By Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez
As a 21-year-old woman of color and soon-to-be first-generation college graduate, I am an anomaly among many of my peers and friends. Not only will I be the first in my family to graduate from college in May, but I will also soon become the first in my family to begin graduate school in August.
While I was researching joint J.D.-Ph.D. programs across the country that could suit my academic, professional and personal interests, I believed my resolute commitment to the overarching issues of immigration, history and law had made my pursuit of graduate school straightforward. To my chagrin, however, it wasn’t until I began to visit the graduate schools that had made me offers that I finally discovered where my uncertainty lies.
While I may know that I want to earn a Ph.D. in history and a J.D. to later work for a government agency, I was not entirely sure which program would best equip me with the tools I need to complete this necessary public service and allow me to be happy at the same time. And, yes, your happiness is a strong consideration to make as you debate your graduate school options because post-undergraduate study can be incredibly rigorous and somewhat frightening — particularly for those of us from underrepresented backgrounds, as I’ll go on to explain. A healthy and stable mental and emotional state is critical to successfully completing five to 10 years of graduate work. All in all, despite having thought I had it all figured out, I actually did not.
Over the past month, I’ve constantly asked myself, “I’m not sure what matters most to me. What do I want? Where will I be happiest and most supported?” These are questions many admitted students pursuing graduate school will ask themselves. And for students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds — such as low-income, first-generation and minority students — these questions force us to contemplate unique considerations other students may not face at this level.
COMMUNITY AT THE INSTITUTION
Visiting and attending graduate school (especially when it comes to prestigious, well-known institutions) can be a bit of a shock for those of us whose parents didn’t even graduate from high school in their country of origin. It’s no secret that graduate school at places like Northwestern, Cornell, UC Berkeley and Columbia possess many students from privileged backgrounds—students whose parents are professors, lawyers, engineers or doctors and encouraged their children to think about college and graduate school at a very young age.
A majority of the students I have met on these visits do not have lived experiences in common with me. Few know what it is like to be a low-income, first-generation student of color with firsthand experience with discrimination, poverty, abuse or other forms of adversity. It is precisely for this reason that I have come to discover one of the most important decision-making factors for high-achieving students like us when it comes to choosing graduate education: the existence of a supportive and closely-knit community of students who will empathize, or at the very least, sympathize with the tremendous obstacles we have faced in accessing higher education of any kind.
Admittedly, because in 2013 only about 8 percent of all earned doctorates were awarded to minority students (Native Americans, Latinos and African-Americans) according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, these students will not be in abundance (although my hope is that this will change sometime soon). But, at a level of education where one faces extreme emotional and mental challenges, it is crucially important that the community of students (professors and administrators, too, of course)—even if this community is small — that surrounds you understands not only the difficulties of graduate school but also the unique perspective with which you navigate and ultimately surpass these obstacles. Here, quality rather than quantity matters.
FUNDING AND NEGOTIATION
For those of us who come from families with no culture of higher education in our home and very few financial resources, financing graduate school is another significant decision-making factor and potential obstacle to our access. By the very nature of our socioeconomic status, many students like us cannot afford to pay for graduate — let alone undergraduate — education out of pocket. Luckily, prestigious institutions have large endowments with which to subsidize the education and living expenses of minority students. But, when it comes to degrees that are not fully funded like master’s or professional degrees (like law), there is a great deal of negotiation you can do that can impact your funding package. Negotiating a better financial aid package can drastically impact your quality of life. You can do this by contacting financial aid officers or deans directly or submitting a formal document online through an established scholarship or grant-matching process.
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES
Lastly, exposure to professional development opportunities as underrepresented students can influence how certain we are about a particular career path or introduce us to employment options previously unknown to us. As someone whose parents work in housekeeping, never in my life would I have known that I could intern and work for a government agency to conduct research and engage in legal advocacy with a Ph.D. and J.D. in hand. Institutions that expose you to professional development opportunities may not only help you think about unknown options but also gain the connections and visibility necessary to gain competitive employment.
The factors underrepresented students must take into account when deciding on which graduate school offer to accept must cater to our circumstances. Identifying a graduate program with the best community, funding package, and disadvantaged-student-oriented development opportunities are unique considerations students like us must make in deciding on where to get an advanced degree. If we possess these insights now, we will be better equipped to make our decision and mentor those who come after us. Above all, however, I dream of the day when we will not have to make these considerations because underrepresented communities and development opportunities will be in abundance and we will not have to negotiate our funding packages out of poverty.
Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez studies history and philosophy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.