This blog post is a letter to little Lorena starting her first year in graduate school and to all those students who are starting that exciting and scary journey of getting your PhD. Esta carta es para ti. I hope you hear it, feel it, and become the most amazing version of yourself as you also get your PhD. And that you learn from the things I wish I had known 6 years ago when I started my journey.
Querid@/x first year,
I hope you know how proud of you I am. You are doing something so amazing and also super challenging. I applaud you for making it this far. Eres amazing! I know tus papas don’t say this often and it is hard to process how proud you should be, but enjoy the joy that comes with having the privilege of being able to pursue your PhD. Not everyone can do what you are doing and that is something to be super proud of. Be happy and do not be afraid to share that happiness with the world. You never know who is watching, who you may inspire.
When you move to your new location and meet the people that will become your peers, you will feel lonely and isolated. And that’s okay. Those feelings are natural and normal when you start any new journey. Just don’t take it personally, there is nothing wrong with you. You just need time to process all the EMOTIONS, all the CHANGES, and the NEWNESS of your new chapter of life. Remember you have the power to change that loneliness and isolation, into community and connectedness. Take your time in finding these, but also don’t wait too long! Remember that not everyone is looking for community and friendship and again that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. You KEEP looking for those folks that will become your FAMILIA in this journey you call graduate school. Trust me they are around. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find them and sometimes you have to ask to hangout and connect more than once. That’s okay, remember you are feeling nervous about making new friends, some people are even more nervous and scared than you are. Trust me you will know the difference between someone who is uninterested versus someone who just needs time to warm up to you. Put yourself out there.
When you start your academic work, you will feel like a complete fraud. You will feel out of place. You will feel like WHAT I AM DOING HERE?!! But I need you to believe and believe in your soul that you need to be there. You were selected and you have a purpose to be there. If you believe in God or the Universe, know that life has a bigger meaning for your place in that space. Although, you will have to work harder to process through these feelings and thoughts due to systemic barriers, but I know you can! You can’t give up! And when you feel like giving up you remind yourself why you wanted to do this PhD in the first place. Remember those crazy and AMAZING dreams you have with your PhD. You can do this. Acknowledge all these feelings, lean on your community, and press on, you amazing human.
When you make all those plans about your research, career, and life, just know that life will throw you curveballs. I know this one was hard for you because you like abiding by a clear plan to success. I need you to know that often life shifts how things unfold and even though you will not believe it at that moment, I want you to trust that it will work out. It always works out, even if you feel like your life is falling apart. I need you to trust in yourself and just keep moving forward. You know that song from Frozen 2, the Next Right Thing, just like that song you need to feel what you need to feel, “but you must go on and do the next right thing”. And sometimes you may not know what the next right thing is, but I need you to keep your head up and keep moving forward. Don’t look back, unless it is to see what you needed to learn from the challenges. I also need you to know that some things will turn 100x better than you could have ever imagined. And when that happens I need you to celebrate and fully embrace those moments of joy and phases where everything seems to be jamming so smoothly. These times and experiences are the ones that power you through the hard. Trust me there are so many moments of joy you will experience in your academic and professional life, and grad school will try to steal that joy from you BUT DO NOT LET IT. You deserve all those great things! Don’t you ever forget that.
When you start interacting more and more with your adviser, faculty, peers, and others in your life you will learn that you may not know everything about boundaries, especially as someone from a Latinx family. I learned this the hard way, you should not be agreeing to EVERY opportunity that presents itself to you. You have a voice and are allowed to say YES and NO to things you want or do not want to pursue. You are allowed to dictate your work hours, how you spend your time, and how much of your time is dedicated to graduate school. Do not allow anyone to let you believe that you need to work 60-80 hours a week to be successful. Your success will not be like anyone else’s so you make it what you want it to be. Do not allow advisers to tell you what has value and what does not. That is up to you based on your goals, who you are as a person, and honestly just based on what makes sense to you and makes you happy. People will always criticize you when you push back or say no, just accept that now. Do what you need to do to protect your energy and well-being, even if those no’s are to your family and friends. You are in such an interesting part of your life and you will know when and what needs to take priority. I need you to always trust yourself on that. Only you know best.
When you feel out of whack not like yourself, I need you to reflect on why this may be. I often felt physically sick in graduate school and often blamed this on stress. Which yes stress was a correct answer, but stress from investing time and energy and things that were not aligned with me. I need you to learn to be more in tune with yourself to take care of yourself because no one else will. Make time for yourself and for your well-being. Go to therapy, find a support group, travel, fall in love, have babies, spend time with family, have hobbies, do everything and anything that is part of who you are. Do not let anyone tell you there isn't room for that. And yes people and just the environment, will push you to suppress parts of yourself, but I ask you that you do not because once this is all over you will realize how out of sorts you were and I do not want you to have to come to this sad realization. I want you to always be your authentic self regardless of how hard it may be at times because I can assure you life and getting that PhD will be 100x easier when you are you.
Finally, I know you will make it. You will have the moments when you are ready to aventar todo a la basura, but you will finish. Just know that sometimes the finish looks different than you envisioned it, but know that you will make it. And as long as you make it does not matter how or what happened before you got there. You deserve that PhD. You earned it. You are a fucking chingon@/x. I am so proud of you. And when you finally have those letters behind your name don’t forget about all those that came before you and those coming after you. Connect with them because if we join forces, together we will make this world a better place for us. And once you move onto your big adult job, know that some of these lessons still apply and you will be a stronger and wiser version of yourself and you will know how far you come and that your wildest dreams are only a few steps away from you. I need you to keep shooting for them because the world needs you. Eres espectacular, nunca lo olvides.
Tu (You) six years later
Almost a year out of graduate school, I can’t even begin to tell you how much better I am doing. My mental health is better than it has ever been. I find myself growing and healing in ways that I never thought possible. My physical health has also recuperated to what it used to be. I went from taking 4-5 medications daily to keep my stress-induced gastritis at bay during graduate school, to being off all those medications! And in all my reflections, I am also coming to terms with SO MANY experiences I went through that were not okay. I hope that no one has to go through them. The sad reality is even in this blog, which I use for self-expression and to connect with other students of color facing similar struggles, I have heard/received backlash about what I have to say. If that does not prove how broken academia is and how it continues to censure folks that speak out, I do not know what would. Today, I am using my platform to speak my truth about my experiences in hopes of validating other students’ experiences, and inspire folks in academia to push for change. By “change” I mean real change. Not just on paper or with acquiescent head nods and one liners about how much they care about diversity, equity, and inclusion, because it has not, is not, and will continue to not be enough. It is time to step up and actually take action, even if it is as small as standing up for “minor” injustices, because this is how we can keep pushing bigger and critical cultural shifts in academia! Let’s dive in!
“Your writing needs A LOT OF WORK, you are going to struggle A LOT!”
I heard this a lot during the first year of graduate school from everyone and anyone that came across my writing. I think acknowledging that I was not the best writer was okay, but getting unsolicited reminders ALL THE TIME that my writing sucked really tanked my confidence. In undergrad, I always got by with my hard work and getting to know my professors so I could meet the expectations for what they wanted to see from my submitted work. And I always succeeded in those efforts. In graduate school, the assumption was always that I was not good enough and who knows if I would make it. What my graduate school professors failed to understand is that I am a first generation college student and that my first language was, indeed, Spanish and not English. Reading and writing are subjects that I had to work twice as hard throughout my entire life because I had to constantly code switch between my home and academic life. That takes more brain power and diligence than it does to exist as a monolingual person. But NO academia and its people quickly assumed that I was just not cut out for this. So for everyone, but especially for my monolingual professors out there, be kind to your graduate students who are talented enough to be pursuing the highest degree in their field in a language that is not their first language.
