5 Things I Learned In My Last Semester of Grad School

Now that I’ve FINALLY made it through this semester and I’m equipped with a new job and a master’s degree, it seems like a good time to look back and reflect on what was pretty much the most whirlwind four months of my life. There are many things that I have learned over the past two years, but I feel that this semester held some particularly important personal and professional learning for me. Here are my top 5 lessons:

Lesson #1: Grad school is not supposed to give you answers; it’s supposed to give you questions

I am hoping, at least, that this is true. Because I have a thousand more questions than I did when I started grad school. I do have answers, mind you. There are a great many things I have learned and skills I have acquired; I have the ability to make better decisions, solve more problems, be more helpful to students and to my institution, and I have a more developed understanding of higher education and institutions of higher education. But along the way, with every answer, I have picked up at least a few new questions.

Most significant of these questions is the way in which I have begun to interrogate student development theory this semester. It’s funny to think that little more than a year ago, I was trying to absorb all that I could about the foundations of the field, but I am now at a crossroads where, under the influence of feminist theory, critical race theory, disability theory, and personal experience, I have begun to unravel the ideas of development, identity, and the self. It’s invigorating and terrifying, but I’m glad to be here.

Lesson #2: You have to open yourself  up to change

In January, I decided that my #oneword2012 would be CHANGE. And let me tell you, it’s a good thing I got on board with that concept. Life is so much more rewarding and enriching when  you construct your reality in terms of flexibility and possibilities. Being open to change means always allowing yourself to contemplate what is possible rather than what simply is. Furthermore, this mindset allows you to roll with the punches of life, to see challenges as opportunities, to constantly shift, recreate, and reinvigorate. Am I always 100% in this mindset? Not even close. But it’s a goal, and thinking differently is where it begins.

Lesson #3: Don’t compromise on sleep

So maybe I stole this one from Arianna Huffington. But let me just say that I get at least 8 hours of sleep every night. Non-negotiable except in extenuating circumstances. Hand in hand with this lesson is a sub-lesson: don’t try to do all of your important work when you are exhausted. I used to burn the midnight oil in undergrad all the time. I sometimes do it now out of necessity. As a result, I talked myself into the idea that I’m a “night person”. False! All I really want to do after 10pm is watch “Iron Chef America” and go to bed. I don’t want to write papers, which means that I should do that at times when I’m actually productive, like the morning and afternoon.

A big part of this lesson occurred when I stopped drinking Diet Coke in February. I stopped in the name of Lent but haven’t had any Diet Coke since then. I still drink coffee and iced tea regularly, so I haven’t cut caffeine out of my life, but I’m pretty sure I was using Diet Coke as an artificially-sweetened crutch to prop me up during the most hectic days. So no more Diet Coke at 9pm. I’m just going to go to bed. And I’m going to wake up earlier and be more productive.

Lesson #4: Assume good intent

This is a constant exercise in thoughtfulness. I don’t really think that we are a “benefit of the doubt” society, but think about how incredibly horrible it is to live our lives ready to pin the blame on someone else instead of trying to understand what happened. When problems are everyone’s fault, it’s easier to solve them because no one is exerting energy trying to make anyone else feel like crap. I honestly believe this. Just trying to be nice to people, talking behind each others backs less, and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes makes your life a lot more pleasant and less stressful.

Lesson #5: Plan for the future, but live in the moment

I’m sort of a planner. And by sort of, I mean that I have a plan for everything. I could probably write a Standard Operating Procedures Manual and Continuity of Operations Plan for my life in general (that might give me added peace of mind, in fact). You get the point though. I think that planning for the future is really important and will always feel this way. For example, I made a plan this year to improve my financial management, which I feel was successful and very important.

Sometimes, though, YOU CAN’T PLAN. I mean this in a few ways. Firstly, however extensively I plan for any given thing, there’s a pretty decent chance it’s going to get shot right to hell by factors completely out of my control (perhaps this is why I need a COOP). At any rate, life happens. You have to think on your feet. Secondly, I mean that sometimes factors out of your control are unknowable to you for any given amount of time. This is pretty much how the job search process felt. The ambiguity in my near future was dizzying; it was kind of like looking forward to the summer and seeing some vague blurry shapes that hadn’t materialized yet.

So what can you do? Try to make out those future shapes and forget about the clear picture around you right now? I don’t recommend that approach. I have, in the past, been guilty of not realizing what I’ve got right in front of me and around me because I’m trying so hard to focus on the future. You can miss a whole lot of your life doing this. So have a plan, be ready for the future, set yourself up as well as you can, but please, please take time to enjoy getting there.

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An Open Letter to SA Grads…

Dear Student Affairs Grad Student:

Hi, I’m just writing to tell you that it’s going to be okay.

What is going to be okay, you ask? Well, whatever is bugging you right now. Whatever is stressing you out, keeping you up at night, filling your planner, your email inbox, and your brain. It’s going to be okay.

Now, I’m not going to make false promises, hold your hand, or tell you things I can’t guarantee. I don’t really know you, after all, so the specifics are irrelevant. I’m not sure if you are going to get the job that you are really pulling for. I don’t know how late you are going to have to stay up tonight to finish that paper. I can’t say for sure how your NODA or ACUHO-I phone interviews are going to go. I don’t know how many more times you will have to edit your research design, whether your student staff will listen during staff meeting this week, or if you will have an emergency on-call situation in the middle of the night.

I can tell you that your family probably is still a little foggy about what exactly it is that you do for work. Some things you just have to accept…

I can also tell you that in spite of it all, you can do it. And you can do more than just scrape by.

You can help people. You can make students feel like they are worth it. You can save someone’s life. You can offer a helping hand to a colleague. You can inspire a student to stay in school. You can help someone discover their passion. You can share your knowledge with the field. You can teach  and learn. You can build relationships, manage conflicts, give the occasional hug, and change people’s lives. So thanks for that, by the way. If no one has stopped recently to tell you that you are doing really important, great things, I want to tell you that you are. I appreciate it.

Furthermore, you are going to get through grad school and become a great new professional. All of the bumps in the road are part of the journey. I say this as no stranger to rejection, late nights, early mornings, long weekends,  and tearful crises.

When it’s all said and done, you are going to be more than okay. You are going to be awesome. And why shouldn’t you be? Do you feel awesome? I think you’re awesome. I believe in you.

Sincerely,

Ashley

P.S. I would like to specifically dedicate this to the UMaine HEd class of 2012 and to Cory.