Higher Education Experience

11 Things That Helped Me Survive Graduate School

It’s been a hot second since I posted anything, and I am glad to be back! I just graduated with my master’s degree in May, so I figured I’d share a couple things with y’all–in true blog post style, a list. Admittedly, this might be a more helpful list for people in social science programs. These are also intentionally vague. I don’t think there’s anything specific you can do to prepare for graduate school because programs can be so different depending on where they are and what kind of program you’re in. Most of the stuff I learned is about people, so that’s what I’m inclined to write about, but I’m happy to answer other things, too. Feel free to post comments with any questions.


Sailboat in St. Pete Beach, FL. Stay afloat! You can do it!

1. If you ever make a request, always bring a bargain to the table. For example:

Leonie: Can I still turn in my paper?

Professor: The semester is over.

Leonie: I’ll clean out your office?

Professor: Done.

2.  Food.

Leonie: Hi students, today we’re going to talk about—

Students: *asleep*

Leonie: I have food.

Students: *wide awake, super engaged*

3. In organizations, there are mountain-movers, and then there’s everybody else. Mountain-movers enter your life at the rate of around 1 in 100. You’ll know them when you meet them.

Leonie: Hello, I am interested in a graduate assistant position.

Everybody else: I give no fucks.

Leonie: Hello, I am interested in a graduate assistant position.

Mountain-mover: Well, it’s great that you visited. Give me a second.

*leaves room*

*comes back in 7 minutes*

Mountain-mover: The office next door would like to give you an interview.

4. The reward for work is more work, so pace yourself accordingly.

5. This is grad school, not activist training camp. Professors will not hold your hand when you’ve experienced something blatantly racist or sexist. So if you’re emotional in class, be prepared for a complete lack of sensitivity to your feelings.

6. Talk to your professors. This is absolutely key. Tell them if the workload is a lot, or if the readings seem irrelevant or if you want to have more input in your classes. If they’re good faculty, they usually respond with some kind of pointers or individual attention. If they don’t, they’re not good faculty.

7. No one is going to give you the recognition you deserve. Keep your besties close.

8. Find your squad fast, if you need one. All grad students are not the same, and some are just cruel.

9. Don’t put too much stock into new friendships. Even the people close to you in grad school might hurt your feelings in the heat of a moment, out of political differences or because you just operate in the world differently. Be prepared to swallow your pride many times. Also be prepared to stand your ground. Hold out, though, because some folks are surprisingly kind.

10. Graduate school is unique (certain programs, anyway) because people of a lot of different age groups come together in an academic setting. Try not to alienate older or younger classmates/colleagues/co-workers. There’s a lot to be gained from a different perspective, something you can’t do when you’re surrounded by people who all have the exact same cell phone. This is a time to exercise your compassion.

11. Graduate school can really break you down. Just remember you’re not a bad person, even if you have made some pretty embarrassing mistakes. Usually, you will perceive things to be much worse than they actually are. It’s par for the course.


More Confessions

I have another confession. It requires that I tell a rather long and drawn out story, one that might end terribly, or worse, it might never end. The part that sucks is that I’m in the middle of it right now, so I don’t actually know which way it is going to go.

It starts a little over a year ago. I began my master’s degree in this place that is far from home and where I felt very lonely. I made a small handful of friends, and there was one in particular to whom I became very attached. Attached is a mild word for it, really. This person was someone with whom I felt this spiritual, other-worldly connection. We became very close very quickly. I loved this person unfathomably. I think I actually still do, but I have come to resent the love I feel because of the way things played out.

At the end of the last school year, this person shared with me a few things about the relationship that she was growing weary of. There was a particular incident with another person, a mutual friend, which had offended them (this isn’t their usual pronoun; I’ve changed it for the sake of this story). I hadn’t included them on this night when we had ordered dinner, and they were angry. I felt the anger was justified. I know I tend to compartmentalize certain interactions that, in real life, can’t be compartmentalized at all. We talked about the incident, and I thought the conflict was over. I thought we could move on from then. I don’t think this person or I knew at that point just how deep their frustration with me was.

