Office Hours: Shakeerrah Lawrence
Shakeerrah Lawrence @KerraDijon
Rehabilitation Counseling & Rehabilitation Counselor Education Ph.D. Student at North Carolina A&T State University
What inspired you to attend grad school?
There were two specific circumstances that encouraged me to pursue a PhD. The first reason was because of a suicide attempt of a close family relative. That experience encouraged me to speak more on suicide in the African American community, a topic that I feel is still considered “taboo” or “stigmatized,” even though it’s very real. After presenting on the topic (which made me initially nervous), I received such positive feedback, which was fuel for me to keep going. I desire to create initiatives and programs related to improving the mental health of African Americans. The second reason was due to previous jobs I encountered. I never truly felt like I had the autonomy to grow like I wanted to. As a matter of fact, my jobs felt mundane and lackluster. I wasn’t being challenged anymore. I can honestly say that this PhD program has challenged me in ways I never imagined --- but it has also fueled growth in me.
Tell me about your proudest grad school moment. Why was it special for you?
Initially, my proudest grad school moment was graduating with my Masters in Counseling from East Carolina University in 2010. My grandmother died the day after I started classes, and I wanted to immediately quit and give up. I know I had to keep going, as hard as it was, and graduating with that degree made me realize I had what it took to perseverance. Currently, my proudest moment is getting through three semesters (so far!) of my PhD program. These two moments are special because it truly showed me a new level of tenacity and perseverance I didn’t know I had.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten while in grad school?
Two pieces of advice in general; straight, simple, and to the point: “Stay out of cohort drama” and “stay focused.” Not everyone has cohort drama, so if you don’t have it, be glad. If you do have it, stay out of it. It’s easy to get off course. Distractions come and go, and sometimes, they stay. Take breaks as needed, but get back to work so you can finish. That’s the main goal.
If you had to describe your Black grad experience with one song, which one would it be, and why?
“Don't Kill My Vibe” by Kendrick Lamar. I’m a HUGE Kendrick Lamar fan. I’ve had his playlist on repeat a LOT during my doc student life. I’m usually in zone-out mode when I have my headphones on. I’m usually keeping my own vibe going most of the time. I keep my focus on the end goal and know I don’t have time to deal with any drama. Because things can get draining at times during this program, self-care is essential for me, and one of the main ways I do that is to put my headphones on and “zone out,” and it’s usually this song that’s playing when I do.
What has been your biggest obstacle in grad school? What strategies have you used to try to overcome it?
My biggest obstacle in grad school has always been financial. It was (and STILL is) a struggle!!! I had an assistantship, but of course, it’s not enough. I graduated with my Masters when I was 25 and was ready to make “real” money. I did, and still, it wasn’t enough. Of course, you always hear ‘money isn’t everything,’ but you still need a roof over your head, food in the fridge, gas in the tank, etc. The transition from full-time pay for 7 years to barely making it in this program was beyond HARD! My program was initially funded, but when I started, they weren’t, and the struggle was TOO real! My years working full-time helped me become certified and licensed in different areas, which has been EXTREMELY helpful in me getting income through contract work. It’s still a struggle, but going from barely making it in year one to greater sustainability in year two has been a blessing.
What has this experience (pursuing a graduate degree) taught you about yourself?
While I mentioned tenacity and perseverance in an earlier answer, I would say that this experience has truly taught me about coming out of my comfort zone in ways I NEVER thought possible. As a strong introvert (even though others may disagree, lol), it’s hard for me to speak up in front of people and I get super anxious before presentations. Despite this, I’ve done many of them and always get great feedback. I’m my own worst critic, as I think most people are, and I always see where I can improve. This “continuously coming out of my comfort zone” though? It’s been great…..and very necessary!
If you could go back to the first day of grad school, what advice would you give to yourself?
“Shakeerrah, you have what it takes to be here. You can complete this program. You’ve heard all the negative comments. You’ve heard everyone talk about stressful comprehensive exams and how some people never finish their dissertation, and the dreaded 'ABD' title. I know you want to take all the advice you can get. DON’T. Seek wise counsel, sis. Seek the RIGHT mentors. Keep the faith. It’s going to be hard. Life will happen. Turn to those who you can TRULY trust. And when it does get tough, remember your 'why' for getting this degree.”
(It’s so easy to get advice from people who either didn’t finish, or don’t know what you’re going through. One of the best pieces of advice I would give myself is to trust myself more and use more positive self-talk. It’s necessary!)
How do you think your identities have informed your graduate experience?
I love this question! I think my outlook is a little different on this one. As a Black female, I currently attend a HBCU for my doctoral studies. I attended a PWI for my Masters program. I know some people feel a little out of place when they are the only Black student in their classes, but when I attended my PWI, I didn’t feel out of place often. I felt it was a way for me to educate and inform. Weirdly enough, I felt that I had a stronger identity during my Masters program. Coming back to my HBCU for my doc studies, I initially felt like I wasn’t “Black enough,” and I started to downplay my experience at the PWI I attended as negative and “not good enough.” Truth be told, I enjoyed my experience there. Now that I’m in year two of my doc program, I’m a LOT more comfortable in my skin. I understand and accept my identity wholeheartedly because I remember that it’s not necessarily tied into what institution I attend. Who I am is tied into my beliefs and values --- what I feel is important to me. I will say this though ---- as I grow more into who I truly am, the nature of the world today has made me embrace it even more. Being Black and female is revolutionary to me now. 😊
How do you intend to use your degree in the future?
My intentions are two-fold: 1) I fully plan on embracing the future Counselor Educator role, especially through research. As a person who initially couldn’t stand the thought of statistics and research, I now find myself drawn to exploring ideas that could be used as quantitative or qualitative studies. Along with teaching, I would LOVE to be a mentor, guiding incoming counseling students as they navigate through academia… and 2) become a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor, helping provisionally licensed counselors obtain their full license, while helping counseling students prep for licensing exams and establishing a private practice, because I want to ensure that I stay connected to the community as much as possible. As I mentioned before, my interest in establishing trainings, workshops, and outreach programs regarding mental health awareness in African Americans is still huge, along with youth and adolescent-centered programs. I literally want to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades,’ LOL!
What’s something that you would tell someone who is interested in pursuing a similar path?
Exploring different options, as far as school choices. If you can, apply to more than one school. Please taking funding into consideration. It is essential!! A lot of programs don’t have it, but if you find one that offers it, SERIOUSLY consider it, or (if you can) save as much as you can before you start (this was a lifesaver for me during my first semester)! Seek mentors. Sometimes, outside mentors are better due to their objective point-of-view. Embrace your uniqueness. It sets you apart from the rest. Be proud of that. Trust your gut. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it….and always remember the reason why your pursuing the degree. It’ll carry you through those days when you feel like giving up.
Feel free to reach out to Shakeerrah: firstname.lastname@example.org