention to the descriptions, expectations, costs, and benefits. I joined one professional network in 2019 for two reasons: to transform curricula and because I was not accepted to present at the annual conference. I needed to know what I was doing wrong, so I became an active participant. I then presented in March 2020. I joined another professional organization in 2019 for similar reasons. This second organization rejected my proposal. However, because of my participation, I was selected to become a reviewer of other proposals, and I now have a clear understanding of what is expected for my acceptance.
Before joining professional organizations, I would have allowed rejection to stop my scholarship for months, but going through the process has been enlightening and powerful for my growth as a scholar. Make sure to engage in social media organizations and networking. Through Instagram networking, I communicate with other educators who are creating programs that support students who suffer from trauma. One Facebook group I joined is for mentorship, fighting educational injustices, hosting webinars, soliciting calls for chapters and proposals, identifying current research, expressing frustrations or errors in our careers, and providing support. Because of this group, I have become outspoken because of the requirement of posting at least once per month. Planning for the future, I will renew my memberships and join more. I will become more active in all organizations. Through networking and my membership in professional organizations, I have learned the following and I incorporate these ideas in my planning:
- Determine a research agenda.
- Publish regularly.
- Create a social media or internet presence.
- Share cautiously.
- Seek feedback.
- Educate and mentor others.
Planning and networking are powerful tools. Do it. Do not worry about how people will perceive you because you are speaking a truth in which you are the expert. The purpose of any networking group should be to educate and elevate cyclically so everyone benefits. As a scholar, you are adding to your field via new information or a different perspective. I am still not where I want to be, but I’m just getting started on figuring out where I want to be. I have always wanted overnight results, and this process is teaching me the power that lies in my own hands to accomplish my goals. I just need to put in the work.