No matter how many seasoned Black grads you speak with, no one can prepare you (fully) for the unpleasant aspects of white graduate student culture. From the painfully awkward silences you endure in seminars after you “dare” to voice a counterpoint to the frustrations you bury when peers and professors bombard you with “race” questions, life as a non-white grad student can be incredibly taxing. While there’s no foolproof method (or Wakandain technology, unfortunately) for dealing with the inevitable challenges of graduate school, don’t lose hope. There are healthy ways to cope and thrive against the odds.
Below are three strategies that I’ve found helpful for keeping my sanity as a first-generation doctoral student. Each of these tips may help you jumpstart a plan for prioritizing and empowering your inner self as a Black grad a in white-dominated academy.
Read, cite, and quote Black and other underrepresented scholars unapologetically.
Most academic disciplines sideline or cherry-pick scholarship produced by so-called minorities. Yet, we know that scholars from a host of underrepresented communities provide invaluable intellectual and methodological insights for all areas of study. While the onus shouldn’t be on us alone to educate ourselves about Black scholarship, the reality is — you can’t rely on your syllabi for an all-inclusive graduate education. It’s imperative to devote time in your study schedule to researching and reading published works by scholars of color in your subject field. And once you do, voice what you learned in class. The fact of the matter is even if your professors don’t (or won’t) cite Black scholars, you can and should. When you do, nine times out of ten you’ll get more out of your graduate coursework than a lily-white syllabus could ever offer.
Build relationships with other Black/POC grads and faculty across academic spaces.
Black graduate students spaces are rarely predetermined. If you hold your breath awaiting decent “multicultural” student programming, you’ll certainly damage much-needed brain cells. Obviously, we wish this wasn’t the case. But in a world where Donald J. Trump is the President, we can’t afford to wait anxiously for the ivory tower of academia to act on demands that Black students have been making for over a century. Black professors and other Black students can be your greatest assets here. So, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself or invite someone to coffee or lunch in your spare time. But, as the saying goes, “not all skinfolk are kinfolk.” So, you can’t expect for every person of color to be your ally. Nonetheless, it’s worth reaching out and forging relationships with faculty and fellow students, even if you haven’t (yet) taken a course with them.
Sometimes the best companions are found outside of your graduate school program. To find them, you might have to take the initiative to go to join an interest group/club, show up at random mixer, attend an interesting talk at another school, or link up with local acquaintances you met through social media. Plan a weekend getaway trip with a few like-minded new friends. Share your experiences, laugh through your mistakes, and vent about your vexations. Whatever medium you choose, make it a point to build an oasis of support where you need it most. You never know where and when you might meet your next best friend in grad school.
Make a commitment to practice self-empowerment ritually.
Making a commitment to prioritize your well-being is essential for thriving (and not just surviving) in academia. Despite what your self-professed overachieving peers might tell you, prioritizing your intrapersonal health, needs, and welfare isn’t selfish. It’s self-fulfilling. Self-care is the ultimate practice of self-empowerment. You might’ve heard the phrase, “graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint.” In order to sustain your journey through grad school, you have to maintain a balanced life outside of the classroom.
Self-empowerment demands continuous introspection, rejuvenation, and of course — time. Ritualizing this practice can seem exhausting, overwhelming, or too time-consuming at first. But, there are simple ways to jumpstart self-care habits that work best for you. Carve out space in your schedule to make a plan for self-empowerment. If it helps, you can approach this task with the same mindset that you use for managing your research and coursework loads. Think about what your needs are, what relaxes you, and what restores your inner peace. Jot down your ideas in a journal, phone, or if you’re like me — your Google calendar, and then decide when, where, and how you’ll follow through with your individualized plan.
Above all else, remember that it’s okay to reach out to others and talk through your struggles together. Find a couple of confidantes within and outside of your academic bubble and resist the urge to “do grad school” alone. After all, a good bottle of wine and a few sympathetic ears might just ease the pain.
About the Author
DeAnza Cook is a Ph.D. student of U.S. History in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Born and raised in the "Dirty South," she began her academic career at the University of Virginia as an undergraduate of the Class of 2017. DeAnza studies the history of policing and incarceration in America with a particular focus on the gang and drugs wars of the late 20th century. In her spare time, she enjoys Netflix, Taco Bell, and frequent wine nights in order to survive the chaos that is graduate school.