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.
Christina Sessoms is a current PhD candidate in the American Studies department at the University of Maryland, College Park.
None of the intense work done in my undergraduate career would actually prepare me for what was to come in my graduate career. Simply put, the first year of graduate school was traumatic.
As an undergraduate student, I was consistently deemed to be the “Michelle Obama” of the campus. The one to get things done, going here and there, attending this meeting, and talking to that person. I was the president of my historically Black sorority chapter, president of the Black Student Union, formal and informal mentor in the multicultural student services program, tutor to student-athletes, and work-study employee within my academic department. I did it all. Why I decided to undertake another commitment was beyond me, but that decision altered my life trajectory.
In the spring of my sophomore year, I decided to apply to a prestigious post-baccalaureate program at my undergraduate institution. The program was intended to prepare first-generation/low-income students and students from underrepresented backgrounds for graduate education with particular emphasis on doctoral studies. The goal for these graduates is a fully funded package for a doctoral program within their desired field. It was through this program that I obtained a faculty mentor, conducted undergraduate research for the first time, presented papers and posters at conferences across the United States, received GRE preparation, and attended specialized courses and workshops dedicated to properly prepare me for graduate school. My cohort and I became excited at the thought that we would soon become serious scholars and contribute to academia—an idea that has long been touted as the vehicle to upward mobility.
I began to put together my application packets for all of the institutions to which I would apply. As a comparative ethnic studies major, I was adamant that my graduate program would be in African American Studies. “Cast a wide net” was the repetitive advice constantly told to me not only by my faculty mentor, but also by my program director, department chair, and even my retention counselor. My faculty mentor and I worked diligently to cast that wide net and think through programs that would best serve my academic goals and aspirations. But, to my dismay, so many of the African American programs required a master’s credential before admission into their doctoral program. This resulted in my faculty mentor suggesting another interdisciplinary program—American Studies. Because I was unsettled in my research interests, I desired a program that would allow flexibility to ebb and flow in between disciplines in order to craft a project reflecting all of my interests.
Through programs and conferences, I visited numerous campuses in the South and Midwest that proudly displayed their faculty, top graduate students, and research centers. With applications sent to eight programs across the United States, I anxiously awaited to hear back. Letter after letter arrived in my inbox rejecting my application. I soon learned of my position on the waitlist of one American Studies program. A couple of weeks passed, and I received the life-changing call from the Director of Graduate Studies informing me that I became one of the last students to be admitted into the Fall 2015 cohort.
Three months passed and with a few possessions, my mother and I began the uncharted journey to Maryland. To be on the campus for the first time and know that I
was a first-year doctoral student ignited pride in my accomplishment. Here I was a fresh 22-year-old Black, recently graduated woman from the Pacific Northwest walking the halls of one of the oldest and best regarded American Studies departments in the nation. The excitement and thrill of the unknown soon came to a pass as the semester went deeper and deeper.
One of the major problems that emerged during my first year in grad school is the imposter syndrome that many women of color graduate students experience. Imposter syndrome was first introduced through the work of Clance and Imes (1978) to “describe the traits and behaviors of a group of high-achieving women who were struggling to internalize their success” (Parkman 2016, 51). At the time, I did not know the language of imposter syndrome and truly did not understand why I felt this way. My self-perception coming into graduate school was high as I thrived in my undergraduate coursework. Why was I feeling fraudulent, inadequate, and unworthy of sitting at the seminar table with my professor and peers from across the university?
One of the major factors that I believe contributed to my imposter syndrome was my age. As a 22-year-old, I simply did not have the life experience that my peers had. I was taking classes with those who already had experienced graduate culture through their master’s programs, those who had extensive work experience who were returning back to school, and those who had whole life partners and families to provide for. It was the first time that my age became a prominent external identity that loomed every time I stepped on campus. Whether it was real or not, I perceived a constant contradiction with feeling too young to interact with my graduate peers while needing to mature beyond the undergraduate mindset. The labor associated with code switching and battling imposter syndrome ignited a level of exhaustion I was not previously privy to. In turn, this all prompted me to truly doubt my presence within the academic space which ultimately led to a sharp decline in my mental health.
