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The Grad School Glo-Up: Reflections on Year One

I have a lot to say about my first year of graduate school. Perhaps the hilariously small section of the internet that reads this blog will be kind enough to indulge me?

(*crickets chirp*)

Great. Thanks.

And we’re on our way.

Since August, I’ve been keeping a commonplace book in which I record lines from texts I’ve read this year, as well as the occasional line from a film, show, or performance piece I’ve watched. One such line from the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer stands out when I think about my first year as a grad student:

Even if you see them coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. […] The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.

I wasn’t as ready for this as I tried to be. The big moment came. I was here. I made it. But what to do afterwards? Who was I, in all this?

Well, depression hit hard(er than usual). Anxiety was a new thing. Imposter Syndrome happened, and, even this afternoon, it is still happening to some degree. This year saw me become the most determined, hard-working, assertive version of myself, but I still felt that with every paper I submitted, and every sentence I spoke in class, I needed to prove myself. My being accepted into the program was not enough—I must earn my place every day.

In earning my days, it became necessary for me to grow, to become a different person than I used to be. At first, this was terrifying. I didn’t recognize myself anymore, but all the changes were startlingly positive. I finished my first semester with all A’s. I had a 4.0 for the first time in my life. I was producing my best work, as both a creative writer and a critical one. But then there was a new challenge: prove that this success was not a first-semester fluke.

The fall was about earning my place, and this spring was about flourishing in it. I did a lot of things I never thought I would.

  • This March, I was part of the Tumbleweed reading series, which features the English department’s graduate creative writers. It was the most publicized reading I’d ever been a part of—my face was on a damn poster. I had a death grip on the podium the whole time I read, but my professors and my friends who were there said I was composed, and that my work was brave, beautiful. One professor, with whom I worked in my assistantship this spring, told me to promise him that I’d never stop writing.
  • In early April, I participated in a workshop hosted by Elizabeth Acevedo, for which I wrote and performed a very personal, heavy poem, and I will never forget what she said to me afterwards: “Many poets take up these hard, dark subjects, and they get lost in them. Do not lose sight of the light you are writing towards.”
  • I also read at the open mic before Acevedo’s reading that same evening, and several of my professors were in attendance—one of whom told me my work was beautiful (and that he expected me to speak up more in class now that he knew I could communicate verbally for more than two consecutive minutes).
  • During my assistantship this spring, I taught on my own for the first time. With the support of my wonderful World Religions professor, I lectured on the Bible as literature and popular adaptations of the New Testament. I also mediated our last discussion day (which was also our final class period), and I was surprised by how well both days went. The class was attentive and engaged, and one student even made a reference to my lecture in their final paper.
  • Near the end of the semester, I was inducted into Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honors Society, something that I was never in good enough standing to do during my undergrad.
  • I finished the year with a solid 4.0 GPA, having earned A’s in all my courses for the first time in my life.

So why did I have almost no confidence in myself?

I think I figured that part out last week. I was hanging out with one of my friends (who is also in the MA program here), and over the course of about three hours, I divulged to her my entire relationship history. I don’t even remember why I started talking about it, but I felt comfortable with her knowing. I walked her through each failed coupling, but I cracked jokes along the way so it wasn’t too interminable—to quote Bo Burnham: “You can tell them anything if you just make it funny”—and as I reached the end of my long and convoluted narrative, my friend voiced some frustration with my past partners.

“That’s just awful,” she said. “I mean, he pursued you, and then he just…”

“Ditched me,” I said. “Yeah. You know, there’s a special kind of cruelty in being told you’re perfect, yet somehow not enough.”

“Right.”

And there it was. I had been pursued by people who told me that I was exceptional, everything they wanted. Someone incredible, beautiful, talented…someone perfect. And then on that inevitable day, I wasn’t enough. These men pursued me thinking I was something special, only to wake up and realize that I was not. I was replaceable. When I was accepted to the MA program at USD, I felt I was once again being pursued by those who thought me exceptional. And, once again, I was dreading the day when they’d discover that there was nothing special about me.

It has been very hard to un-learn that fear. But I wouldn’t have worked this hard to earn and flourish in my place here if I didn’t see that exceptionality, too. It must be there—how could I have made it this far if I didn’t believe it?

The big moment came. Who am I now?

I am trying to figure that out. But so far, I think I like me now much better than I liked me then.

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Author:

22. BA English, James Madison University. MA English Candidate, University of South Dakota. Poet. Playwright. Memoirist. Cat Mom.

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