Summer began, and I moved to Atlanta to do an internship for two months. At the beginning of the summer, this friend and I kept in touch usually by texting each other, but I noticed that as the two months progressed, this person responded to me less and less. At first, it might have taken a day or two to respond, but that time increased to a week, and then two, and then finally, there was no response at all. I continued to send them messages throughout the summer. They had said during the year that sometimes they take note of things and simply don’t respond. I sent them things that I thought though would enjoy hearing, or perhaps that would be interesting to them. They were messages sent in sincerity, from the bottom of my heart. I wanted them to know that even though I was far away, I was still thinking about them.

When I came back, I knew something was wrong. The two of us met long before classes started, but they weren’t speaking to me, at least not the way they usually do. I finally invited them to dinner. I needed to know what was going on, so I asked at that point, when we got together for dinner. Looking back now, I think that was a big gesture I made. I didn’t have to ask them what the problem was. In fact, it says a lot that they didn’t come to me and just tell me what was wrong. They made me go to them. They made me “figure it out”. They made me hold them accountable.

Anyway, all their frustration with me came out at that dinner. Apparently, they believed I was abusive and manipulative. They felt I was receiving more from the relationship than they were. They explained that they thought there was a lot they were giving me, and I could see where that was coming from. Throughout the year before, I would come to them with my issues with my work, how little support I felt I was receiving, the alienation I felt in both my new environment and my program, and many other things. I guess they felt as though they had to advise me. Perhaps I could have named this at some point, but I did not require that from them, and it saddens me that they thought I did. Furthermore, they also said that they felt I didn’t listen to them when they shared problems with me. Or rather, that my responses weren’t genuine. I would be very quiet when they explained things. Sometimes I might not respond. I could understand this as well. I think at times, when someone comes to me with problems, I don’t want to give the impression that I have any right to comment on their life. I also don’t really know how to respond sometimes, to be really honest. I don’t want to sound scripted or rehearsed, but sometimes a genuine answer is hard to give to things that are truly painful. But to them, this made them feel as though, in their words, I wasn’t willing to make myself vulnerable, nor was I willing to make mistakes (or acknowledge the ones I made).

It hurt a lot to hear those things. Hurt is an understatement. This image I had of this wonderful friendship was suddenly shattered. Clearly it was far from perfect, if this person’s dissatisfaction could go on for that long and I didn’t know.

I think the part that  hurt the most was when they said to me that it angered them when they received my texts over summer. They said they repeatedly felt anger whenever I texted them. That’s why they had been ignoring me. So there I had been thinking that I was showing affection and warmth by keeping in touch, and actually it had been irritating them the entire time. It hurts me the most that they didn’t tell me that. For nearly five months, I had been exposing my heart to this person, and that action was annoying to them. It was irksome. It made me feel disposable. They claim that this was because they thought it would be better to tell me these things in person. So they allowed me to go deeper and deeper into confusion for the sake of some notion of propriety in which we tell people important stuff in person.

I withdrew from them after that. I haven’t seen this person one-on-one since that night that we had dinner. Frankly, at this point, I’m not sure that I want to either. Staying away from them has certainly protected them from any more feelings of abuse or manipulation. Though, I also don’t think I want to see them because I hurt. I hurt a lot right now. They love telling me that “hurt people hurt people”, and that I am definitely one of the hurt persons in question. And it is implied that I hurt people when I am hurt. I’m sure I do.

The part I hate most is that I think I still love them, but I don’t want to. It would make my life a lot easier if I could stop loving them. If I could leave and not bat an eyelash that they would be gone. If I could tell them to get out of my life and never feel an ounce of guilt for it. I know that in the world of vulnerability and honesty and trust, we should work this out by speaking, addressing everything that has come up. But I don’t want to do that. I’m not the bigger person. I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t want to do “bigger person” things. I want to yell at them and be insanely mean. And if I did, that would be exactly what they expect of me.