“You cannot finish in 5 years because you do not have a masters degree prior to the PhD program!”
Oh man, I recently recounted this story in a panel at SRCD. I nearly cried because I realized how terrible it was for someone to make assumptions about me without knowing anything about me or my academic path. One day, in my 4th year of my PhD program I was casually printing surveys in a common area in my department. A professor comes in and notices the shiny engagement ring on my finger and asks if I had just gotten engaged, I responded yes. And then this person moved on to ask about when I was planning to finish my degree, I responded that I planned to finish within the next year. This professor then went on to ask well, did you start the program with a masters degree, and I said no. This person then went on to look me straight in the eye and tell me that typically students who don’t come with a masters take 6 years and not 5. This person then left. This person is White and making too many assumptions and judgments about me and my work… especially for someone who knew nothing about me and had never seen or been even remotely involved in ANY of my academic work. To say that was not racial profiling and “policing” about when students of color can make progress, is dumb because I am sure (p < .05) this person would have not gone up to a white student and made the same remarks.
“I support you and want to help.” (Read: If I need to confront faculty or make them uncomfortable to remedy this, whatever you’re going through is not worth the trouble).
There was an individual I truly considered an ally. I trusted this person with some of the hardest and most difficult things I was going through. But when it came to taking action either on my behalf or other students of color, the default was always to take sides with professors even when what they were doing was inherently wrong and/or racist. How are we students supposed to feel safe and supported by our departments, when we share our most vulnerable and frightening moments, and are met with invalidation that serves to maintain the status quo where faculty are the priority? Validating the experiences of students of color and actively working to solve them is inherently going to make people uncomfortable. It’s changing the power structure, and we know academia is really not great with changes. Fixing this issue though, is not accountability. It is the absolute bare minimum required to even whisper to yourself that you care about students of color and issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Making people uncomfortable is how we create the change that needs to happen in academia. Time to reflect and push yourself to more, because we’ve said it before, and I’m sure we’ll say it again (no matter how tired we are) - this behavior is unacceptable.
“I know you are the first author of the paper, but I want to change the authorship.”
Another time, I had conceptualized and written the first draft of a paper, but when it came to the third round of submissions a faculty member wanted to strip me of my first author position. No reason. No explanation. A decision was being made about a project that I had taken the lead on for multiple years. I felt so powerless. I remember going into group therapy the week of this incident ENRAGED, which was strange for me because it takes A LOT for me to get this upset. I had always heard about the horror stories around publishing, but I didn’t realize just how hellish these horror stories feel until it happened to me. Thankfully, between advocating for myself (which is scary as a grad student, as a woman, and as a Latina individually… now add all of them together) and a White colleague standing up for me, I managed to fight for my rightful place as first author. I’m glad it all worked out, but it’s still disheartening to know that I was so close to being thrown off of a paper I conceptualized and wrote for the most part for no other reason than someone with more power than me (both in the department and in society, because privilege is REAL) making a decision.
The one time, I had to propose my dissertation twice.
I have spoken openly about this experience in a blog post already, read more here: https://lorena-aceves.weebly.com/blog/stars-shine-the-brightest-in-the-dark
But no one cared about how broken down I felt or about how out of left field this change was to me. Writing a policy paper as part of a dissertation is something I had never heard being done in my department (no one else had heard about this either). I was at the lowest point I had ever been mentally in graduate school, which is rough as I was trying to finish this milestone so that I could move on with my life that was already waiting for me. There is not enough support in place for those who go through such unexpected transitions in milestones. I somehow was resourceful on my own and got it done! This is not okay and if something this drastic is happening at this point of students’ academic career, there needs to be communication way sooner than a proposal meeting, and there is no reason that the student should not be involved in this decision making process. The dissertation is touted as the “project you choose because you’re interested in it”, so let’s involve students! Thankfully I have made amends with this experience, (which took a lot of active personal healing) and I won a dissertation award. This happy ending does not take away from how hard the experience was and students should not have to experience something of this magnitude related to their milestones, which are already stressful. Same goes for you, just because something ends well (in grad school or in anything else in life), that does not invalidate the struggle it took to get there.
The multiple times, I had suppressed my Mexican-identity to “fit in”.
I honestly did not realize this until I finished graduate school, how much of my Mexican identity I had “turned off” to survive in grad school. Even from changing the way I dressed, did my hair, and spoke. I made these changes so that faculty would not judge me for being “different”. So that I would fit in and not be seen as unprofessional. I had to hide how my parents were undocumented, being afraid that someone in my department could be racist/anti-immigrant and try to go after my academic progress or my family. I hate to say it so blunty, but why would anyone want to be in an environment where they can’t even be themselves? Thankfully I had other sisters of color in my college/department and mentors with whom I was able to, even if only momentarily, be myself, unapologetically, without the backlash, and with all the validation and love.
The one time all my friends of color were walking together to a department event, and a faculty member made fun of us and called the “gang”.
One time, all my friends (yes, all BIPOC) and I were walking to a department event together. We were waiting for one of our friends to gather their stuff. As we were waiting, a faculty member walks by and makes a joke about all of us being together and calls a “gang”. At that moment, my friends and I just looked at each other and gave each other a look of “what just happened??”. Yes, it was a relatively small injustice, but that doesn’t invalidate the experience (afterall, we have an entire word for it: “microaggression”). I am sure just like myself, my friends remember this experience very well.
I could keep going on and on about the different instances and experiences that were definitely not okay, especially in the eyes of a BIPOC doctoral student. But academics do not stop. It makes sense that they don’t though. There are no consequences for their racist and/or elitist behaviors. Institutions do not require them to reflect on their agenda, words, or actions and the many ways that they may be unfair for BIPOC and other minoritized students. I wanted to speak and be la resistencia as my blog name states in the title and continue to speak out on these experiences. Academia te pasaste and it's time to change. I wanted to invite other scholars that have any small or large experiences they would like to share anonymously for me to put together in a blog post to showcase how pervasive these injustices are, especially because I am not willing to sit around allow academia to get away with all this ish and just slide it under the rug. It is time for some accountability and what better way than to speak our truths and unmask some of the weird and unfair experiences we have had.
Send me your experiences via private message on Facebook, Twitter, text me, call me, and email me. Even if you don’t want your experience included and just need some validation.
I hope this blog inspires you to not stay silent and at the very least to find people at your institution with which you can feel safe. As always, I am here if I can be of service or help to you.
Feeling empowered and with love,
In connecting with many young Latinx scholars that are currently pursuing their PhDs, what I often hear is them questioning whether getting their PhD is worth it and whether they belong in these academic spaces. I am here to tell you that these feelings and questions are 100% natural and normal. I had these questions and concerns come up more often than I wanted them! I know, it feels unfair that other people don’t have to spend all their time proving themselves and their research. Talk about privilege, right?! I am here to remind you that you deserve to be where you are and that everything you are doing matters (and you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone)! Let’s dive into this next segment of Vive La Resistencia!
Flash back to Lorena in her second year of graduate school. I finally felt like I was getting in the swing of things in graduate school. I finally felt like I was slowly finding my place in my program and the place that was going to be home for the next few years. Then bam, like a smack right in the face, this all quickly came crumbling down. My stress levels were at an all time high due to doing data collection in my lab, course work, and working extra hard to make sure I felt like I belonged in my program. I knew the stress levels were out of control because I got sick, but not just sick. I was out of commission for a whole month! I was so stressed and so physically sick that all I could possibly do was roll out of bed to go to class and come back and get back into bed. And y’all, for me this was insane, because I love working out everyday and getting out of the house to go work in the lab. But the difficulty I faced just getting to this point really had me questioning whether the PhD was worth it, and whether I was even good enough to do all this! I remember in my agony and pain just breaking down and crying in my bedroom trying to decipher if this PhD was worth all the physical stress that was manifesting in my body.
If this has ever happened to you or you have just had a crying party of 1 trying to process these questions, I am right there with you. Do not be ashamed of having strong feelings about these questions. Getting a PhD as a Latinx or BIPOC scholar is no joke! It actually wasn’t it until I graduated that I realized how much of my authentic self I had suppressed during graduate school, despite being such an advocate for myself or other BIPOC scholars in my program. I want to acknowledge and validate that academia is a hard place to navigate every single day. As I said in a recent panel at SRCD, if academia wants to retain and support BIPOC scholars there must be a large cultural and systemic change to make academia a better place! Yes, academia is an exhausting place to exist as a BIPOC scholar, but I can tell you that it is not impossible.
Let’s backtrack for a second, I want to acknowledge to you all that I am 99.9% sure that you are not the only one going through these mental battles of “Val La Pena?!?” and “Can I do this!?”. I can tell you even some of my most successful colleagues have fought this mental battle. I think we all do, especially as developmental scientists that naturally want to over analyze all human behavior. Having these feelings or mental battles ever so often is normal, but if you are constantly having these battles I would suggest you find yourself additional support in whatever form works best for you. Even though my mental battles were not pervasive, I got myself into individual and group therapy during graduate school and I cannot even tell you how useful it was for me to have that safe space to process. Find yourself a therapist, a group, authentic friends, or whatever supports will help you get back on your feet. Academia might seem to be a single-player game, but I promise you, your degree will mean just as much (if not more) if you develop and become a part of support systems.
And even after this big mental breakdown in my second year and re-evaluating my long-term goals (this is when I decided to pursue a non-academic career), I still had plenty of mental battles and the questions would come back, especially at the most inconvenient times. Some of these times included major milestones such as my comprehensive exam or in the process of publishing as a graduate student. So acknowledge that these mental battles happen and will happen, it is all part of being human. I want to share some useful experiences and tips that may help you navigate the mental battles.
As of lately, I have been having many conversations with current graduate students, predominantly Latinas, who are out there exploring their career options. I am grateful that you all choose me as one of your many guides and for having the courage to actively explore what you want to do with your life after your graduate studies. I am so proud of you all! <3
I think one thing we are often not taught in graduate school is how to purposely explore how we should use our PhDs post studies. I know the goal is to get people to stay in academia, but the reality is that there are not enough positions in academia for every single person getting a PhD to land an academic position. So it is critical that we learn the skills, processes, and, have the experiences that will help not only land a job post PhD, but land a position that puts you on a path towards becoming the best version of yourself.
What do I mean by all this? Well, your career should capitalize ON and vibe with your strengths, passions, and the broader vision that you have for your whole life. Your next question now may be well…. How do I figure out how my career aligns with who I am and who I want to be, and the simple answer to this question is listen to how you feel and what makes sense and what doesn’t. I am going to break it down for you all. Okay… let’s dive in!
Learn about your passion. Think about and picture how excited you were about the amazing big dreams you had when you started your PhD. I think once we are in graduate school we become jaded and often lose sight of that passion that brought us to graduate school in first place. For many, these passions may still stand and continue to be the reason why you want your PhD and how you want to use it. Other times… you may not be sure if your dreams and goals make sense and that’s okay. I was that student… I started wanting to be a professor to advise other young Latinas like myself, but slowly I realized that being a professor was more than training other students and I wasn’t sure if that aligned with who I was. And you want to know how I discovered that this path was not for me, by listening to my heart and the signs my body was giving me. When I started to ask myself what I wanted to do with my PhD, the idea of being a professor just did not sit well with me. It did not vibe with me and even more importantly grad school (and only as a student) started to take a big toll on my physical health. I couldn’t imagine a life where I was going to feel physically ill so often by forcing myself to exist in an environment that was not vibing with me. For you, this lack of alignment could manifest through mental health challenges, feeling unhappy, or just feeling that this is not right for you. Listen to those signs because they are not manifesting for no reason. In the process of figuring out your passion, you will know what your passion is because you literally will feel like a fire is inside of you and will be that thing that keeps you going on those days that seem cloudy and gray. For me, my broader passion is using my work to help me grow as a scholar, but also so that I can give back to underserved communities, which is why my current position as an SRCD Fellow at the Office of Head Start is perfect. I get to work on projects and initiatives that are directly impacting the Head Start program which directly serves tons of Brown and Black children in the U.S.
What makes your heart sing. I always like talking to other students about this one! I think one thing we are not taught is how versatile our skills as researchers are in a world that is not academia. What I mean is that you have some amazing skills as a researcher and there may be a particular sets of skills that just make you really happy. For instance, do you thrive and love working with others? Or do you enjoy working independently? Is project management your jam? Designing and creating questionnaires is your area of happiness? You love developing a new research agenda? Or you may like just answering research questions that are pressing in solving a world problem? Or better yet you love running statistical analyses and could do that all day everyday (this is totally not my jam! lol)? Maybe you love teaching and working directly with students? These are just a small list of skills out of all the amazing skills we gain in our graduate training. It is important for you to take some time and reflect on which skills speak the most to you and which ones you are the happiest conducting. Determining the skills that vibe with you are the key to determining which career is best for you. For instance, I love project management, working on teams, and enjoy answering pressing research questions versus having my own research niche, which explains why federal spaces are a good fit for me because in this space I can capitalize on what makes my heart sing. So ask yourself these questions and be real with yourself.
Discover the vision of your dream life. This is another one that can be easily overshadowed by graduate school. Once we become adults other adults like to constantly remind us that we are not allowed to dream big anymore. FALSE. This a major lie, you are always allowed to DREAM BIG and you should keep dreaming BIG! Spend some time literally day dreaming or writing about your dream career and life. Think about where you wanna live, how you want to spend your time in your career, your free time, whether you see yourself partnered or not, whether kids are in the picture or not, who you want to serve, how you want to give back to the community, etc. Literally imagine all the things that would make you the happiest. I also include the non-career parts of your life into your vision because believe it or not that also matters for your career and your well-being. For instance, I always knew I wanted to meet a man that I could spend the rest of my life and build a beautiful life with and who would be my biggest cheerleader of my career achievements. I met this man during graduate school and if I were too focused only on my career goals I would have not allowed myself to also fulfill this beautiful goal of mine. I am now married to Daniel, my husband, who wholeheartedly supports me personally and professionally. Meeting him and being in a long distance relationship for most of grad school honestly helped me learn to take more risks and aspire for more than I could imagine which translated to how I pushed myself professionally.
Reflect on all the rewarding experiences you’ve already had. For this one, I think you need to update your CV and resume at least once a semester. Yes, I included a resume. I think having a CV is great and you have to have one while you are in academia, but what a resume does is help you talk about specific experiences and skills you have gained. I think it is a valuable skill to learn early on, especially if you are considering a non-academic career. If you do not know where to start with creating a resume just do a quick search online on how to create a resume, I am also happy to share past examples of resumes that I had in graduate school so you get an idea of how to put it together. Doing this regularly not only helps you stay up to date for whenever you are applying for internships, jobs, but helps you consistently practice how to communicate all the amazing skills and experiences you have had and what you could potentially contribute to the world.
Seek experiences that will help learn and grow. Oftentimes, your passions or desires will not be fulfilled by the work you do in grad school and that is perfectly fine. But do not sit around and expect excitement to happen. Make it happen! If you are interested in keeping your passion alive and you cannot keep it alive with only your graduate experiences, look for ways to ignite it. For instance, I recently spoke with a student who was really passionate about community work. Like you could tell that working and giving back to the Latinx community is what sets her soul on fire! And I told her to connect with local organizations and volunteer maybe a few hours a week or attend their events to keep that fire alive as well as build relationships with folks that she could collaborate with in the future. She was so excited at this idea and had not thought about it. And she probably did not think about it because yes, grad school is stressful and takes up a lot of time but if your passion is really your passion you will pursue and prioritize it over projects or aspects of your grad work that may not align with your goals. If you are curious or in the process of learning more about your passion the best advice I can give you is to seek a new experience that helps you learn something about yourself like an internship, or like above volunteering a few hours with an organization, or finding a new project because these experiences will not only show you what aligns with your passion, but will help you grow your skill set along the way. And most importantly you are growing as a human being which I think is the most important experience you could have during grad school. Now you may be asking yourself, how do I connect with organizations or internships? Start sending those emails. Do not be afraid of rejection because yes some doors may be slammed in your face or not even opened at all, but by trying all the different doors at least one will open. I'll talk more about risk taking in the next section.
Do not be afraid to take risks. Yes, my favorite! I love talking about risk taking because I think in grad school we become so afraid of failure because we feel that we always have to have on this front of success ALL THE TIME. And that should not be the case which is why I have become so transparent about sharing my experiences especially my failures. The failures were probably the most VALUABLE experiences than my successes because the failures taught some important lessons I needed to learn before I attained the goals I was going after. The other day on instagram I saw a post that said “people are out there reaching their goals, not because they are more qualified than you but because they are willing to take the risk and put themselves out there!” I couldn’t agree any more, you have to be willing to take risks to see how far you can go. And YES that means you are GOING TO FAIL and THAT IS OKAY. Failing is part of the process and as I mentioned probably the most valuable part if you do not allow the imposter syndrome consume you. You always have to remember that your successes and failures do not define who you are, what defines you as a person is how you treat others and give back to the world! The successes and failures are the yin and yang of life that help move you closer and closer to our ultimatest dreams by giving us the affirmations or lessons we need to have to get closer to achieving our dreams. I want you to remember that next time you are applying for a fellowship, an internship, an experience, or job. Do not get caught up in whether you are the BEST candidate, get caught up in how you COULD BE what they are looking for and you won’t know until you try. Take risks every day in the skills, projects, steps, research, and reflections that you go through, always aim to learn and grow.
I hope this post is a useful starting place for everyone going through the grad school life crisis of figuring out your passion or how to use your PhD in this big world. Stay tuned I am also working on a resource guide for all those particularly interested in pursuing or exploring a non-academic career!
I want to remind you all how proud I am of each and every one of you! I know you are out there doing great things that you do not give yourself credit for. I love you all so much and look forward to making academia and the world of PhDs better for everyone. As always if I can be of service, you know where to find me.
I am so proud of you.
You are a badass.
Shine your light brighter. The world needs you!
Something that I think is often overlooked in graduate programs are the multiple intersecting identities and experiences that graduate students are engaging with as they pursue their education. This really hit me as I have been speaking with students interested in pursuing their PhDs. One thing I always enjoy when speaking to students is hearing about their stories and learning who they are beyond their education. I have met students who are parents, students who are very involved with their nuclear and extended families back home, students navigating physical and mental health challenges, students from all types of minoritized backgrounds, students who simply are human and doing their best to survive and thrive in this thing we call life.
Today, I am going to talk about a critical experience that shaped my graduate experience from the start. Until about 2 years ago, I was the child to two undocumented parents. When my parents were 19-20 years old, they took a chance for a better life and immigrated to the U.S. They somehow learned to navigate the United State of America with little money and with no way to communicate with others since they only spoke Spanish. My parents began their new life in Los Angeles, CA, which is where I am originally from. After some time, my parents moved our little family to AZ because they knew they had an even better chance at a better life there.
I started my elementary education in Arizona and soon after my mom decided that she also wanted to start working. But this meant that at the young age of 6 years old my mom sat me down and explained to me how she and my dad were undocumented. I reflect on this moment and it is crazy to think that at the age of 6 I had to carry this weight on my shoulders. Since that age I had to learn to navigate the world as a child of undocumented parents. This meant I was often translating documents, meetings, appointments, my own parent-teacher conferences for my parents. Can you imagine a 6 year old having to take on all these additional responsibilities? Life continued this way! Eventually my little brother was born and my mom had that conversation with me again, but this time added that if anything ever happened to her or my father I would have to step up and take care of my little brother. Thankfully, for most of life I was able to live a generally normal life despite having these additional responsibilities and weight on my shoulders.
Flash forward to Spring 2015 when I was deciding where I would pursue my doctoral education, the real difficulty in the decision honestly weighed on being so far away from my parents because I know how much they rely on me to help. Ultimately, both my parents and I knew where the best place for me to pursue my education, so I went ahead and moved forward with my decision. Concurrently at this time, my parents also decided to pursue permanent residency, which meant that I would be the one to sponsor their applications. So on top navigating all the usual challenges of graduate school, I was also navigating the U.S. immigration system with my parents.
I cannot even begin to tell you all how stressful doing all this was during graduate school. Because by opening up a case with the U.S. immigration system it meant that my parents could longer just live in the shadows, all their information and everything about them was going to be out in the open! At the beginning I had to submit many confusing forms to our attorney as the sponsor. I had to travel to Arizona often to meet with our attorney and check-in on anything my parents needed help with such as getting fingerprints, health checks, and the list of items USCIS asks for when submitting an application. As part of the process, once things moved along you have to attend interviews with USCIS, thankfully my mom was able to bypass that step and secured her green card pretty quickly. My dad’s case was more complicated. USCIS wanted more paperwork and additional checks of information. We had to undergo a psych eval as a family to prove that my dad should be allowed to stay. Can you imagine how crazy it is to think that you need to prove why a family member is important? All this was going on while I was doing comps. My stress levels were already an all time high, plus waiting to see what the fate of my father’s future would be!!! Thankfully, (even after some scheduling hick-ups) my dad received his green card. What a sigh of relief.
I know for many of us this is or was the reality in graduate school. We are navigating and carrying very hard experiences on our shoulders. And often we can’t open up about them because we are not sure who we can trust with such precious information. Especially in my case, where imimigration and undocumented families can be a testy subject in a predomiantely white environment. I wanted to shed light on how important it is to try to step into other people’s shoes. I know I often did that in graduate school and absolutely do it in my job, but it can get exhausting when you are the one constantly having to step into other’s shoes without people in power trying to at least for one second step into your shoes.
