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Life as a grad student: Not for the faint of heart, but well worth the effort

Think of the words graduate and school separately and what probably comes to mind are fond memories of your time as an undergrad or maybe hopeful optimism for the future. Think of the words together, however, and odds are you can physically feel anxiety bubbling in your gut.

Maybe it’s anxiety over the level of commitment or the workload expectations that come along with grad school; perhaps it’s even exhaustion after having completed four straight years of schooling you already thought you might not survive, and how dumb it would be to just turn right back around and begin the whole process all over again…with more homework…and larger stakes.

These are all very real concerns I think most people have about enrolling in grad school, and they’re definitely concerns I had when applying to Mills for the 2016-2017 school year.

At this stage in the game, time is precious. I think most students heading into master’s programs come to this realization at one time or another. Many of us, like my housemate, Lorrie, who’s about to graduate with her MBA through the Plus-One program, worked in the Real World before coming to Mills. She, like me, had a full-time job, had friends, had family, pursuits, passions, all of which were put on hold to be here.

I think my favorite part of being a graduate student at Mills is the freedom. I remember writing a paper for an expository prose class my senior year of undergrad on why having separate bathrooms for men and women is a form of institutional segregation and doesn’t accurately include those of us who don’t align with binary gender constructs. I guess it was too progressive for the times (or my school?) because I got a C and a special comment in red from the professor that said, “This is an inappropriate topic for a research paper.” However, the graphic PowerPoint I made on friends of mine who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during that time was A material. But, I digress.

But grad school keeps you honest. You have small, weekly assignments mixed in with two or three larger assignments due at various times of the semester in addition to one or two presentations. In the fall alone I read 16 books in 15 weeks, and I’m currently on pace to eclipse that mark at 18 this semester. And you know what? I couldn’t be happier.

While I can’t speak for every graduate program on campus, the MFA in Creative Writing program really encourages students to blossom and come into their own. That was my main millet (as opposed to beef – vegan) with my undergrad program at Kent State University. I didn’t feel like I had the option to write outside of myself and test my abilities. The work was derivative and boring. I rarely felt challenged. In fact, I could get away without reading a single book assigned to me and still churn out A work. I spent most of my free time writing poems and working on a novel I’d started just after graduating high school. Where were the challenges like that? I’m pretty sure the hardest assignment I tackled during my undergrad was my senior thesis, a 20-page paper on Victorian poetry, even though I’d already written most of a 600-page book. I was supposed to be getting an education, right?

Then I come here and I’m told to write three pages of fiction twice a week, every week, for fifteen weeks. Cue the Washed Out; I feel it all around. The difference between knowing the path and walking the path is walking the path. Graduate school prepares you for the rigors of whatever profession you’re going into without the confusing ambiguity of theory PhDs often find themselves buried in. You get to strut. You get to walk around in the shoes you may have only hoped and dreamed you’d find yourself wearing. And while it might not be for the faint of heart, graduate school is one of those things that will naturally better who you are. You’ll be handed the keys to your own personal castle; unlike the rest of adolescent and young adult life, it’s up to you to make sure the walls don’t come tumbling down.

In three weeks, I will have wrapped my first full year as a graduate student, and it’s still difficult for me to process. But I’m here and it’s real and it’s been everything I could have ever hoped and dreamed.