Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Grad School Story, Part II

You can read Part I here!

My husband and I were married on July 21, 2007, just a little over two months after we graduated from college.  We had been dating for over four and a half years, and we were ecstatic to finally be man and wife.  Woohoo!

After our wedding and honeymoon, we settled into a nice apartment in State College.  Everything was new to us -- the town, the home, the neighbors, the marriage!  We spent early August getting new driver's licenses, registering our cars in Pennsylvania, learning our way around town, and...oh, right, getting everything squared away to start graduate school at the end of the month.

Newlywed status tends to make brides feel rather radiant, and I was no exception.  I was filled with hope as I prepared to begin graduate school.  I was looking forward to enjoying my coursework, meeting interesting colleagues, and performing brilliantly in my role as a teaching assistant. By the time school was about to start, I was thoroughly convinced that my advisor, the professor I'd met at the recruitment weekend in March, would actually turn out to be a fantastic mentor and friend.  Oh, I might have resisted it, but graduate school was going to just scoop me up and make me feel warm and fuzzy and I'd love it just as much as I had loved undergraduate.


My advisor (I'll call her "Jolene" -- yes, all the professors in the program wanted to be addressed by their first names) had one other graduate student, whom I'd also met at the March recruitment weekend.  He invited my husband and me to hang out with him and some other students before the school year began.  He was a friendly fellow, and the other folks were nice, too, although we didn't really click with them.  Right around the time school started, he forwarded an email to me and a bunch of other people advertising t-shirts his friend was selling in honor of the Penn State-Notre Dame football game: "Feed the Christians to the Lions!", they proclaimed.  I cringed. That was mild, however, in comparison to another shirt I saw a couple days later in a local shop: "I don't give a Notre Damn," and another one I saw a lot of students wearing, "You've got Jesus, we've got JoePa."  To this day, I just can't manage any excitement about Penn State football. 

Scheduling my classes was a bit of a nightmare.  The majority of the other students in my "cohort" were international -- I think only six out of 24 were American -- and all the international students were specially advised earlier in the summer and placed into their courses.  As a domestic student, I was offered no guidance, and by the time I realized which courses I needed to take and the mechanism for registering, one of the classes I wanted was full.  Desperate, I emailed the professor (I'll call him "Jeff"), begging to be let in.  He advised me to come to the first session even though I wasn't enrolled, as some students always "find the class is too much for them." 

School started, as it generally does, on a Monday.  My first class was actually not a course I was taking, but the one I was TA'ing, and the professor for the course was none other but Jolene.  She had me stand up and introduce myself.  I'd known ahead of time that this was a senior-level course, but looking around the room that morning really brought the point home: these students were a couple years my junior at the youngest, and some were probably older than I was.  They knew it, too.

The semester wore on.  I soon realized that my first impression of Jolene had been right.  (I eventually started referring to her as "Jo-Mean" around my husband.)  I felt like I could not please her, not because my work was subpar, but because of simply who I was -- or wasn't.  She had plans to travel to Asia for a couple months the following summer to research, and she asked me if I would be interested in going, too.  I politely told her I wouldn't, to which she responded, "Oh, come on, Louise, where's your sense of adventure!"  I like adventure well enough, but I had no desire to leave my husband for eight weeks to participate in research that I still considered superfluous.  She, on the other hand, made a point of mentioning that she had instructed her husband and other family members not to visit her while she was gone, because she wanted time away from them.

My duties as Jolene's TA did nothing to boost my self-confidence. One day, the cabinet that held the classroom projector was locked, and she needed to use it for her class.  I remembered the combination, but even once I set the dials, I couldn't open it.  "Get it fixed!" she snapped as several students looked on.  I scurried up to the building's tech support, my eyes burning with tears the whole way.  The IT specialist came down, squeezed the lock, got it right off, rolled her eyes and left.  I wanted to disappear.

Not long after, my husband and I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip back to Youngstown to go to a YSU football game.  During my last two years in college, I was a student trustee, which among other perks allowed me to go to the university president's box for all the football games and hobnob with the local elite (and, more importantly, enjoy free food).  I had been invited back, and I was happy to accept.  I told Jolene about my plans, partly to make conversation, and partly in a rare attempt to appeal to her jet-setting nature.  "Well, remember, when you come back, you'll just be a paean again!" she laughed.  Trust me, I remembered.

My classes were nothing to write home about. They each met once a week for three hours, which drove me berserk.  One of my professors spent two or three weeks talking about nothing but Wikipedia.  The only written assignment we had the entire semester was keeping an annotated bibliography of all the papers we read, yet somehow it took him until many weeks beyond the grading deadline to assign each of us our "A" at the end of the term.  Another professor assigned each student one of the course topics and had us teach ourselves via -- what else? -- PowerPoint.  I did manage to make it into Jeff's class, and I received some positive feedback from the curmudgeonly professor.  I liked a lot of the material, but even that course frustrated me: we were placed into groups of five to work on "team" written assignments, ostensibly according to our research strengths, but I couldn't help but notice each group had a single token native English speaker.  Of course, in my group, that was me, tiredly correcting subject-verb agreements in drafts that my colleagues had sent me hours later than promised.

It took me months to realize how unhappy I was.  My husband and I were sitting around one night after dinner, and suddenly I said, "You know, if it weren't for the fact that we're so happy together, I would be completely miserable right now."  Of course, I'm glad it was that way, and not the other way around; all the academic success in the world wouldn't make up for an unhappy marriage.  In the meantime, my husband's experience wasn't exactly joyful, either.  His coursework was incredibly demanding.  Many a night, he would return to school after dinner to work on homework with other students, and he wouldn't come back home until after midnight.  Thank God we were married during that time.  I don't think either of us would have gotten through it as well as we did without each other.

In the spring, something interesting happened: the candidacy process for my program changed.  Instead of taking a written exam to officially become Ph.D. "candidates" (meaning we were granted full admission to the Ph.D. track and were expected to ultimately earn our doctorates), we were now going to have to write a critical literature review on a topic of our choice that would, ideally, end up being part of our doctoral thesis.  I was excited about this development.   I loved writing, after all, and this project sounded like a more meaningful and useful task than taking a test over our first-year coursework, much of which was completely unrelated to my research interests.

I had been attending meetings for one of Jeff's research groups for most of the spring semester, and as the school year wound down and I realized I needed to secure summer funding, I bravely asked him (via email) if he would be able to pay me for the work I was doing.  The entirety of his response was: "sure."  I was delighted.  Not only did that mean I would still have an income, but it also made my next move more natural: I asked him to advise me for my candidacy paper.  Jolene was going to be gone the whole summer, so she was happy to have someone else assume that responsibility.

Before I could begin writing, I needed a topic.  I knew I wanted to focus on information and communications technologies in the context of some kind of community, but I didn't know what community in particular.  Finally, one morning, it dawned on me: I would write about families of children with developmental disabilities.  Growing up with a brother who has autism, I was painfully aware of the isolation experienced by many families of special needs children.  When we were kids, nobody had ever heard of the Internet, but I thought it stood to reason that the information and social opportunities available online in recent years could be helpful for families like mine.  Excited to have finally found a promising area of study within my discipline, I began work on my literature review as soon as the spring semester ended in early May.  I was filled with hope again: hope that I had found my niche, and hope that this program was what God had wanted me to do after all.

That concludes the second chapter of my graduate school story.  You can read Part III here.

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