Office Hours: Ashley Dennis

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Ashley Dennis

African American Studies Ph.D. Student at Northwestern University

B.A. in History, with a certificate in Human Rights from Hunter College, City University of New York


What inspired you to attend grad school?

My family expected me to attend graduate school as a means of achieving social and economic mobility, but I did not know what I would study or when I would attend. I really enjoyed teaching, but did not know what I would teach if I chose to pursue a career in teaching. My interest in African American history did not blossom until my sixth semester of college when I took Black Women’s History with Professor Kellie Carter Jackson. She was the first Black woman professor I had ever had and I admired her personality, teaching style, and enthusiasm for history. I enjoyed the class, but also felt ashamed of my ignorance and angry that the public schools I attended withheld these powerful narratives from me. From Mumbet to Michelle Obama, each woman we learned about inspired me to study Black women in history and the ways in which they served their communities. Professor Jackson also played a more direct role in my decision to enter academia by introducing the class to the McNair Scholars Program. I enjoyed attending academic and community talks, presenting at conferences, and conducting research as a participant in this program. Following Professor Jackson’s example, I graduated as a McNair Scholar and entered a doctoral program immediately after graduating from college.


Tell me about your proudest grad school moment. Why was it special for you?

One of my proudest grad school moments was presenting at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) conference at the beginning of the second year of my doctoral program. It was my first conference presentation as a graduate student and required initiative to be there, as no one suggested I present my work or told me about the theme of the conference, which was directly related to my research interests. I was happy to present and answer questions about my scholarship after months of archival research and writing in addition to encouragement and support from friends and my advisor to pursue the topic.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten while in grad school?

A professor told my cohort to make sure to make time for ourselves and to maintain healthy relationships with friends and family. He said something like, “your books can’t hug you at night,” which took me off guard and made me laugh.


If you had to describe your Black grad experience with one song, which one would it be, and why?

“Can’t Give Up Now” by Mary Mary. The chorus is “I just can't give up now/
I've come too far from where/I started from/ Nobody told me/ The road would be easy/ And I don't believe He's brought me this far/ To leave me.” Graduate school is really difficult, especially as a black student who is coming straight from undergrad. However, quitting is not an option. My faith in Jesus Christ is my main source of strength and encouragement; he will never fail me.


What has been your biggest obstacle in grad school? What strategies have you used to try to overcome it?

Time management. I’m still working on improving in this area, but so far, writing daily to-do lists (with a one day grace period to complete the tasks ☺), starting assignments sooner than I think is necessary, and keeping a calendar with social activities, class times, assignment due dates, and meetings has helped with both organization and time management. Reading strategically has helped me to extract the information I need for class discussion more quickly. Last, but not least, working with friends who keep me accountable and encourage me to stay focused has also been incredibly helpful.


What has this experience (pursuing a graduate degree) taught you about yourself?

I prioritize the things that are most important to me—my relationships with God, family, and friends.


If you could go back to the first day of grad school, what advice would you give to yourself? Why?

Don’t dismiss information from classes that don’t relate to your interests because that information is going to come up in future classes and is helpful to know. Also, when you are struggling in a class, don’t give up and focus on your other classes—just work harder!


How do you think your identities have informed your graduate experience?

A lot of people describe graduate school as “isolating.” However, I have probably socialized more in graduate school than I have at any other time in my life. My identity as a Christian Black woman from New York City has helped me forge close friendships with other Black and Brown folks – on and off campus—with similar backgrounds or beliefs.


How do you intend to use your degree in the future?

I plan to combine my passion for teaching, interests in the history of black women and education for Black people, and commitment to mentorship as a professor.


What’s something that you would tell someone who is interested in pursuing a similar path?

You’re on the right track by reading this blog! Continue to learn as much as possible about what graduate school entails from current and previous students.

Feel free to reach out to Ashley: