What they Didn’t Tell Me About Grad School, or 5 Lessons That Changed Me

When I first moved to Columbus last July to start my journey as an Assistant Hall Director and a HESA Master’s student, I couldn’t get enough of Ohio State.

I walked around campus, sometimes for hours, taking pictures of buildings I liked, trying out new foods on North High Street, and dreaming of all the things I would accomplish in the upcoming year. I went through the whirlwind of a 2-month Residence Life training where I got to meet my new staff, build relationships with people in my department, and start to develop my supervisory/advisory style. After that, I started classes- I raised my hand, I asked questions, and I even did projects outside of class: teaching courses, presenting at conferences, creating programs, traveling, etc.

At the beginning, gratitude came naturally as I felt deeply blessed to be given the opportunity to even attend Ohio State as a first-generation college student. Gratitude– in the excitement, in the new and shiny- was a given.

What I didn’t expect was how quickly I would lose gratitude in the everyday.

When gratitude left me, it left quietly without fanfare- no final bow, no thank you note, just me left alone, quickly losing passion and excitement even though the gifts remained shining right in front of me.

Now, as I spend my week reflecting on my quickly ending first year of graduate school, I’m thinking a lot about who I am, where I’ve come from, what I’ve learned this year, and who I’ve served. I am thinking about the challenges I’ve faced this year in the classroom, in my assistantship, in my relationships and in my very being. I am thinking about the joy I found this year in many of the experiences I had.

My thoughts are a large jumble of moments, good, bad and grey- that ultimately boil down to these seven words:

I am so so so so grateful!

There were times this year where I could have been more present, more patient, more kind, more supportive. There are also times where I needed more support, more love, more kindness and more patience back…but, when it really comes down to it, the mantra stands:

I am so so so so grateful!

Before I got to grad school, everyone told me how hard it would be. For this reason, I expected that I would confront challenge and fear over and over again throughout my journey at Ohio State. That was no surprise.

What no one told me about was the rush of gratefulness, exhilaration and CONFIDENCE I would gain from this experience, both personally and professionally once I MADE IT.

Though it definitely wasn’t easy- I am grateful for all the lessons I received. That being said, I’ve listed a few of the more impactful lessons below.

Lesson 1: Everything happens for a reason.

I ended up at the graduate school I was supposed to be at, with the staff I was meant to be with, with the cohort I was meant to be with, etc. This is an understanding I believe at the core of my being.

Everything happens for a reason, and everything is a lesson.

The great thing about being a journaling-nerd is that I am often able to see how past circumstances have guided me to where I am today- how lost relationships and opportunities are making room for more authenticity, more grace and better opportunities/relationships. I lace the harder challenges of my life with this belief to make room for change and perspective.

Lesson 2:It’s okay to say no, thank you.”

Earlier this year, there was a deadline for a leadership program coming up and I found myself scrambling to send it in. I was having trouble writing an essay about why I wanted to be accepted into the leadership program so I stopped midway through to reflect on my experience.

“Why am I having a hard time writing this application right now?”

The only answer that came to mind was: “maybe it’ll look good on the resume?”

Come on.

No, thank you.

This year, I started practicing the habit of saying “no, thank you” and it has drastically changed the way I do my work. I have been able to make career choices that are truly in alignment with my values, and this has brought a new sense of intentionality to the work I do.

Either it’s a hell yes, or a no- and that’s the principle that now guides my decision making.

Lesson 3: “We’re all mad here.”

(Aka my favorite line from Alice in Wonderland aka the phrase I’m getting a tattoo of this summer- we’ll talk more later)

As a woman, especially as a black woman, I am constantly receiving messages from the media that I am either not enough or too much. These messages have led to a lot of internalization and self-policing- habits that followed me into my first year at Ohio State.

Am I talking too much or not enough in class? Am I showing myself too much or not enough in my conversations with students? Am I doing too much or not enough in my work?

The quote “we’re all mad here” from Alice in Wonderland has been a constant reminder that IT’S OKAY TO BE DIFFERENT…AND POSSIBLY EVEN A LITTLE MAD. To me, “we’re all mad here” is an invitation to let me be me! It’s a reminder that everyone has their quirk, their weird, their outside-of-the-norm that should be tolerated, accepted and EMBRACED.

I am so so so so grateful to the weirdos that I’ve met at OSU (I say this in the best way possible) because they have given me full permission to be myself.

Lesson 4: Stay in your lane.

The first few weeks of graduate school, I was thinking about this metaphor. Comparing yourself to others is like running a race. You can’t win the race if you’re too busy trying to run in everyone’s lane. The only way you can win is by staying in your lane and shooting toward your individual destiny.

Though this is a struggle, I’m continuously learning how important it is to be more concerned with what you’re doing and less concerned with what everyone else is doing. When I keep my progress in my own lane, I am investing in who I am and who I’m meant to be. I see opportunity as abundant, and I don’t covet anyone else’s success because I’m too busy seeking out my own.

Lesson 5: Leadership is about the lollipop moments.

A lollipop moment is a small moment where someone once “said something or did something that fundamentally made your life better” (you can learn more about it in Drew Dudley’s TED talk on the topic linked HERE). This year was filled with moments where RAs, staff members, peers and faculty members handed me a shiny, lollipop moment as they challenged me to think differently and be better.

This year, I received CONTINUOUS lollipop moments from my supervisor Aaron Moore and my RA staff who reminded me that it’s okay to be a little silly and to show vulnerability in my life and work.

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Mendoza-Norton-Scott Staff, OSU, 2017-2018

I am happy to say that this year was also a year where I was able to provide lollipop moments to others! I remember especially one student who told me that one reflective question I asked helped her to choose the graduate school that was right for her. That moment is one of my favorite moments from the entire year, and reminded me how important those small moments can be.

As Maya Angelou writes: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

My goal for this upcoming year is to be even more intentional with providing kindness to others and myself.

Though I’m not a football fan (like at all), there was one night where I felt a lot of school spirit. It was the last night of the class I was teaching and I felt overwhelmed by gratefulness. Through the challenges, through the chaos- I was able to survive and even thrive in some major areas this year! I gained professional clarity, I made great friendships, I got to step more confidently into my professional style and I was able to witness huge amounts of growth in the students and professionals who surrounded me.

I’ll be spending my summer at Western University Ontario in Canada and I am so excited to take on the new adventure that’s before me!

I intend to let these lessons act as a shining light for my future professional experiences, reminding me how important it is to steep myself in gratefulness and practice authenticity.

Go Bucks!

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