Ways to Find a Community and Support as a Graduate Student
December 18, 2019
I am a first-generation college student. I came from a very small town, went to a very small school, and realized fairly early on in my life that I was not on the same academic path as most of my peers.
My parents were brilliant humans, but not formally educated. Coming from little money, limited experience, and very few resources — I was on my own a lot. Not because people weren't willing to help me; but quite simply, because folks just didn't know what they didn't know. They supported me to the best of their ability and to the best of their knowledge (for which I am and will be forever grateful!). But those limits existed and persisted into my college career.
As a young, head-strong, stubborn human, determined to make my family proud and prove my worth, I wore my independence as a badge of honor: I can do this! And I can do it alone! I don't need your help! I am invincible! And I did. But man, did I struggle. Academically. Emotionally. Financially. Physically.
In hindsight, it's sort of amazing I made it out on the other side of all that. Being a first-gen undergraduate was intense. But I had made it, if only slightly worse for wear.
When I started my graduate program, I was set to do it again — all of it. Because that's how it worked, right? In my mind, part of the college experience was proving you could handle it all on your own — experiential courses in resilience. Trials and Tribulations 101 simply ratcheted up to Trials and Tribulations 502.
I'm here to tell you, that's not how it has to be.
Never again in your life will you have access to this level of support. Make sure to take advantage of every one of those opportunities.
Before I even stepped foot on campus, I was contacted by the graduate student organization that represented my discipline. There was a group of people (just like me!) who welcomed me to campus by inviting me to dinner. And we laughed. And shared our past experiences (and food!). They gave me tips and tricks for professional organizations to join and jobs on campus and places for good eats and, most importantly, the best cheap cup of coffee around. This group immediately provided for me a support system that would ultimately turn out to be a safety net for my time in graduate school (and my best friends … and my husband, coincidentally).
These were my people.
And then I met my advisors. I had two — one for helping me plan my classes and supervise my fellowship and one who was chairing my dissertation committee. Their influence and mentorship cannot be underscored enough.
They helped me put together a course of study that opened my mind and taught me skills I never even knew I'd need. They introduced me to scholars in my field. They invited me to speak with them at conferences and to coauthor work with them so that I could get published and make a name for myself.
These amazing scholars showed me the incredible research resources of the university. Did you know there are specific subject-matter librarians to help you navigate research in your field? They helped me plan a calendar that made sure I'd have time enough for study, for work, for writing, and for rest. Yes, remarkably, these people were telling me that I would only be successful if I slept well and ate well and took breaks and cared for myself.
When they got wind of me maybe not taking care of myself, I was invited to their homes for meals and breaks. They taught me the importance of not only being a student, but of being a human and a professional adult. These advisors and their families became my family at school.
Most importantly, they helped me to graduate on time. I was not allowed to linger in the ABD (all but dissertation) world where many graduate students go and stall.
When I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to afford it all, time with financial aid and the student work study office helped me to find work. I won a fellowship and a scholarship and took an on-campus job that helped to ease some of the financial burden that can come from full-time study.
As many folks do, I had also come to grad school to advance my career, grow, learn, and pivot to my what's next. Graduate schools are absolutely counting on this and are well prepared to help you. Career counseling, résumé reviews, graduate job fairs, and one-on-one coaching are invaluable assets that were readily available as a graduate student. I was so grateful to have this resource as I navigated the job market.
And have I mentioned the administrative assistant for the program who didn't let anyone in the department miss a deadline or an office social or a conference registration?
The amazing part of graduate school is that you're never alone. There are dozens of people who are committed to making sure that you are supported and provided for, not just as a student but as a scholar and as a person. You just have to open your eyes, ask the question, and be willing and able to receive the help that is there for you. Never again in your life will you have access to this level of support. Make sure to take advantage of every one of those opportunities.
Angela Montgomery is the Assistant Dean and Executive Director of Graduate Admissions at Drexel University. In her free time, she loves live music, things that make her laugh, and spending time with her family.