Everyone has battles they are fighting and they do not need to explain these battles in order for someone to be compassionate. The issue here is that many times graduate students are overlooked as just students and are not seen as human beings that are also navigating many complexities in this world. It is truly unfair to overlook these and this is not an issue about graduate school specifically, I think this is something we can work on in our daily lives, especially if you are in a position of power. Take the time to understand where someone is coming from. Acknowledge that other people (especially those who may be younger or not in positions of power) may not see the world as you do. What the world needs more of is compassion and love. We need to support each other, especially at the worst moments. I once saw tweet on Twitter that simply said the world is filled two kinds of people: 1) people who went through hard things, so they expect others to suffer as they did and 2) people who went through hard things, so they go out of their way to help so that others don’t have go through what they did. I strive everyday to be the second person, I hope you do too.
Today, I am sharing with you all the hardest part of my grad school journey. At first, I was very ashamed to talk about all this, but today I finally pulled out my courage (which was hidden away) to share with you all. I wanted to share because I think far too often in academia we are convinced to believe that if things do not pan out a certain way or go according to the “norm” then we are a failure. And the reality is that is FAR FROM THE TRUTH. Let’s dive in.
Flashback to February 2020… I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed! I was getting ready to propose my dissertation and I had found out that I was moving forward to the next round with my SRCD Federal and State Postdoctoral Fellowship applications. Everything was going according to my “grand plan.” Little did I know that my “grand plan” would soon quickly come crashing down! I went into my dissertation proposal meeting expecting it to go as any other student would when you propose—you get feedback and you move along! Well, that’s not what happened to me. I was thrown the biggest curve I have ever experienced in grad school. I did not really pass and I didn’t really fail, BUT …
I would be proposing the dissertation a second time. My committee for whatever crazy reason took a strong interest in my non-academic career endeavors and said that my proposal would benefit from having a piece that would reflect my interest in policy. I could not even process all the positive feedback they had and that they meant well because I was fixated on the fact that I had to re-propose my dissertation. And in case you were wondering, YES, I did cry in front of my committee. I shed many, many tears because how do you respond to your committee changing the whole vision of your dissertation. My emotions took over because it was a lot to process. Although that may have seemed unprofessional, I think my humanity needed to be seen. I am only human and that moment felt really sucky! While now a year later, I can see the beauty of this change for the larger vision of life… at that moment I felt like crap. I questioned everything about my grad school journey… and yes, even questioned whether it was worth it to finish. I FELT DEFEATED.
Thankfully… in spite of my tears, I was able to get a hold of my lab mate and roommate who helped me get home and comforted me in this moment, where I could not even console myself. I took a whole week to wallow and process everything that had happened. It was a lot. Grad school is a lot on its own, but this was too much. Meanwhile, in my defeat, I was supposed to be excited at the fact that I would be interviewing for the SRCD Federal Policy Postdoctoral Fellowship. In the following weeks, I was preparing for the fellowship interview and attempting to wrap my head around having to write a policy paper (which for the record I had no idea how to write), but here we were, I had to take the next step! (cue the Frozen 2 “The Next Right Step”! Song!)
3 weeks later I was in Washington, D.C. pulling it together to interview for the SRCD Federal Policy Postdoctoral Fellowship. I was honestly very excited! I knew that the fellowship could be an amazing next step for my career, but below all that excitement I was scared because I was not sure if I would be able to graduate on time to pursue this awesome opportunity! I still was figuring out what my dissertation would look like and trying to pin down a date for the second dissertation proposal. At that moment, I knew that the only thing I could do was put my best foot forward and show how much I desired this opportunity, how much this opportunity aligned with who I am with this person. When I walked into the SRCD office I left all the doubts and uncertainties at the door, and let the authentic, unapologetic Lorena shine through.
The interview went AMAZING. I felt amazing. I was on top of the world. For the first time in graduate school, I felt like I was speaking my truth and being myself. No judgment, no halts, the interview committee was there to hear me speak authentically and 100% me. Even when the committee asked if I had any early childhood expertise, I confidently answered that I did not but that I had plenty of experiences that I could bring to the fellowship that would help me grasp the area without any issues. I remember walking out of that interview with a big smile on my face. For a split second, the world seemed perfect. I felt the happiest I had been in years. I was free. I WAS FREE. At that moment, I knew that pursuing this fellowship was what I needed to do next and that I was willing to bust my ass to finish this dissertation BECAUSE I KNEW in my heart I had a chance at a fellowship spot. The fellowship was for me. Doing this interview brought back this fire to my soul that had been missing and had been put out by the defeat of my initial dissertation proposal.
I came back with stride. I was ready. I was going to finish this dissertation! Sure enough, I put a re-proposal meeting on the calendar and I had a vision for what that policy paper in my dissertation would look like. I know it sounds like everything was fine moving forward. It wasn’t, though; the doubt and the fear constantly would creep back when I least expected it. I would cry at night sometimes feeling like a fraud. It was hard, but I would always come back to how I felt in my interview and that kept me going. It kept me alive. Flash forward 3 weeks after the interview, I found out I was a fellowship finalist! Now it was time to interview with all potential placement offices to figure where I would end up. I interviewed with 4 different placement offices, but I had no idea where which would be the best fit because I was the only person out of the finalists that studied adolescents and not young children. I still knew in my heart that I had a great chance at scoring a placement.
Meanwhile, a global pandemic ALSO hit! This event heightened my anxiety to 1000% past what it already was given all these things going on in my life. While my world and the ACTUAL WORLD were crumbling around me I needed to keep my eye on the prize. I now also had all this travel money that I could not use because no one would be traveling for the foreseeable future. I took a plunge and knew a little extra help would not hurt me. I hired a dissertation coach! Having a dissertation coach was great because I could have extra help editing my dissertation, along with someone to coach me through the difficult humps of the dissertation. If you need additional help, I highly recommend the dissertation coach services to help you reach your goals! I had my coach, I had my goals in order, I had myself in order as much as I could. The next proposal meeting would be at the beginning of May. I was ready this time I would not be thrown off my feet. Sure enough, the second proposal meeting came and went, I finally passed this time, but y’all, my committee was still as tough as can be! I remember them questioning the hell out of me about my policy paper, and I honestly just had to say look, y’all, I am NOT trained enough in policy for me to say I know what I am doing. I did my best here based on my knowledge and the assistance I had from my coach and the committee member working closely with me on this effort. Regardless of how it went, I was glad to be out of that virtual room and to have passed. I was like LET’S GO, GET THIS DONE!
Flash forward to June, and countless therapy and reiki appointments in between to keep me floating and alive, I HAD A FULL DRAFT OF MY DISSERTATION. I felt the finish in sight now. If you have finished a dissertation, you all understand the amazing feeling of having a full draft. Honestly, it feels more exciting than actually passing the defense haha (well in my case because I had more revisions after I passed LOL). I was a month away from my defense at this point and simply had to get feedback from my adviser and prepare my presentation for the big day. I was moving along, I had a kick to my stride. I was coming back into myself. And then ….
