…would be what some MIGHT say about the beginning of a new school year. I’m interrupting my electronic “unplugged” week today to do a bit of housekeeping here and there, but will largely be offline for the rest of the last week of summer vacation. One reason I opted for this “unplugged” week is that I am still old-school enough to have felt quite an adjustment in the amount of time I was spending online as I began Milano a year ago. I was used to spending all day on the computer thanks to my former jobs, but back then, after a quick check of the email and perhaps a blog post or two of my own, my laptop stayed quiet and cool in the corner while I went about my business of being fabulous in the City.
Last August, all that changed. I do have a point to this post, which is the special welcome to the subset of readers out there who are nontraditional graduate students. By this I really mean: starting grad school in at least your late-twenties. Your peers are largely settled into their careers, maybe purchasing houses, living very sexy lives as international aid workers somewhere, or in some way doing things that say “AHA! I HAVE IT FIGURED OUT!”.
You decided that perhaps you didn’t, or at the least, you’d need another MS on the ol’ diploma wall to round out the space, and so as of this week, here you are. Welcome! Yes, it is going to feel weird. At the risk of rambling, I’m getting to some practical tips momentarily, but for the benefit of my other readers out there who are not tail-end Gen Xers (we who were born in the mid 70s salute you!), I read a piece yesterday in the Times which included a really terrific summation of who WE are, in certain terms:
I’m part of the Peter Pan-ish Gen-X final trickle–and what do WE know about growing up? My friends are still broke, say “whatever” too much…are still deferring college loans and saying everything is the new something-else, including the 30s, which are the new 20s. The economy is in crisis, and they don’t care; they have become Zen about debt, having been impoverished, if trust-fund-less, since they got out of college at the beginning of the millenium, a time of tragedy and war and turmoil, their entire 20s devoured by someone they refer to only by a twangy iteration of his middle initial.”
That is me. W ate my first MA, which was in Women’s Studies, and my colleagues and I had to watch the sickening, systematic deconstruction of nearly every organization for which we were planning to work in 2002, by which time some of us had nothing to look forward to except years of deferments and jobs temping. I have paid my dues in the area of post-grad frustration, believe me.
Now, back to Milano, and some tips for my new colleagues well-versed, at last, in good vino and about to rediscover the joys of $3 Chuck.
- Grad school is difficult, and I suggest that you decide for yourself right now to take on the work, to take on the challenge, to accept that you are going to make mistakes, that there will be failures, but you will only get back as much as you put in. In yoga we learn that it is through our active engagement, through pushing ourselves to our limits to play on and explore our edge, that we achieve the most growth. That may perhaps sound too hippy-dippy for words, but that’s what got me through my first year, in a nutshell. Embrace this challenge.
- If you have not, go ahead, bite the bullet, and sign up for Facebook. After the deluge of hellos from your almost-forgotten high school compadres subsides, you’ll soon be adding a steady stream of hip Milanoites to your roster of friends, and occasionally you’ll want to know when a study group or a happy hour goes on, so get over any resistance issues you’re having and join. Oversharing is NOT required. I joined a year ago this week and I’m still here.
- Blackboard is an online system you’ll access through your “mynewschool” site, and on which will be all sorts of goodies for your courses, from the syllabus, to some of your assignments, to message boards, and every course you have will use it. You’ll automatically be in it, but take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the features. Since it’s been endemic since the early 00s (my first MA was just starting to use it back in ’02), there will be plenty of people to help you figure it all out.
- How many group projects did they tell you you’d have this coming year? Triple it. Milano is well-known, rightly so, for what may feel like neverending group work. You may, in fact, come to rue the day that in your interview you said you enjoyed working in teams. (I’ll be honest: I did!) If so, that “enjoyment” will be pushed to its threshold, particularly those of you in Policy Lab (about which a whole different post of unsolicited advice will come in late December). I found that ferociously protecting some form of time to sit, quietly, alone, uninterrupted was the tonic for too much togetherness. If you have kids, I just don’t even know what to tell you about that since I understand that mommies don’t even get to pee alone.
