Office Hours: Bennie Niles IV
Bennie Niles @Bennie_Niles
African American Studies Ph.D. Student at Northwestern University
A.B. in African & African American Studies, minor in English from Dartmouth College
What inspired you to attend grad school?
I entered college thinking that I'd pursue a career in medicine. But instead of signing up for Pre-Med classes my first year, I took courses in African & African American Studies. I immediately fell in love with the material and developed close relationships with the faculty. So after my freshman year, I parted ways with my MD aspirations and decided to "explore" a bit. Given my growing interest in Black Studies and research, my professors encouraged me to apply for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. The program trains students from underrepresented backgrounds for academic life. I got into the program, and after a couple of years, I knew that grad school would be my next step.
Tell me about your proudest grad school moment. Why was it special for you?
My proudest moment was when I earned the "Best Paper" award for my Master's thesis. I battled through anxiety, self-doubt, and fatigue to even complete the assignment, so I was just happy that I didn't give up. But when I won the award, I felt affirmed. It helped me to realize that I not only belonged in grad school, but also that my research was important.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten while in grad school?
Two pieces of advice stand out for me. Before I even began my program, a professor told me, "No one completes a PhD on their own. It takes a village." That always stuck with me, so I've been intentional about building community in and outside of my department. Years later, during a low point, one of my mentors said, "Imagine your success. So that when doubt begins to creep in, you'll already have a picture in your head that will guide you to your destination." I'll be holding on to that one for a minute.
If you had to describe your Black graduate experience with one song, which one would it be, and why?
"Blessed" by Ace Hood. The first words of the song say it all:
I'm so grateful for everything
For every experience, for every roadblock
For every good person, for every bad person
Trust the Process.
For one reason or another, my grad school experience has been a series of highs and lows. But I remain "grateful for everything."
What has been your biggest obstacle in grad school? What strategies have you used to try to overcome it?
My biggest obstacle has been self-doubt. I entered my PhD program immediately after college, and for the longest time, I viewed my lack of "real world" experience as a limitation. And since I couldn't articulate my thoughts as eloquently as my colleagues, I believed that I wasn't as smart as the other students. My first year of grad school, I took a class that relied heavily on theoretical concepts. I struggled with those reading assignments every week. I had to read book reviews, talk to other students beforehand, and even contacted the professor. But I'll never forget the day that one of my friends stopped me after I gave an in-class presentation. He said, "Bennie, you disappointed me today. You clearly know the concepts. I could tell that you prepared, but you acted like you didn't. You are brilliant, and you deserve to be here! Do the work. Be confident. And say what you need to say, however you need to say it." That day, I learned to never discount my genius. Say what you need to say, however you need to say it.
What has this experience (pursuing a graduate degree) taught you about yourself?
That I'm more powerful and capable than I even know. There have been so many nights when I've said, "I can't do this!" or "I give up!" But somehow, I always pull through. That said, I'm also learning that I need to speak up and tell folks when I'm feeling overwhelmed with work, life, or whatever. Often, I keep everything bottled up until I reach my breaking point. But that's neither healthy nor sustainable.
If you could go back to the first day of grad school, what advice would you give to yourself? Why?
Give yourself time to grow. In grad school, there are so many different things that you need to do well in order to be "successful," such as publishing, presenting at conferences, applying for grants, preparing for class, and conducting your own research. However, few people excel in all of these areas their first day of grad school. So it's important to give yourself the space and time to grow and mature.
How do you think your identities have informed your graduate experience?
Being Black, in general, is tough. And the same is true in the academy. I've had colleagues who have scoffed at my suggestions because I asked them to think more critically about race (and gender and sexuality and class) in their projects. I wouldn't necessarily say that I been overlooked for different opportunities because I'm Black, but I will say that others who don't look like me have gotten them. I just try to do my own thing and define "success" on my own terms. It helps a lot.
How do you intend to use your degree in the future?
Honestly, I just want to tell stories and help others. I'm still trying to figure out if academia is the best place for me to pursue these interests. But either way, I'm looking forward to being "Docta" Bennie Niles, IV. Gotta start practicing my signature.
What’s something that you would tell someone who is interested in pursuing a similar path?
Figure out your "why." Why are you doing this? Why is your research important for you personally and for the field? Why this route and not another? Spend some time thinking about these questions. Write your answers somewhere, and keep them close. When those rainy days come, and they will unfortunately, you'll need the reminder.