The week before my defense I had my last one-on-one check-in with my adviser before the big day. I was honestly expecting this to be a chill meeting since my dissertation had already been submitted to my committee, but to my dismay, it was not. I will never know if my adviser was having a bad day or if she was just more scared about my defense than I was (you know, with me being her first graduate student to defend), but it was A LOT. She spent the entire meeting telling me how I should have taken an extra year in the program instead of finishing my Ph.D. in 5 years. And even more, she told me that my trying to finish in 5 years was the reason she had to give up her weekends in the last few years to help work on my stuff. And to top this all off, she also warned me that I should have a back-up plan for after graduation, in case things did not go the way I expected. I was utterly dismayed by the fact that the person I thought believed in me the most felt so uncertain about me and my future. Mind you, at this point, I had already received an offer and signed my contract for the SRCD Federal Policy Postdoctoral Fellowship and had also been offered their State-Level Policy Postdoctoral Fellowship. If anyone needed any indication that I was ready to launch, there was the evidence!! But she had an entirely different opinion of everything I had been working towards in the last few years. It made me see the last 5 years through a completely different lens.
I spent the rest of that meeting nodding my head and trying to defend myself where I could. I felt like, wow, the one person I looked to for advice and guidance had let me down, and right when I most needed a word of encouragement. Despite this, I pulled it together and leaned into the gratitude I had for my adviser. I gave her grace and focused my eyes on the prize. As I mentioned before, part of me believes that as her first student to go through this whole process she probably was even more scared than me and some of that was projected onto me. That taught me A HUGE LESSON—how you treat others is really a reflection of your internal self. It is also an important lesson about practicing gratitude! Rather than be upset, I used this opportunity to practice gratitude for my adviser because I will always be grateful for her, always! But that did not take away from what I felt when this was all said!
Thankfully, as you would expect, I passed! Dr. Aceves was born! I did not escape free of revisions, but thankfully I made the deadline for completion to begin my postdoctoral fellowship, WHICH I FREAKING LOVE!
I wanted to share this piece of my life with you to show you all that life is not always perfect. I know many folks think I am just another success story, but behind all this success there have been really ROUGH AND DARK days. It is very easy to judge a book by its cover when you don’t know the stories written within it. I want you all to know that if things do not go according to plan or if you think you may have failed, YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. You may just need to rearrange the original plan and pick up and keep going. Even if it is just baby steps, do not give up! But as you hit those rough patches make sure you surround yourself with folks who are the biggest cheerleaders AND also push you to be the best version of yourself! And do not be afraid to ask for additional support whether it be having a mentor beyond your adviser, hiring a dissertation coach, going to therapy, or whatever serves you best. We all need additional support to help us be successful, especially when things are hard. And the most important lesson is to know life will shake up your plans once in a while and that is okay. It does not mean that you are a failure and that your path is not meant for you. There isn’t always a complex meaning behind the bad things that happen to you. Life has a beautiful plan for you, and I hope you trust it a bit more and know how amazing and brilliant you are! And maybe a year, or many years, later you will have a clearer picture as to why things happened the way they did or a better understanding of the lessons learned from those periods of your life. I am already seeing the fruits of my challenges shining through. I named this post, “Stars Shine the Brightest in the Dark” because I learned successful people like you and me sometimes have these challenges, but that does not take away from how amazing we are, how talented we are, and how much the world needs us and needs to hear our story no matter what happened! I hope this inspires you to share your story because you may empower others around you.
With love and empowerment,
As of lately, I have been reflecting on how I got to the point of actively choosing not to go into academia. This change in career path was already in the making long before I had any idea it would become my path. I started my research career like many BIPOC first generation students, I was a McNair Scholar. Through this program, I was actively socialized into believing that I was going to be a professor and researcher in academia. And honestly, I loved this idea. I loved the idea of being able to advise other Latinas like myself through the PhD process, but what I did not know was that academia was more than just working with students, it is a whole host of structural inequities that I would throw myself into simply to survive and hope that I could make it. But let’s start at the beginning...
So I started graduate school with a plan to become a professor after I finished my PhD, move back to AZ, and live my happy dandy life! But then...I encountered my first road block… studying communities of color at prominent Research 1 universities. I earned my PhD from Penn State, which is in central PA. Meaning there are not many communities of color nearby to study and learn from. This rude awakening happened when I was actively doing data collection with my adviser and another lab in Harrisburg, PA which is an hour and half from Penn State. An hour and half may not seem that far away, but that distance and time starts adding up when you have to travel twice a week and carry on with course work and grad school milestones. The first few months of data collection honestly were fun! It was new to me, I was getting to work directly with families, and learning the ins and outs of data collection on the ground level. But all of this quickly got old 6 months into data collection. It was very stressful when you would work to make all the preparations for data collection, only to have one of the four families show up for their interviews. Or even worse when you have to give up your entire weekend to collect data on 10 families and then return to your regularly scheduled routine on Monday. And to my surprise this was just the beginning of all this work, because after we completed this project, our lab was conducting a project being led by our team. It was a lot. It was exhausting and after a while, I honestly was not enjoying research anymore. And to add to the lack of joy, I got very sick for three weeks! I remember week 2 into being sick (I had never in my life been that sick), I broke down crying because I was losing hope. At that moment, I questioned what I was doing in grad school and if it was for me. This moment of darkness, opened the door for me to see what was beyond academia. At that moment, I was inspired to look beyond the ivory tower. From that moment on, I decided to not go into academia, but I did not know what the hell came next to be very honest with you all.
Everything I shared above with you happened during my 1st and 2nd year of grad school and what came next was where it all turned around for me. In the spring of my 2nd year, I attended a conference. I already had the idea of not going into academia so I attended a non-academic career panel. At the panel, I asked if I want a non-academic career. What should I do? And the panlist simply responded “get an internship”. I was like cool! Get an internship, I think I can do that. And sure enough I DID NOT KNOW how to do that. In year 3, I kept trying to explore what a non-academic career meant to me. I attended panels in my department and at conferences, but I was still not in the know. But then in the spring of my 3rd year, I got an email from my IES fellowship listserv that IES was looking for interns in their National Center for Special Education Research. While I do not focus on special education research, I thought it was worth a short especially because I was an IES predoctoral fellow. I plead that you all follow my example in throwing your name in the hat even if you are not the ideal or best fitting candidate because you never know what may come from it! Sure enough, I submitted my materials and hoped for the best. I actually interviewed for the internship! They were interested in me! I was super excited and I am pretty sure my excitement could be felt in my phone interview. But then the difficult news came, I was not being offered the internship. And it was simply because of fit and not because they did not think I was qualified. The person who interviewed me did tell me that she forwarded my application over to the National Center for Education Research because she thought very highly of me and that I would be a perfect fit for NCER. I was devastated by the rejection, but what came next is what literally opened the 100s of doors that I now have open to me. NCER was actually still looking for interns. The next day I interviewed for a summer internship with NCER and 3 days later I was offered my first summer internship! Summer of 2018 I was headed to D.C. for a summer internship in the U.S. Department of Education. I couldn’t believe how I somehow managed to make that all happen, especially for a first generation Latina student who was still learning so much about the social capital she was missing!
Summer 2018 was the best summer of my life. I LOVED my internship. I LOVED the team I got to work with! I LOVED all the projects I was working on! I also enjoyed all the folks at NCER who were truly invested in helping me learn all I could about non-academic careers by connecting with so many people in the D.C. network. To this day, I am still in touch or mentored by folks I met during this internship. And it opened my eyes to the BIG wide world of non-academic spaces. There are SO MANY PLACES and things you could do with your PhD outside of academia that you can't even begin to imagine (I plan to do a whole blog post about this soon!). It is safe to say that I came back to Penn State with my heart so full and with a new found purpose that fueled me to finish my PhD. Because the dissertation phase of my PhD was rough and having this fire relit in me honestly is what got me through. I ended up going back to the U.S. Department of Education for Summer 2019 for a joint internship in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Program Development and White House Initiative for the Education Excellence of Hispanics. I actually landed these internships because of folks I had met the summer before. Networking and relationships go way further than you think! This second time around I fell in love with federal service. I want to be a federal servant and serve the U.S. with my PhD.