- Grad school, in some ways, is just not fun. I’m sorry, and I struggled for the best and fairest way to put this, but during my first grad program, I was just about the most irritated, upset, forlorn, despairing person who felt like this potentially AMAZING experience was just being RUINED, ruined, I tell you, by: administrators, some of the faculty, Things They Told Me that turned out not to be true, etc., prompting my brilliant graduate program director to sit me down and say something that changed my life, and here it is (ahem): “GRADUATE. SCHOOL. DOES. SUCK”. It just does. Star faculty member gets some grant = adios, megapopular class, and hola, hundreds of po’d old and new students whose secret dreams of getting to be someone cool’s research assistant just got dashed. Cue some sort of protest! Or, “Why do we teach XYZ this way?? This is a PROGRESSIVE program!”. Yes, well, the problem is that The Man still speaks capitalism here in the U.S., and if you don’t learn how to speak some very basic version of “The Man”, your degree and career will have the shelf life of a bad pop-culture joke (to wit: Anne Heche, Britney’s baldness, Miley Cyrus). Sometimes you are going to have to eat some lima beans. You might not ever have to again, but trust me, you’ll be much more upset down the line if it turns out that your dream job has the fairly reasonable expectation that you can speak well using terms of reference that, problematic as they are, are in fact the discourse of your profession. This is a PROFESSIONAL grad school, meaning that we are here to be professionalized. That is, at times, about as much fun as it sounds. (Blech). The older you are when you start Milano, on some level the more logical this all feels, which is actually one GREAT perk to being an older student: it takes so much more to get upset about at this point.
- Balancing work AND grad school well is a full-body, exhausting, tightrope walk. Sometimes you really WILL have to stay late at your job, and even be enjoying it if you’re working somewhere that you like; then you’ll roll into class a half an hour late to get a grimace from your professor, discover you’re behind in the reading by a week, and feel thoroughly frustrated at your lack of progress in the course. OR, sometimes, you will be up late (late for us 30somethings being, oh, 1 a.m.), and parsing your phrasing in a memo to be JUST RIGHT for your big policy presentation tomorrow, but then you oversleep, roll in late to work, get a grimace from your boss, chug burnt bad coffee to stay awake for the next 5 hours of meetings, and be half-dead with exhaustion by the time you finally get to DO your big presentation that evening at Milano. These are both true scenarios. Please do the best you can to practice the art of self-forgiveness. You will be much happier for it.
- Some of your friends “out there” are not going to “get” this. Some of them haven’t been in school since the new millenium was coming in a few years and OMG maybe our computers would all DIE. So your anecdotes about how amazing and different school is this time, how much more fulfilling, how YOUNG some of your colleagues will seem to you (get this: “they” say “sick” or “ill” now, as a GOOD THING!!!) are not going to be all that fascinating to your pals, as supportive as they might be. That being said, no better group of people will exist to keep you sane. Having a group of friends outside of Milano is actually really important to get more out of it.
- If you see something, say something. Claim your education, as Adrienne Rich once said. If you have questions, if you’re concerned about how long/short a timeframe is, if you just plain screwed up your assignment and need help, get in touch with your professor, and present your opinion or concern. Don’t let things stew. You don’t have to follow the herd on this, either; if your problem sounds “different” from others, don’t let that stop you. Different students have different needs, and you may actually find that your concerns as an older, part-time student, are not really going to be best-served through something like student government. (For one, it might not even occur to you to go that route). That is ok, as long as you feel like you have expressed your opinion or asked your question appropriately.
- Relish this. Relish the moments that you have when your “job” is to read something, think critically about it, talk to people whom I know you will largely find to be smart, capable, interesting colleagues, wear flip-flops, use your student I.D. to go to MoMA for free, get discounts to Carnegie Hall and the opera, just once, go to happy hour and sing bad karoake. Enjoy the chance to repeat what can be great about being a student: the sense of possibility, new opportunities, and most of all, new people whom you will meet.
Have fun, and I hope to meet you soon!
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