Graduate School Isolation and the Importance of Relationships

Photo:  iStock

Photo: iStock


I arrived on the campus of my graduate university in August of 2014. Enrolling in Virginia Tech, I could not have been further from home by any possible meaning of the phrase. Obviously, there was distance. I am from California. Virginia Tech is in Blacksburg, Virginia. I do not even want to get into the initial culture shock being in a southern college town and all the PWI cultural markers I, for better or for worse, missed out on after four years in undergrad at an HBCU. I might have been a little, tiny, smallest bit of shook the first time I saw (let’s call them “spirited”) undergrads shaking cars and climbing light posts in front of police after a football win. But I digress.


For many of us, entering graduate school means moving away from home. Many specialized programs can only be found at certain schools. Tiny cohorts mean that if you want to get in, you should spread your application net wide and be prepared to move to a new city, state, or even country. All of this means that you need to be ready to hit another reset button on your life.


Graduate school is isolating. You will hear this phrase ad nauseam if you have not heard it already. I am not saying this scare anybody or be negative. This is just reflective of many people’s reality. Your workload will be heavy. You will be teaching or researching. You may deal with competitiveness and your department or cohort may be limited in size, making the social interaction you grew accustomed to in undergraduate school impossible. This isolation factor is especially true for us – Black students or students of color. The story of the “only Black student in their [class/cohort/department]” is the never-ending story.


Okay. That is scary. But all is not lost, so let me break it down to you:


Do Not Let Graduate School Become Your Life

This is the first rule you must follow in all things and if you take one thing from this article, then I want it to be that. I just said that graduate programs will bring large work loads coupled with research and teaching. However, you can never let that become your life. Do not feel guilty when you need to wind down or just turn off for the day. Your school is not going anywhere.


Go to Beginning of The Year Events and Events Geared to Students of Color

Your graduate school will most likely host meet and greet type events for the first few weeks of class. If you are attending a PWI, they may even have events specifically geared towards Black students, students of color, or even former HBCU students. It might not be easy to put yourself out there and this is something I struggle with to this day. But, it is a necessary step in branching out early. Take advantage of social events. You want to do this now rather than later when everyone is too busy.


Have a Social Ritual

Relationships require consistency and nurturing. Make an informal agreement that you will tend to your friendships. This could be weekly lunches or hosting small kickbacks on slow weekends. I frequently met with my friends after class at a dive bar of all places where we communed over cheap drinks and baskets of cheaper fried food. This space allowed us to vent, laugh and exist away from the stressful grind of our work for a few moments. It does not need to be a grand event. The point is, just have these regular meetings. Be flexible and understanding that scheduling conflicts happen (and some days we just don’t want to leave our homes,) but also be reliable and aware of the fact that people need each other. Community gives us protection and renews us.


It might seem like a simple piece of advice: make friends. Either way, do not forget that it is okay to go to the social events and carve out time for friends sometimes.


About the Author

Alexis Harper is a JTG Contributor. She is a graduate of Fisk University (B.A.) and Virginia Tech (M.A.) with plans to attend Howard University for her PhD. She focuses on African American literature between being a pop culture junkie and cat lover.