…but what they didn’t say is that it would be lonely.

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Let me first say, all is well. I’m good. And I feel loved and supported, and in addition to a partner who treats me better than I usually deserve, I am employed, in a great doctoral program, and have a crew of people in my life who shower me with unconditional love.

That being said, 2017 has been really tough.

This PhD journey has been really tough.

I am one full year into my doctoral studies, and at two different points I almost gave up. Dramatically, I drafted two unsent emails to my advisor, throwing in the towel and apologizing for wasting her time. The first draft was written my third week of class, when impostor syndrome had set in and I was deep in the darkness of, “I don’t think I belong here.” I fell into the comparison trap, and was set off by the most trivial moments.

The second unsent email was drafted the Friday following Donald Trump’s electoral college win, and later revised when he nominated (and elected officials confirmed) Betsy DeVos as US Secretary of Education. If Secretary DeVos did not need a PhD to do her job, why did I?

Of course, neither email was sent, and both times I was left wondering if any of it would actually be worth it. Would the PhD be worth it?

Would it be worth me leaving full-time work (and pay) for a few years?
Would it be worth the hours of reading each day?
Would it be worth the unhealthy intake of coffee and ginger ale?
Would it be worth the 20lbs I gained?

Upon reflection and consultation, I learned these feelings were not uncommon. I found a community of other doctoral students who shared many of these same sentiments. My unsent resignation emails became a benchmark for Year 1 learning. It can only go up from here, right? I soon realized it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t cut out for this program (though, the verdict feels, at times, unresolved), it was that transition, in general, is hard. This transition, specifically, was hard.

This ongoing transition, is very, very hard.

And during this time of uncertainty, my brain will often do tricks on me that I never thought possible. I question my intelligence, my energy, my capacity. Phone calls and texts go unanswered, and the stories I tell myself lean more toward destructive than they do productive. But again, I am not alone, and (unsettlingly) there are many others who feel this same level of dissonance.

Now days away from starting Year 2, I am left contemplating what might exist in the next twelve months of studies.

In an attempt to help ease students’ transition to graduate school, a colleague recently posted on twitter, requesting a series of perspectives on what advice different folx wish they had before their first year of pursuing a PhD. I immediately responded with a practical perspective about the dissertation, something I truly wish I had understood before enduring several months of self-sabatoge. But after responding, I couldn’t stop thinking about an even deeper “wish” I had in relation to those starting the PhD experience, something that contributed to a lot of my discomfort.

Something that went beyond the first-year transition.

Something that went beyond impostor syndrome and the comparison trap.

My ‘ah-ha’ was that this experience is really isolating. 

Being a PhD student is incredibly isolating.

One of the toughest burdens of this doctoral journey has actually been the heavy pain of feeling alone – the countless hours of reading, writing, commuting to/from campus, and “waiting” for the next thing has all been really draining. As a strong E-Extrovert, I didn’t anticipate the amount of time I would be physically and emotionally flying solo.

And as I prepare for Year 2, I’m trying to make a conscious plan so I can avoid this feeling of isolation…a feeling many other graduate students feel, wade through, and fight on a daily, yearly basis. I believe I “survived” Year 1 because of my partner and community of friends and colleagues who love and support me despite the gymnastics in my brain. And still, I’m here, at the edge of Year 2, eager, and terrified.

Hopeful. Cautious.

Cautiously optimistic.

I am here for a reason. And despite the pressure I put on myself, and despite the hours and days of feeling completely solo, and despite the missed phone calls and unchecked emails, I truly believe there is an absolute reason that I am here, pressing on, and making this work. I don’t know what exists in this next year – personally or professionally – but I do know I can do this. And that, despite what my brain is telling me, I am not alone. I am worthy. I matter. This matters.

Simple reminders,

Michael

Year 1 of my PhD, in Gifs

My blog game has been weak this year. Between leaving one job and starting school, and writing hundreds of pages in assignments, work on anything other than coursework was a daunting task. Still, the story of my year deserves to be shared.

Last August I started my PhD journey. I felt good. I felt prepared. I felt ready.