A Group Observation of an Undergraduate Staff in Student Affairs

This is an (informal) report of observations I made of the staff that I supervise (most likely some inherent bias there). Because my staff consists of Asian Americans working at a predominantly white campus, I felt their words and actions resonate with me. I’ve given a (brief-ish) synopsis of what I inferred from their words and actions and the impact it had on me.


The group I chose to observe was the undergraduate staff of the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center (YKCC). There are three members of this group (whose names I have changed for the sake of anonymity): Ashley, Tina, and Mike. All three staff members self-identify as Asian Americans. Ashley is a senior who is studying public health and graduates this semester. She is the program coordinator of the YKCC. Tina is a sophomore double majoring in anthropology and psychology. She is the administrative assistant. Mike is also a sophomore, and he is an electrical engineer. He is the liaison between the YKCC and the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success (CMASS).

To provide a little more context, the YKCC is part of four cultural centers at UMass Amherst. The other four centers are the Malcolm X Cultural Center, the Latin American Cultural Center, and the Josephine White Eagle Cultural Center. These cultural centers are part of CMASS, which falls under the Advocacy and Inclusion cluster of student affairs. All four cultural centers and CMASS are four years old. Before CMASS was created, each cultural center had a full-time professional staff member and an academic programming component. Each center is now staffed by a ten-hour graduate assistant and three undergraduates.

I chose this group because I also identify as Asian American, and I feel invested in this community and its development. I am the graduate assistant for the YKCC, so I felt that doing this observation (with the permission of the staff, for a period of three weeks) would be a good way to gain insight on what the staff members believe their role is, what they believe my role is, how much agency they feel they have, how I validate them, and how they validate one another.

While I observed this group, I noticed that in daily interactions, the students rarely go deeper than what Richard Francisco refers to as the surface level of communication (p. 33, 1999). For example, during weekly staff meetings, the two women would sometimes admit that they hoped the staff would have more time to meet in social settings outside of work instead of only within the office all the time. Sometimes the staff would talk about homework assignments that were taking up a lot of their time, or when they were going home to visit their families.

I believe there were many factors that kept the conversation at this level. First, all the staff members are Asian Americans. Their parents were immigrants to this country, and most likely raised their children outside of the monolingual, extraverted, and materialistic context in which a lot of American children are raised. In my experience, and as a person who identifies with the Asian experience, I find that Asian American students might not verbally express everything that goes on in their lives, unless they trust someone very deeply. However, this does not mean they do not feel deep emotions or do not connect to people on a deeper level. I found it interesting that even though she does not talk about her identity too often, Ashley hosted two events about identity this semester. One was called Breaking the Monolith, which was about how Asians are frequently represented as a homogeneous group of people that all have similar physical features, abilities, and backgrounds, instead of the diverse communities that actually make up the Asian community. The other was called The Model Minority, and it focused on how (in)accurate it is to describe Asian Americans as the minority that has “made it” in America. In the evaluations of both events, many participants wrote about how they appreciated the space to tell their stories authentically, and to learn from other people’s experience. Many of the participants were Asian Americans, though multiracial students and other people of color did attend as well. From this, I could infer that this space for expression was meaningful to Ashley. She believes in the importance of discussion and allowing people to form their own opinions.

When the group did go to the fourth and fifth levels of group development, it was often because of pressure from their jobs. For example, this semester, the staff was supposed to prepare events for Asian Heritage Month. Due to a lack of both communication and inclusivity from my supervisors, the undergraduate staff felt as though their work was being solicited but they were not given an equal chance to be part of the planning process. I began to hear a lot about how they felt our department was being run. For example, Tina had been going to the committee meetings for the heritage month in my place because they had been planned at a time when I had class. Tina was one of two undergraduates on a committee of six people. One day, she said, “I never hear this other undergraduate [sic.] talk at these meetings. If she’s never even been to the YKCC, why is she there?” To me, this conveyed a lot of frustration about how these committee meetings were being held. Tina felt that she was taking on a lot of responsibility as one of the few undergraduate representatives at these meetings. This other undergraduate, whom none of us had ever met and who seemed to be there only because my supervisor knew her, did not seem to understand that there was a community counting on her to represent their opinions, and was subsequently wasting the committee’s time. I could infer that Tina feels invested in her community and wants it to be represented fairly. She feels despondent and underappreciated when her input, to which she gives a lot of thought, is not validated.

