Tag Archives: Masters Program

LCFC Journal #12: “To Be Young & Black in Grad School”

23 May

20170517_183328To this day, I still remember my first taste of graduate school. It was August 27th, 2015, summer was rapidly on its way out and I happened to be running behind schedule for my first class of the fall semester.

After leaving work and catching my buses headed towards Queens College, I contemplated on how the first session of my English M.A. program would go. Grad school was something that I had convinced myself I was ready for, especially after having been out of school for 20 months upon finishing my undergraduate degree. However, as the bus neared the school with each stop I couldn’t find it in me to suppress a tiny voice from asking if I was sure that a Master’s degree was something I could complete.

Upon arrival, I remember walking into the designated building in which my class was being held and making my way to the seventh floor.

The classroom itself was a long conference room and to the least of my surprise was filled with students settling into their seats. The professor, (a tall brunette woman) seemed welcoming and handed out the syllabus with worksheets.

As the materials went around one by one, we volunteered and read these sheets as they consisted of stories that we would cover throughout the semester. However, upon reading them, I felt a pang of anxiety as my chest tightened. Suddenly an unwavering sense of doubt drenched my thoughts as I felt as if I had instantly drowned in water. In that instant I honestly said to myself that I wouldn’t be able to complete the work and that grad school wasn’t made for someone like me.

Further along, the more I took the initiative to complete the assignments and do them well, I found out that I wasn’t that bad of a student. I made A’s and A-’s on a majority of my assignments and was very relieved upon receiving these grades as these first few marks certainly boosted my confidence.

However, I still felt conflicted somewhat as I dealt with the large elephant in the room. The elephant being that I was one of few black men or people of color within my courses. I know this sounds absurd especially since undergraduate programs are generally swarmed with white people but for some reason I felt like an outlier in my classes while listening to discussions on literary criticism, English Renaissance in the 17th century and anything Marx and Engels related. To be clear, I of course didn’t connect with my classmates but in regards to my education I also didn’t connect to what I was learning either.

My vision heading into grad school was premature at best. I honestly thought that I would concentrate on African-American literature and would in the process write a Master’s thesis in which I’d hone the skills that I had only begun to sharpen in my undergrad program while simultaneously showing that I had the ability to write, publish, articulate, and discuss on the graduate level. Nonetheless, over the past twenty-two months I’ve managed to do work in sectors unrelated to what I specialize in as I recently submitted my thesis on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” and now stand days away from graduating from the program.

Looking back, however, I still feel conflicted about the whole thing. For one, I consider myself to be a person who loves to experience what he is a part of. But somehow, I never felt as if my time within my graduate program was an experience. To me, it felt more like a task within my journey.

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Surely, one can ask if I took advantage of everything the school or the program itself had to offer and I would say that I did the best I could. I mean, I attended some readings sponsored by the department’s MFA program. From Zadie Smith, Cornelius Eady, Jackie Woodson and Kia Corthron, I extracted knowledge from their readings as well as their sit-down discussions with moderators, but a part of me still felt as if something was missing, as if I was a little guppy that had lost his way swimming in a sea of strong bass fish.

Moreover, I felt as if the entire time I existed within a bubble often finding myself awkwardly alone and staying to myself as others connected. Nothing felt inclusive, as I consciously harbored upon my blackness and whether my peers thought if I belonged or not.

On the days I had class I always felt as if I had something to prove. It was important to me that my classmates saw me as a competent black man who deserved to be within their presence. And so, I took it upon myself to engage and ask questions every single session. Although I felt as if they knew I was smart or capable enough to hold my own, I was never satisfied and always found myself trying to fit in.

During my time in grad school there were no study sessions, no support groups, no trips to local bars for drinks, nothing in which I knew I could be present in. And to be completely honest, this frustrated me. I was frustrated because I didn’t know how to fit into the whole graduate school paradigm and I was frustrated because of the lack of people who looked like me within the program.

Overtime I grew accustomed to being alone and started treating it like an actual job. Get in, get out, read, research, write, repeat. These are the things I told myself. It almost became some sort of an ethics code. Something to live by and not think about as much.  And although I felt out of place, I cannot say that I didn’t grow to enjoy the work. Again, some of it felt pointless to me, but along the way I picked up essential knowledge from professors I admired as well as writing methodologies that will serve a great purpose moving forward as I plan to further my studies over the next few years within a doctoral program.