But my pretentious bubble was soon popped, and three weeks into the first semester I realized I wasn’t actually as ready as I had promised myself.

By my third month, I had written two unsent letters to my advisor, swearing she made a mistake by admitting me into the program.

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I compared myself to everyone around me, and highlighted all the ways in which I wasn’t good enough. The intimidation factor was no joke. Many of the people in my classes and program were true superstars, brilliant and incredibly talented.

Up to that point, I thought I had a pretty good head on my shoulders. I thought I could take the challenge, the feedback, and the constant trial and error. I thought I knew it all.

I was concerned with everyone around me. The comparison trap was real.

Then my body started to give up on me.

I cried many times that first semester. I was unstable.

And then I learned that I didn’t know it all.

…and how to be quiet, sit still, and just listen – this came from teachers and classmates. Friends and colleagues paused me, told me to know how and when I take up space, and to just be still (quiet!). Those friends pushed me to be a better listener, which in turn made me a better student – specifically a better PhD student.

But this learning took time. And still, there were days when I struggled.

…and days when I really struggled.

But I owned that struggle, and used it to propel me into more confident days.

And then my angel of an advisor gave me really good feedback on a final paper, feedback that helped me realize how to be a better student and writer.

She validated and affirmed, and left me thankful that I never sent those letters of resignation.

And so, I leaned fully into winter break, and cleared my brain and heart for the next semester. I vowed to read and write differently, to study harder, and to be more committed in ways I just wasn’t during the fall semester. I fully embraced my identity as a full-time PhD student, and found pride in the things I could do and learn.

And I started to address the demons inside me that were telling me I wasn’t worthy.

And I sent them away. I demanded them away.

And I started making small changes that went a long way.

Stuff started to make sense. I was remembering things from my masters program. I was remembering and applying learning from the fall to the spring. By February, I finally felt confident (a tad, at least) for the first time during this entire year.

And I had made some really good friends, people who were in the same boat as me.

We collaborated on projects, pushed each other, and took risks to receive rewards. We started the process of becoming experts on our research topics. We shined.

And we built a tradition of cheering for each other, through the good and the bad.

As May neared, and final projects took over, I found myself excited, not scared like I had been in the fall. I knew I could do it. I finally believed in myself.

And before I knew it, all my papers were turned in, and I had successfully completed one year of PhD work. I did it. Despite the long road, I did it.

All is well…

…until classes resume in August, of course.

*gifs all found on GIPHY

“International Investigations in Cuban Education”

When I started my PhD last fall, I never imagined I would spend nine days in Cuba with two-dozen graduate students, conducting research, and meeting with colleagues and schools in the Cuban education system. As I continue to think critically about education in the US, I have to be aware of how education exists in other cultures and contexts. And this is what lead me to apply for the opportunity to study abroad.

If we truly care about education, the status of students (of all types), the future of our systems, and how globalization shows up in classrooms and schools, we have to consider our individual and personal contributions to advancing knowledge within the field. And so, “International Investigations in Cuban Education,” commenced.

And as I entered that space of learning and seeking knowledge, I quickly realized I didn’t know all that much about Cuba.

“Elián González. Old cars. Guantanamo Bay. Fidel Castro.”

When asked about my knowledge of Cuba before this trip, these points represented my low level of understanding. Furthermore, before this trip, I knew virtually nothing about Cuba’s education system. I grew up with peripheral perspectives, but never developed my own, formal and concrete version of what I knew Cuba to be versus what I had heard from others.

As a result of this opportunity, my colleagues and I were granted the privilege of great access to Cuban schools and educators. We spent a substantial amount of time before the trip reading and reflecting on the history of Cuba, the dark connections to the United States, and the reality of a free-to-all education system that exits from preschool to graduate higher education. Although brief, we got a small glimpse into a system of schooling that was unknown to most everyone on the trip.

“But what did you do,” you might be wondering? To synthesize some highlights, and connect to my desire to keep pursuing context and knowledge, the following thoughts and photos best capture my time on the island.