Another moment when the group stumbled into level five was when I was asking them to evaluate how well the center had accomplished its goals this semester. When I asked the two women to give their input, they gave it very freely. When I asked Mike, however, we did not get past the first question because he refused to assign a number to the way he felt. When I inquired further about why, he said, “It seems pointless to be evaluating things right now when we have not been keeping track of this all year.” I thought that was a brave thing for Mike to say. He is referring to the fact that our cultural center is lacking the kind of structure that allows for people to keep track of goals in an adequate manner. This is partially my own fault for not doing a better job of revisiting our goals throughout the semester. I can infer that Mike wants a more authentic relationship with his work. He wants to feel as if he is actually making a difference. Though he may not be aware of it, his quote is indicative of huge structural flaws in the way our cultural center, and cultural centers at UMass in general, are run. All four centers are in the attics and basements of buildings, and there are problems with access in nearly all of them. The YKCC is right next to a bathroom. There is no custodial service available to the room, and the air circulation is terrible. Mike’s quote seems to point out the irony of how much these huge departments of student affairs ask of these students, and how little they give them to work with.

From what I observe, these group members enjoyed one another’s company and often found solace in being able to relate to one another. Ashley would frequently offer the other two staff members rides home. She also would offer to pick up bubble tea from Lime Red if any staff members were interested. When we wanted to create staff hoodies, Mike offered to find a store with good quality material so that we would not waste our money.

I think balancing the gender dynamics of this group was difficult. Mike was the only man on the staff of four individuals. He also worked with my supervisor, who is also a woman, and my supervisor’s supervisor, who is also a woman. The two women on staff tended to be more talkative than Mike. Mike also expressed himself very differently from the women. While Ashley and Tina were very open about their complaints and opinions, Mike was most likely to express how he was not concerned. His most frequent response if anyone asked for his input was to say, “I don’t really mind what you decide.” This tells me that somehow, the center is not talking about things that are relevant to Mike. He has disclosed to me that he is from Boston, and that his family is Chinese. My instincts tell me that his background is working class, and I am inferring that this has a lot to do with how he comunicates. Ashley and I are from upper-middle class backgrounds, and while Tina is from a single-parent family, she still relates to me and Ashley as a woman. I think Mike has difficulty in expressing what he needs because he does not relate to our narratives. The way this impacts me is that I feel I have not done a good enough job of including him in our conversations, but I am also not sure what to do because I do not want to seem condescending in my interactions with him. I wonder if just naming my observation to him would help.

My main take-aways from this observation are that this group is very close-knit, in spite of each individual’s differences. While they have faced significant challenges this semester, they have found comfort in being able to support one another through hard times. They seem to value even just having a space where they are allowed to complain about the institution, and their complaints are validated by others who have had similar experiences. My hope is that the group (including me) can find ways to either confront or circumvent our frustrations next year. I think it is a good thing that we have created a space where frustration can be acknowledged, but I also want to think of ways that we can overcome that frustration and thrive.


Barkakati, L. (May, 2015). Group Observation. Amherst, MA: UMass Amherst.

Francisco, R. (1999). Five Levels of Interpersonal Communication: A Model That Works Across Cultures. In Cooke et al. (1999) Reading Book for Human Relations Training. (pp. 31-39). NTL Institute.

A Reflection on an Intergroup Dialogue Experience

“I spent most of this weekend being frustrated. At both the first class meeting and Racism weekend, I never knew how to prepare myself. For racism weekend, I wasn’t sure what I was walking into, but I had the distinct feeling that some people knew more about what would happen than I did, and because I had no insight to this knowledge, I was blindsided by the experience.

