An open letter from a grad student… to my future self (or anyone curious about what it’s like).
I vividly remember this time last year—I had just gotten admitted into my dream graduate program. I finally felt like my life had purpose, and I knew where I was headed. I was so excited for the fall to come, eager to start my degree and begin what I considered the next chapter of my life.
I still feel the sense of purpose that kept me motivated last spring. I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend this university and further my education in a field where I hope to change people’s lives one day.
Admittedly, I know I’m probably more equipped to handle the chaos of pursuing a Master’s than some of my peers. I put in 60–70-hour weeks every week between school and work and still manage to perform well academically. I maintain an active social life and go out regularly. I am also currently exploring my style and enjoying partaking in Lower East Side street fashion (catch my hot pink trench coat if you can!).
On the outside, I’m sure my life looks great. To everyone, I’m doing well, looking good, and most importantly—not asking for help.
“It’s only temporary, and you’ll get through it!” “You’re smart and strong; you can handle it.”
Now, I’ve had a lifelong problem with not asking for help. I was always the person who stayed quiet until things got extreme or harmful. I’m a Black woman who has been conditioned to believe that asking for help meant I wasn’t strong enough, smart enough, or capable enough. In my years of growth and healing, I’ve worked on overcoming this and being vocal about my struggles. Yet, despite all of this, I find myself sitting in silence, overwhelmed by waves of helplessness over the things no one could help me with even if I asked.
There is a fine line between passion and work, where allegedly, if you truly enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll never “work” a day in your life. However, I find this increasingly untrue. I went into the field of public policy because I found myself passionate about advocacy and making change. I am intellectually curious about how I can make those values a reality. Of course, graduate school (while working) is inevitably challenging. However, I find myself in an odd space where I am both liberated by the knowledge I am gaining and burdened by the psychological toll of realizing the true state of the world.
As I sit here writing, I am just under a month away from completing my first year of grad school. My program is only 2 years, but the curriculum has been intense. With only four semesters to complete my degree, there’s no space for failure.
Expectedly, going back to school full-time has required sacrifice. I went from living on my own in a sunny, quiet, and spacious one-bedroom apartment that I had decorated with my own art, to moving back into my parents’ home, where I spend most of my time in the lower floor of the house in my office or bedroom. I gave up on interior design here—of course, I made my spaces my own, but I feel disconnected from them. Unless I’m going to class, I don’t even get outside some days. I burrow so deeply into work and school that the day seems to fly by in the background. I sit in front of my computer for roughly 75 percent of my day, I stay up late doing schoolwork and personal tasks, I don’t have a consistent meal schedule, my bed rarely gets made, and my laundry takes roughly 3 weeks per load to be washed, dried (properly), and put away. But—I have a 3.8 GPA, so everything is fine, right?
Though the snowball I just described is riddled with dysfunction, it’s the reality of taking on such a huge intellectual burden from going back to school. It looks different for everyone, but it almost always requires sacrifice and reorganization of priorities. I was once a person who kept my home pristine, made time for exercise daily, meditated and prayed daily, prioritized cooking creative and nutritious meals, studied or taught myself new skills just for the fun of it, and almost always opted for a quiet night in by myself. When school became the top priority, all of this changed. The energy that was once carefully divided over all aspects of my wellness was rapidly funneled into my intellectual responsibilities. I spend Monday through Friday of every week dividing my time between school, work, and commuting. Since I live with my parents and prioritize my mental health just as much as I do school, I make time almost every weekend to see a friend or care for myself (in between the homework assignments that can’t get done during the week). With so little time left for me, I know that it is crucial for me to prioritize my mental health and the activities that bring me joy.
Although I wish that I were able to find more balance while I’m on this intellectual journey, I do believe it is all worthwhile. Life will not always be balanced equally, but it is possible to still nurture yourself while navigating challenges. I do my best to stay as organized as possible, I go to therapy weekly, and most importantly, make time for things that bring me joy. Whether it’s traveling, going out with friends, or experimenting with my style, I’ve learned to cherish the small and fleeting moments so much more dearly. I appreciate the friends who understand that seeing me once every 4 months is the best I can do right now. I appreciate the people who know that if I haven’t replied to a text in a week (mid-conversation), they need to pick up the phone and call me. I find beauty in the moments when I sit alone in my room in silence and allow my mind to be empty for a few moments. I’m always grateful for the small plates of food or bottles of water that my parents slip onto my desk while I’m in meetings.
I’m sure I’ll re-read this blog in a few years and chuckle at my graduate years; I’ll look back fondly on the time I spent in my program. I hope I’ll be making an impact. I trust it will all be worth it. I will find a more even balance one day.
But for now, I’m patient with myself and unashamed to ask for grace from those around me.
This too shall pass.