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School Visits
While we had opportunities to tour, our primary responsibility was to conduct independent research on various components of Cuban education. Curious about campus environments and institution types, my study looked at the differences between one primary school and one university in Holguín Province. Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to visit each school, and found incredible similarities between the two. Art and colorful paintings were found throughout each school, and adorned classroom walls and outdoor spaces. Gathering areas transcended from inside to outside, and historical figures were well-represented across both environments. There was no shortage of historical understanding or national pride. Natural air flowed through classrooms, breezeways, and open areas, and the warm climate felt less severe as a result of this design. We also got to experience break time, which we might identify as, “recess,” in the US. I don’t think I stopped smiling during that 40-minute break. Kids of all ages were running, dancing, singing, laughing, and engaging with their teachers and friends. This outside and common space that was so still just moments before the bell rang had become a concrete playground of joy and engagement.

Meetings with Educators
In addition to visiting schools, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to meet with scholars, researchers, and teachers from various Cuban institutions and pedagogies. We had long discussions about the differences in our schooling, and always connected back to the reality that a student-centered framework can  make a huge difference in the way we approach education. “Didactics” existed as a continued theme in our conversations, and the educators shared the ways in which this philosophy showed up as an art form rather than a style of teaching. The spirit and passion for teaching and learning was a big part of their approach. The biggest highlight from these sessions came from one of our final conversations, when the educators asked each of us US representatives to share more about our personal research agenda. This was the first time on the trip that I was asked to explain my interest in parent/family programs in education. With the reliance on a translator to articulate my idea, I had to be very intentional and succinct with how I explained my interest in investigating the exclusionary nature of these types of campus traditions. As I explained that we have many students who show up in education spaces without parents and families, I instantly felt a response that this, too, appears in Cuban spaces as well. My colleague who was translating looked at me and said, “They really appreciate your topic.” This was a validating moment, as I had just spent the past semester trying to better understand how to explain my topic, and questioned how to move toward a more thoughtful research strategy.

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos
I hate to let Donald Trump rain on my Cuba parade, but alas, he has. And DeVos, too. If you follow me on any form of social media, you know that I have an incredibly strong opinion of DeVos and her dangerous and inexperienced approach to schooling in the US. And as much as I wanted to leave Trump and DeVos back in the US, while I was in Cuba, they continued to be a topic of conversation again and again. Outside of questions and general assumptions, Cuban scholars were well-aware of our current reality in education. They were aware of our shared questions and concerns. They were away of every tweet, and the impact future decisions can have on our country, and the countries around us. But there is power in sharing ideas and perspectives. We were in Cuba on an education exchange, but I would be remised if I did not admit that this exchange was very one-sided. You see, there weren’t (aren’t) 30 Cuban educators headed to the United States to engage in the same critical discussions as we were having. One US colleague stated in his closing speech, “The Trump administration can’t stop the momentum we have here,” and I am letting that idea guide much of my thinking as I continue to seek information, unearth new knowledge, and teach and educate those around me.

I also must acknowledge that Cuba is not perfect. And while we had a close glimpse at some of the educational entities in Cuba, we had limited time to understand and unpack the economic and social struggles that exist outside of the education system (and even some that exist inside the education system). We are not perfect either.

There can be an unsettling feeling when critically analyzing our education system in the US, especially when considering the complex nature of k-12, higher education, and all that exists between (even when simply starting with public and private differences). In Cuba, we heard, “Education is a human right,” again and again, and much of that was backed up by the literacy campaigns that existed following the revolution. With more time, I might be able to spot the inconsistencies in that mantra, though in the meantime, I feel as if in the US, we are moving away from that belief.

Do we really value education as a human right?

Are children really valued citizens, and how serious do we take their learning?

Do we take their learning serious?

Before applying to this program, I never would have imagined an opportunity like this, meeting university and education association presidents, school principals, and top scholars in Cuban education. The opportunity to engage and reflect is part of what made my time in Cuba that much more special. And the opportunity to see past what I always understood as Cuba has helped me better understand how I show up in spaces where gaps exist on others’ path to understanding.