“The point at which I realized my lack of awareness was in my affinity group. In my naiveté, I had actually thought the space would be used by people of color to air their grievances [about] person of color-hood. I thought we would talk about our various communities, what our real experiences are as people of that community, what microaggressions we encounter on a regular basis, and what opportunities we had to build bridges within communities of color. I was vastly disappointed to find that not only were those not the conversations I had at all, but I was experiencing microaggressions in the very circle where I was supposed to be with people with whom I relate. I noticed that nobody really wanted to engage with whatever information or experience I put out into that space. I attributed this to two main causes. First, two of the people in that circle passed for white and were too threatened by my raw emotions and obvious frustration to interact with my ideas. The other cause is that the others in that circle knew (better than I did) to not bring their authentic selves into that space in order to protect themselves.

“I knew I would not get what I wanted out of this conversation when one of the white-passing individuals asked the rest of the circle how we go about building white allyship. Personally, I do not build white allyship. I could not care less whether or not I have white allies. I have always centered my work around the community I work with: Asian Americans. My purpose is to empower my community and affirm their existence, and the community does not need white allies to help them do that. The individual who asked this question spoke about how she would ask her white colleagues for help when she noticed something problematic. She did not acknowledge that as a white-passing person, she has the privilege to ask for help with relatively few consequences. I generally don’t ask for help because people think I am complaining if I do. If people do react to my requests, it is usually at a pace that is more hindering than it is progressive.

“However, the rest of this 55-minute conversation was centered entirely around white allyship. When the white affinity group from the next room came back to our room, I learned that they had talked about white allyship as well. To my knowledge, then, all of the conversation that had occurred in that 55-minute period had been centered on whiteness. This room of people, which had supposedly come together for the purpose of unpacking their own privilege and affirming people of color, had apparently not spent any time talking about people of color and had instead centered the entirety of their conversation on whiteness.

“…The most frustrating part about this weekend was actually not what had happened in that circle, but the silencing advice someone had given me just moments before we entered our affinity circle. I had planned on telling the white-passing individuals that their presence in that circle was a threat to me and offended me. I shared this thought with another person of color right before the affinity circle, who told me I could not tell those people that they were not people of color. From that moment forward, I thought perhaps I was not the person from whom they had to hear these things. I thought that perhaps in the long run, my silence was better than showing my anger because at least these white-passing individuals would continue to join dialogues about racism in the future. Since this was the very first time either of them were participating in conversation solely with people of color, I figured I would not be the one to preclude them from participation in future conversation [because I would not show them] how much they offended me. At this point, though, I think I should have said something for my own sake. I feel as if I allowed two people to get away with an offense that they do not [know] they have committed. For the rest of that day, I had to listen to one of those individuals say (at least 3 or 4 times, to boot) that she felt so affirmed and so validated by the affinity circle, and she was so grateful to us for hearing her out. I did not feel validated or affirmed in that space. I felt that this person took something away from me for her own validation, and the opportunity we had to have a real conversation in that circle was dead before we even entered.

“From this experience, I would say I have learned that whatever fear I have that graduate school is going to change me is already coming true. I am already losing parts of myself. I have already allowed myself to be silenced. I am already becoming the person I feared I would become—someone who does not present their authentic self because to do so is to invite all kinds of exploitation into my life.

“I don’t blame my colleagues who are people of color for doing that. Honestly, while it is something I adopt reluctantly, I don’t think I will be bringing my authentic self to the remainder of these weekends, at least not if I’m the only one. It has cost me too much of my emotional well-being to be that vulnerable in front of people who are not even paying attention. I also expect a lot less of the people who could support me in these spaces now that I know they are not truly being themselves. I think this will be healthier for our relationships because it reduces dependence on one another.

“At the end of the day, the biggest lesson I take home is that when one is teaching about racism in institutionalized educational spaces, the point is actually to affirm whiteness. To allow white people to feel safe enough to discuss issues of race, I basically had to minimize myself and compromise my own safety. The other (four) non-white people were not even being authentic because to be authentic would be too radical for the white people in the room and to harmful for the people who are making themselves vulnerable. Basically, for me this means that people of color…are not safe in classrooms, and the only spaces of safety we have are the ones we build by ourselves for ourselves.”

Barkakati, L. (2014). Racism Weekend Reflections.