5 Tips for Surviving Grad School As A WOC

by Evette Dionne

On May 10, I will walk across another graduation stage and receive my second degree. I know I will bawl uncontrollably as soon as I shake hands with the chancellor . All graduations are a symbol of achievement — you’ve completed the requirements, and are being rewarded for your diligence, determination and perseverance. These tears will be different from the ones I shed when I received my GED or when my alma mater’s provost almost mispronounced my name as she stuck out her hand for a firm shake. These will be tears of utter triumph because I survived the odds. I am finishing graduate school with my full mental, emotional, and physical health in tact. Many other students of color aren’t as fortunate.

Graduate school is a battle of wills, and this is especially true for students of color. We’re battling against white-dominated spaces that often discount our opinions. We’re often warring with professors and administrators about the validity of our research, especially for researchers focusing on marginalized communities. We're stripped of our voices when we're assigned syllabi that don’t reflect the breadth of black brilliance.

Still we rise. I am one of several people of color exiting my graduate program with a degree, but it wasn’t accomplished without support, guidance, and love. For students of color considering graduate school, I offer these seven tips.

1. Find a mentor whose research mirrors yours, and cling to him/her.

Scholars sharpen other scholars, so it is wise to pursue a graduate degree in a department that houses professors with interests similar to yours. I clung to the first self-identified black feminist communications scholar I was introduced to. I enrolled in several of her classes, visited her office regularly, sought multitudes of advice from her, and utilized her as a resource. In turn, she introduced me to other black feminist scholars willing to answer the pesky questions of graduate students. Build relationships with junior and senior scholars with similar interests. It's as simple as sending an email, visiting their offices and asking questions. Forming these bonds are crucial to a successful graduate school experience.

2. Immediately seek professional counseling.

Mental illness is a major concern for graduate students. The extensive hours of researching, writing, and grading can take a toll on mental health. California’s Student Mental Committee finds that graduate students are “experiencing mental health problems that are qualitatively different [from] and significantly more complex” than previous generations because “the stress and structure of a graduate program can exacerbate their issues or [overwhelm] their coping skills.” Graduate students of color are especially susceptible because we’re often navigating hostile environments. Counselors can provide tools for coping with stress as well as an unbiased ear. Keeping a standard appointment with a effective counselor can circumvent a mental break.

3. Build a village of support.

No graduate student can survive this journey alone, so it is essential to create a village that will support, uplift, and encourage you. My village consists of my school’s Black Graduate Student’s Association, close family members, friends, and other graduate students of color I’ve encountered on social networking sites. They keep me focused on the ultimate goal.

4. Always trust your gut instinct.

Your research interests might shift in graduate school. Your goals might evolve. You might decide that a specific course is best suited for the research you’re producing. Stick to those guns, especially when administrators and professors attempt to derail you. Also, learn the department’s handbook front to back. It will be your first line of defense.

5. Find time for self-care.

Balance is an almost impossible goal in graduate school, but self-care is vital. Spend time focused on your needs and desires, no matter what they are. You love watching movies? Watch a movie whenever time permits. I read one leisure book per week, watch the NBA once a week, and soak in a bubble bath every night. These simple gestures keep me leveled, even when I’m under intense pressure.