In closing, one US colleague challenged each participant to make a commitment to “what comes next” after Cuba. If we want exchanges and experiences to be truly transformative and informational, we have to commit to life-long learning and growing, and to a reframe the idea that perfection exists without considering culture, history, and social context. Even as we ventured away from the country, we heard counter-narratives contradicting all that we had learned and began to understand. The shift became present. The balance became important.

We learned. And we are beginning and continuing to understand. As I reflect on this reality, I am thankful that the process, in this case, has become the product.

I commit,

Michael

A Dark Place Called, “I’m not worthy”

Typing the words, “I’m not worthy,” leaves me anxious and aware.

If I have learned anything about myself this year it’s that I have been swimming in some of the darker places of my confidence and self-security. More importantly, I have learned that self-love trumps everything. I’m growing and developing, and unapologetically so. The reflections are good. Needed. I’m better as a result.

I recently attended a conference for work, one with an ongoing theme of the storytelling and leadership of trailblazers, catalysts, and calamities. In one section of the convention center, a giant board stood with the prompt, “SIX-WORD MEMOIRS: Share your life story on the board in six words or less!”

Six-word memoirs.

Without much thought, I jotted down the following sentiment:

You will not shake me. Ever.

At the time, I had yet to determine who, “you,” would be, however the sentiment was important for me. In an interesting turn of events, it wasn’t until a few days later that the, “you,” on that page was actually self-realized as a note to myself. This ‘ah-ha’ challenged every fiber of my being. “You will not shake me. Ever.”

Dear me, I won’t be shaken…by you. Or something like that.

Let’s pause here for a moment.

I recently accepted an opportunity to study in the Student Affairs doctoral program at the University of Maryland (I will be starting this Fall).

[insert screams and tears here]
[insert fears and self-doubt here]

As quickly as I arrived to celebrate this huge moment, self-doubt and insecurity followed closely nearby. Initially, my first thought was that the individual calling to offer me a spot in the program was actually going to inform me that I hadn’t been accepted. In fact, I stared at the phone for a few seconds, seeing her name, and writing the story in my head between each ringing pause.

The call would go something like this:
“Hey Michael. It’s me, the Dark Lord of the Academy.
Yeah, sorry, you didn’t get in. Better luck next time.”

Even when I first interviewed for admission, I told myself I was a courtesy interview. I re-trolled my materials, I searched for a typo or an error or a reason for them to pass on me. There is nothing worse in an application process than recreating doubt and unrest as it relates to putting yourself out there. I was desperate for an out, and this was so much more than dress-rehearsing tragedy.

But the Dark Lord of the Academy was instead a faculty member who I admire and respect more than anyone else in academia. She was Glenda, The Good. And I was Michael, The Thankful. She brought only good news into that conversation, and as I hung up, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was admitted to a doctoral program.

Dear me, I won’t be shaken…by you.

While attending another conference, one made up of student affairs professionals from around the globe, I started to share the news of my admissions status. Within each dialogue, I found myself drenching my news with, “I can’t believe…,” language, and, “I must have slipped through the cracks,” attempts at humor.

But it wasn’t funny.

This was beyond self-deprecation, and I was teetering the line of self-sabotage-mixed-with-dress-rehearsing-tragedy. Even outside of any admissions process one might endure, it’s important to note: rejection is unsettling and hard. And scary. I had entered a place of such great fear, that even when I wasn’t, at all, rejected, I still kept the mindset that I wasn’t, at all, worthy.

This brings me full circle back to a life lesson in, “I’m not worthy.”

Shake Me

You will not shake me. Ever.

I am worthy. Glenda says so. And I say so.

And as I sit here with an acceptance in-hand, I am grinning greatly, feeling worthy and deserving, and beautifully so. Here’s to a new endeavor, here’s to the academy, and here’s to achieving a dream. I’ll be starting at the University of Maryland this fall, and advised by the brilliant and talented, Dr. Kimberly Griffin Haynes.

The only way upward is onward…

Thankful for Glenda,

Michael