At the beginning of this spring semester, I found myself releasing tiny sighs of relief as I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Additionally, I was elated that I would not only be writing my thesis but would only have one class the entire semester. Being in several classes with people who I wasn’t sure wanted me there put me in a state of depression often. But the mere fact of having one class while focusing on my thesis project with my adviser made me happy because for the first time I worried less about what people thought of me and of my place within the program.

As the months passed, I remember receiving e-mails from my program director inviting all students within the M.A. program undergoing their thesis to participate in writing workshops to strengthen our drafts. Looking at the date of the first workshop, I told myself I wouldn’t be able to go because I was still in the early stages of the paper and up until that point hadn’t even drafted two pages which was the minimum requirement to participate in the workshop. But deep down I knew that I was only making excuses as thesis proposals were deemed acceptable for those wanting to participate.

Personally, I didn’t want to be in the space that made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be judged, I didn’t want to be critiqued and more specifically, I didn’t want people to look at my writing, cringe, and think I was stupid because I was black. And so, I didn’t go. I skipped the workshop and pretended as if I hadn’t seen the e-mail. However, a month later another e-mail came around asking for us to participate in the second workshop. When I looked at it, I initially dismissed it yet again but something told me to give it a shot this time around, especially since I had completed my first draft just before spring break.

And so, the following day I mustered up the courage to attend and found myself sitting with my former professor and M.A. program director as well as the assistant chair deputy of the department. But unlike what I had pictured in my head there were only two students present: two young women. Instantly, my mood improved as I released nerves that had been built up on my way to the workshop. And by the time it was over, I left feeling much better than I had anticipated. The critiques weren’t as bad as I had thought they would be and it honestly felt great working in such a small group in which I wouldn’t be judged for the color of my skin. It left a great impression on me as I decided then and there on the spot that I would be present at the last workshop which was scheduled to take place in the first week of May.

Two weeks exactly after this final designated workshop, I was scheduled to meet with both my adviser and second reader for my graduate thesis oral exam. I remember being very nervous and thinking that the worst of the program had yet to come. In my head, I imagined them both questioning my every decision and writing technique I had incorporated within my essay. However, it turned out that all they had wanted to do was have a conversation about the work. From the moment, I entered the room, I felt comfortable and at ease. In addition, the fact that they had both complemented me on the writing itself made me feel (for the very first time) that I had belonged within the program. After receiving my grade of A on the exam and looking at the smiles stretched out across both of their faces, I really took the time out to recognize the sincerity of their compliments and their approval of my work.

The faculty had been rooting for me all along and were happy that I had accomplished something significant that I could take out into the real world as an academic scholar. Within that very moment it put everything into perspective for me. It wasn’t the school or the program itself that I had issues with but the fact of me being a young black man in an English graduate program surrounded by people who were possibly unfamiliar with my presence as a person of color. It made me second guess myself and question every move or thought I posed along the way.

Now as I prepare to walk down the commencement aisle over the next few days I’m going to think about my experience and how much it allowed me to grow as a student and person in academia.

People are born into a world in which we control only what it is that we can control. We can’t get too high and we can’t get too low on an array of things. But what we do control is our productivity and our choices. Had I believed my inner voice that very first session and thought my presence wasn’t merited or worth being a part of the institution I honestly would have quit that same day. But to the best of my abilities, I worked hard, persevered, and did my absolute best so that I could see the day in which I would be able to graduate while being one step closer towards my dream of being a college professor. Sometimes when you’re uncertain of yourself and haven’t a clue of where to turn, all you could ever ask for is your best effort. Again, you can’t change the way others think of or about you, but what you do have is the utmost power to control what you (as a sole individual) can control. And to be completely honest, that’s all that really matters in the end.

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Photo Courtesy of Kevin Anglade

 

KEVIN ANGLADE is the author of frankly Twisted: the lost files, a collection of detective fiction. He was featured on NBC’s The Debrief with David Ushery in 2014 where he provided insight and purpose about small-press publishing. Anglade holds an A.S. in Theatre, (Queensborough Community College) a B.A. in English (Brooklyn College) and an M.A. in English (Queens College). He is the author of the poetry collection Life Comes From Concrete: a poetry memoir (2016).

Find him online at:

www.kevinanglade.com

Twitter/IG: @velevek

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