The stress associated with being a graduate student is one that is heavily researched.
To combat the transitional imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety, and burnout, I recognized that I could not go about this fight on my own. I needed to start building the tools and community that would sustain me as I tried so hard to succeed in graduate school. It was in the start of my second year that I began going to therapy. Therapy truly contributed to the building of my self- confidence, boundary setting, and self-awareness.
To my other graduate students, specifically women of color who are in their first year and have made the direct transition from their undergraduate program, I share these points of light so that you may continue persevering in your program:
- You belong. Although I was placed on the waitlist of my program and I initially felt feelings of being “second-hand” or an afterthought, I was there. I was often the youngest person in my courses, but I was still there. The selection committee must have felt that I had something important to contribute. They saw my potential even when I was unsure. For every ounce of mediocrity that may sit in your seminar rooms, please believe your sheer presence alone represents resistance, tenacity, and persistence.
- Peep game. Graduate education is inherently exploitative as graduate students are often underpaid and overworked beyond the limitations of their assistantships. My post-baccalaureate program taught me to never attend a program without full funding. However, as a low-income, Black female student who worked 2-3 jobs at any given time, the offer of a financial package of almost $250,000 over the course of five years being waved in my face was one of the most important factors that led to me accepting admission. I did not receive, however, a comprehensive explanation of all of the labor performed outside of the outlined twenty-hour teaching assistantship. Obligations associated with teaching commitments, such as student meetings and grading, in addition to departmental service assignments, continued to surpass the twenty-hour maximum. It may be hard at first, but you need to know that you do have the right to say no especially if you feel that your work will be under compensated. Establish boundaries with your advisor, mentor, supervisor, and students for your own self-preservation.
- Not all skin folk are kin folk. Some faculty and staff that I believed would automatically be in my corner because of our shared ancestry definitely were not. This was a lesson that took me many years to learn since I wholeheartedly believed that those staff and faculty would eventually come around to affirm my being in grad school. While some came around with time, others did not. Not everyone is there for your best interests, so it is imperative to build a coalition of people who genuinely want to see you thrive and live your best academic life. Your boldest advocates and supporters may come from different departments or even different institutions or backgrounds. I soon came to depend on my network back home and the growing one that I established around the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area.
- Decentralize the university. It is imperative for you to build a community of people outside of your department. It gets mentally weary to constantly theorize and critically think about society’s minutia. You cannot make graduate school your only priority because that means you will neglect yourself outside of your graduate identity. The artist, the athlete, the activist, the sister, or the wife will suffer if you hyperfocus on one aspect of your identity.
- Find and maintain joy! Joy is integral to the stamina necessary to finish this arduous journey. As Dr. Brittney Cooper, author of the Black woman’s manifesto Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, states, “Joy arises from an internal clarity about our purpose… maintaining the capacity for joy is critical to the struggle for justice” (2018, 274). Remember why you are there. I could not let the difficult transition that I have experienced steal my joy and my capacity for self-love. For me, the diminishment of joy directly correlated with the decreasing of self-preservation and self-care. If I did not continue to find joy in the smallest things, like watching the sunset over the Potomac River or knowing that my moments of intense anxiety were temporary, I would not be standing here today.
In closing, to graduate programs and schools, please be cognizant of the varying experiences that inform how your students are entering and showing up in your programs. I am not speaking to the programs that have the stipulations that requires applicants to have a master’s degree but instead to those that do not. Recognize that not everyone will have extensive work or educational experiences. We, as women of color, have not only our racial and gendered identities intersecting in a space that has historically excluded our bodies, but also our age as a factor. To be thrust into doctoral coursework, exams, and dissertation research in your very early twenties is a feat that very few take on. With that being said, respect our presence because we deserve to be there.
Clance, Pauline R., and Suzanne A. Imes. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy: Therapy, Research, and Research 15, no. 3 (1978): 241-247.
Cooper, Brittney. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpowers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.
Parkman, Anna. “The Imposter Syndrome in Higher Education: Incidence and Impact.” Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice 16, no. 1 (2016): 51-60.