And today, I am still figuring out what exactly I want to do in the federal government (although if you are close to me you already know my dream job, and once I land it I will share it with the world!). I am currently serving as an SRCD Fellow at the Administration for Children and Families. I do know I want to be a federal servant. We need more Latinx leaders in the government to push programs and policies that serve the Latinx population. So if you find yourself in a place where you are questioning what you want to do, give yourself the space to explore! Although, I did not go into academia. I think academia has the potential to be an amazing place and I know many friends and scholars who are still on that path. I will cheer them on and support them in any way that I can because we need PhDs everywhere, academia and non-academic spaces. What really matters is that you find that passion, that thing about whatever path you choose that lights the fire inside of you that will keep you going when things get hard or boring. Because I can tell whatever route you take you will still face challenges because such is life. I encourage you to use the freedom in grad school to not only build your research niche, but also to build and discover the person you are and want to be. I honestly think learning and discovering who I am was the most valuable thing I gained from my PhD. I am now confident and secure about where I am headed because I am doing the internal work of learning who I am and valuing myself. Remember at the end of the day a career is just a small piece of the amazing person that you are! Do not allow grad school or your career define you, let it just be a part of you. You are more than your PhD, your career, or the papers you publish.
I hope me sharing this part of my complex story inspires you to put yourself out there, take some risks, and do things that not everyone else does because you never know what you will learn or even better what you will gain!
With much love,
You got in… now what!!??? I remember that feeling between December and February, when all the rejections and acceptances started pouring into my inbox. IT WAS A LOT TO PROCESS. I went to graduate school straight after undergrad, so on top of figuring where I wanted to go for graduate school I was also finishing my B.S. and writing my honors thesis.
The first thing to do is TAKE A DEEP BREATHE! Enjoy and celebrate, you made it! You got in somewhere! Whether it be your top pick program, or a program you did not think you would get into, CELEBRATE THIS IS A BIG ACCOMPLISHMENT. Getting an acceptance is a big deal because you put in a lot of work to apply to PhD programs. Please celebrate yourself!
Once you have celebrated your acceptances, the next thing that will happen is you will start speaking with graduate students and advisers in prospective programs, visiting programs (this year I take these visits will be virtual), and you will pretty much be engaging in information overload. From the time between acceptances and you making a decision, you will feel like you have too much information to process! Acknowledge this feeling because it is REAL and VALID. Deciding whether or not to go to graduate school, and furthermore WHERE you plan to go to graduate school, is a big deal! Your decision will impact your long term career goals and the person you will mold into because you will spend the next 5-6 years in this program and location! In order to help you process all this information and help with the decision making process, with the help of my grad school buds we put together a critical list of things to consider in the information processing and decision making stage.
I know I did not cover everything, but I think I covered some of the biggest factors that will determine the experience you will have in graduate school. I would also like you to consider being open to programs or experiences that you would have never considered because it could be your best adventure. I recently finished my PhD at Penn State, and when I applied, this program was not my top choice. But WOW, going to Penn State was probably the BEST AND HARDEST decision I ever made. I learned so many things (beyond the research) that I do not think I could have ever learned anywhere else. Be willing to take risks and be vulnerable, not only in your decision making but also once you arrive at your program. And if you need a seasoned veteran’s perspective and guidance during the process feel free to reach out to me.
YOU ARE AWESOME!
YOU ARE WORTHY!
YOU ARE DOING AMAZING.
YOUR FUTURE IS BRIGHT! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU ALL!
On December 10th, 2014, I got an unexpected call. I remember receiving this call so clearly in my mind because I had just finished a workout at the University of Arizona rec center and I was wondering why the hell I was getting a call for a Pennsylvania phone number. I picked up the phone and sure enough the call was for me. The person on the phone (Penn State HDFS’ Professor in charge) exclaimed “you have been admitted to Penn State HDFS!!!”. I remember being calm, collected, and honestly not excited because I was very confused! I only applied to Penn State because it was an outreach school for two reasons. One, I did not expect to get in because it was the #1 program in the nation and #2 why the hell would this Arizona girl move across the country to Pennsylvania? But today I am reminiscing on this phone call because it triggered a series of events that I call the beauty of life giving me countless opportunities to grow into my authentic self! Literally, this phone call taught me to honestly NEVER SAY NEVER!
What is the point of me reminiscing and sharing this life altering phone call with you? Well, I know for many individuals PhD program applications were most likely submitted, or you may be applying to masters’ programs, or even better yet you are on the job market. There is a lot up in the air for many folks, you submitted or will submit all those applications to schools you want to attend or submitting those CVs to potential employers and it is scary to think that someone is going to read through your applications to decide what direction your future will take you. You may be thinking about the program or job you would really really want because you think it is the best for you, but I am here to tell you to throw that out the window. You may think you have this figured out, but you should trust in the flow of life a little more. Sure it is nice to feel like you have everything under control, but there is something so magical of letting life do its thing.
I challenge you all in this position to be open to the unexpected. Be open to that school or location you thought you could never go to for whatever reason. Be open to that school you never thought you could get into or that job you thought you were not qualified for because it may be your greatest adventure. A whole new world could open up for you by listening to your gut feeling about where your next adventure should be no matter how crazy it may sound to everyone else. As long as it “feels” right to you, nothing else matters. I can attest that some of the best decisions I made were not what made the most logical sense, but instead what didn't make any at all sense, but felt SO RIGHT.
Take for instance, this Penn State call. I didn’t think I could get in but CLEARLY the admissions committee saw something in me that I myself did not even see. They saw the potential and the growth I could gain by being a part of their program. I honestly was blind to all of this because I was fixated in staying in my comfort zone. All I could think about was not leaving the southwest because it was home and it was all I had ever known. I could not picture myself somewhere I had never been or did not know anyone. When I should have been focusing on what experience or program was going to push me out of my comfort zone, which one was going to push me to grow, which one was going to help me be the best version of myself. This is what I recommend you think about as you are applying and when all those offers come rolling because they will! Keep your faith!
As I look back on 6 years, having completed my PhD at Penn State where I thought I could never attend. I would like to admit it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but I am so GRATEFUL I took the dive because I learned some of the best life lessons that I could have never learned otherwise. I probably learned more about life than about research. Okay I learned about research and adolescence, but it is the life lessons that will carry me through my career and LIFE!
#1- Being comfortable with the uncomfortable. I literally picked up my entire life and moved to an itty bitty town called State College, where I did not know a single soul. This experience taught me to learn how to be adaptable. In life we will be faced with many challenges, and the sooner you learn to be uncomfortable, but pushing yourself like I did by making this move to Penn State, the faster you will learn to overcome the true challenges life will throw at you (because it will, when you least expect it). These experiences will make you much more adaptable and flexible. You will thank yourself!
#2- Prioritizing the things that matter most to you. I came to Penn State not knowing anyone or anything, but this challenged me to put myself out there and to keep up with the things that meant the most to me. I remember making a promise to myself that I would never let graduate school get in between me and family or my goal to meet the person I would marry one day. No matter how busy graduate school ever got I always traveled back to Arizona at least 4 times a year and always made it a point to not work when I was visiting my family because that time with them was sacred. I also vowed to never allow the hustle and bustle of graduate school to shut down my romantic life. I went through a rough break up early in graduate school, then dated an array of State College men, and somehow then stumbled upon the man who is now my husband. Crazy how if I had not gone to Penn State I may have met my husband!
#3-The best lessons in graduate school are not the ones you learn in the classroom. Looking back on my time in graduate school the best lessons were the ones I learned outside the classroom. Many research skills were gained by troubleshooting in the lab with lab mates or with older graduate students in my program that would help grasp how to do research. I learned all about setting boundaries with people through the diverse faculty relationships I had to navigate in graduate school. I learned the importance of friendships and community through being vulnerable in my worst grad school moments with the peers that now I call life sisters. I learned the importance of surrounding yourself with life sisters who will hold you when you down, and will tell “YASS YOU QUEEN” when you have achieved something great. These are the lessons I will carry with me into the future.
#4 The best gift you can ever give yourself.. Is the gift of being your authentic self. Grad school made me so uncomfortable with myself that it pushed me to go within myself and be who I really am. Prior to grad school, I was the goody two shoes that would always do what her parents told her to do and would follow the crowd and all the rules. The first step in breaking this trend for me was doing what no “good” Mexican daughter would do, move across the country away from her parents. After this big decision, grad school also pushed me into a corner multiple times during the 5 years I was there. These “cornerings” helped me break through to find my true self and do things that relit that fire within my soul. This led me to question what I really wanted to do with my PhD, which led me to interning in the U.S. Department of Education, which led me to the biggest awakening of my life... committing to a career outside of academia. It was hard to go against the grain, but this is probably the happiest I have ever been. Even on days that aren’t so fun, I am grateful for where I am now. This experience of not doing as expected of me taught me that the only person I have to make proud and happy is myself. I am the one that has to walk these shoes, so I better make it worth the ride and pursue those paths that allow me to be my authentic self.
Before I close out, I want you to know that:
You are amazing!
I SEE YOU, KEEP IT UP ALL YOUR HARD WORK!
You are brilliant!
I AM SO PROUD OF YOUR HARD WORK!!
And if no one has told you, you ARE WORTHY of all the great things that are coming your way. Do not let anyone hold you back!
How fitting that it is November, we were all anxious (hopefully you all have some relief as have I), and grad school application season is right around the corner! In this post, I wanted to focus on how grateful I am for community. Community is such an important part of who we are as human beings, but most importantly to our daily well-being. Yes, there are a lot of things you will achieve independently, by your own doing, and strength, but we all know that the community that stands around and behind us is what keeps us going when we are ready to throw in the towel! I mean just look at how communities came together and through for this election! We bonded with each other and held each other accountable to get the outcomes we wanted!
Let’s dive in.
I think talking about community, which includes friendships, relationships, mentors, loved ones, family, non-blood family etc. is critical especially in the month of gratefulness, but especially as many students begin to apply for grad programs and embark on the journey to choose where they want to pursue their graduate degree. I cannot even begin to tell you how important my community, my tribe has been in pulling me up from the countless times I thought I would not finish my PhD. The reality is that we all have these moments and it is important to acknowledge that we are the ones doing all the legwork to get ourselves up, but sometimes that spark that helps us pick up on days when nothing seems doable or impossible is usually a friend, a mentor, a mom, or sibling telling us that they believe in us!
I cannot even begin to tell you how important my mentors, friends, and community at Penn State were for me surviving grad school. I am going to share with you my most recent challenge. Unlike many students, I was struck with proposing my dissertation TWICE! Yes, TWICE. In that moment, when I heard the words you need to “redo X Y Z, and add X YZ” crushed me. I was so close to finishing my degree, but YET not even close at all. I felt devastated. I even cried in front of my committee because like what do you even do in that moment. Since, I am mentioning strong emotions, I think that if you have strong emotions (even if for some it may not seem professional) if you need to emote just do it. I am naturally a feeler, so at that moment I did not even think about what would happen if I started crying in front of the committee. I just let the tears roll. I remember that meeting so clearly, because I didn’t know what to expect next. I could not stop the tears from rolling down and of course my mind started playing games with me trying to convince me that I was a fraud, that I was not good enough, and even that maybe I should not finish my degree. But guess what, who was there to pick me up… my husband, my lab sisters, and my roommate. They took me home, let me process all the tears, and reminded me it was okay to step away before I figure out my comeback. They also reminded me how loved and admired I am even if my proposal did not go as planned. And I think that’s when I realized even more than ever how critical my community was to me! Your community should contain people who love you for who you are (not your degree or skills) and people who lift you up, especially when you are at your lowest.
I think when students are considering graduate programs, it is also important to ask yourself, will I be able to build a community for myself here? I will be quite honest, I did not ask myself this question and in my first year constantly questioned if I made the right decision to go to Penn State. But you know what I DID DO, everytime I could, I was vulnerable and tried to connect with people. This led me to my awesome grad school roommate and now forever friend that I have and the additional friendships and life sisters, who I know will share in all of my life milestones! I also had to be proactive in building community because I was also my adviser’s first student. I was not lucky enough to start grad school with the wonderful community that can come from a wonderful lab team, but this gave me the awesome opportunity to build community for those that would come after me. And sure enough I was integral into recruiting more students to the lab, and guess what these new students have become not just my lab mates, but my lab sisters. To this day, even though I have moved into my professional role, my lab sisters are there for me and I am there for them. We continue to support each other in grad school milestones or the milestones I am undergoing in my new role. Shout out to my lab sisters Griselda and Jasmin, who I love with all my heart. I am glad I took the opportunity to create a lab environment that made you all willing to come pursue this graduate journey with me. That being said, when looking into programs pay close attention to the opportunities for community, particularly the lab team you will be working with. If your potential adviser does not have students make sure you are up to the challenge of building that community! In my experience, it was probably one of the most rewarding experiences because I gained lovely friendships and countless skills in building relationships and teamwork!
Building community also extends beyond your lab to other faculty in your program who may not be your primary adviser, but could potentially be a mentor for you. And also to the staff who work in your program, the people in your diversity inclusion office, and beyond. It is important to see the value of having a community behind and around you because your community will contain the people with who you can just be your raw self especially in those moments when you feel like a failure. Because sometimes you just need to be your raw self so people can connect with the authentic you and lift you up. I also would like to highlight this idea of being vulnerable because oftentimes as grad students we can feel scared to be vulnerable. We think that the issues we are facing only impact us and that everyone is doing just fine. If you are willing to be vulnerable and open the door to others and say “Hey I struggle with X Y Z” you will realize more often than not that allows someone else the opportunity to also acknowledge they may be struggling in the same way or even in a different way, but now you can bond over a shared experience.
We are stronger together when we build each other up, use our experiences, our privileges (whichever ones we have), to band together to make grad school, academia, and the world a better place. Yes, you will do all the legwork and hard work from the start to end of grad school to get the actual degree, BUT remember every firework needs to be lit up before it shares its radiance to the world. And sometimes even the people who on the outside seem to be the MOST SUCCESSFUL had their radiance lit by the awesome community around and behind them!
With that my friends,
You ARE LOVED!
You are WORTHY!
YOU HAVE COMMUNITY, OWN IT!
Dr. Lorena Aceves unapologetically telling you the real deal about being brown in an academic world, but deciding she was going to "resist" the status quo to be her authentic self and make her wildest dreams come true!