The Struggle Life: 4 Challenges of Navigating the Higher Education System. : ThyBlackMan

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Struggle Life: 4 Challenges of Navigating the Higher Education System.

August 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Education, News, Opinion, Weekly Columns

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( Irrespective of background, during the academic journey of graduate students, there is the inevitable facing of trials in their adjustment to the university, respective academic programs, surrounding community of the university, etc.  However, for the minority graduate student, these trials are typically more extensive and compounded by other factors. As a first generation African (Ethiopian)-American born and former graduate student, I can attest to the struggles of acclimating to graduate school, especially one housed in a rural community with little to no resources and activities offered both on and off campus for those belonging to the Black, African-American, International (however one might choose to be classified) population.

Then, of course, there are the academic pressures of desiring to excel and, furthermore, exceed the expectations that society has silently, or not so silently, placed on minority students. Admittedly, some of the academic pressures I personally experienced were self-inflicted. For example, prior to embarking on my graduate career, I set a personal goal of completing my degree by a certain age.

Although, I was able to complete it two years early, it certainly came at the expense of sacrifice. I sacrificed my downtime with friends, thus, the potential to build and maintain connections with many classmates and colleagues, at times my health, opportunities to travel and spending time with family. These sacrifices are certainly not solely attached to the minority experience. However, for many minority graduate students, their experience can be tainted by the university failing to create a welcoming and culturally inclusive environment.

Similar to several members of my cohort, I was fortunate to have somewhat of a blueprint of what to expect from graduate school since all of my immediate family members had attended. However, nothing could have prepared me for the rigor of the coursework and the limited amount of time that would be allotted for self-care and preservation. Most importantly, however, I had not considered the importance of university staff being cognizant and trained on the various intercultural and global dimensions of their student populations, the specific needs attached to those differing populations, and the extent to which this might affect the student’s overall experience.

To sweeten the pot a bit, I will share that I had an extremely positive graduate school experience, laced with support from staff and fellow students. I also chalk up the majority of my experience being a pleasant one to truly having an amazing support system in place. Unfortunately, this isn’t often the case for many other minority graduate students, primarily the international ones, which I learned during my dissertation research process.

During a recent catch up session with two of my grad school homies, we discussed the challenges that we faced and overcame. While we laughed as we reminisced about those difficult times, the common theme was that we all had wished that we had been made privy to a few of the overlooked and underplayed struggles of graduate school prior to the start of our journeys. Below are four struggles, not in sequential order, that we endured and candid pieces of advice to help remedy them. I hope this helps a few brothas and sistas that are either in grad school or contemplating applying!

1) The Maintaining Health Struggle: This struggle is dear to me as it is truly my passion to help others reach their fullest potential regarding their health. Simply put, graduate school is no easy task to take on and can be a grueling process. It is important that no matter how long the day seems and how overwhelmed you will feel, that you make it a priority to set the tone for your day.


Take care of yourself, mentally and physically. Sleep, eat well, and surround yourself with good vibes. This means being cautious about what energy you allow near you and being intentional about finding friends that share similar interests. These gems, you will learn, will serve as sounding boards and shoulders to cry on when needed.

If your campus or the surrounding community does not offer activities or outlets that cater to your interests, such as live music (ahem..Trap) or festivals, round up your buddies and travel to a neighboring town or city that does. Another outlet that served many of us well in graduate school and to be frank, kept us sane, was finding a church home, mosque, temple, and other places of worship to join and remain active in. This was a great way to not only make friends but keep busy, which in turn helped make the time seem like it was flying right on by.

2) The Work hard- Play even harder Struggle: Life as a grad student can be tricky. On one hand, you’re an adult, able to independently make decisions and set boundaries. On the other hand, you’re still a student and those student life temptations can be nothing nice. You know you need to study for that big exam in a few days and have a 25 pager due by next week but your friends are all out at dinner and plan to grab cocktails afterwards. You can handle it, right? You can wake up and hit the ground running in the morning, right?


Join the dinner part of the night out with friends but skip the cocktail plans afterwards. Instead, enjoy a drink or two at dinner, with your meal, and head home. Trust me, your body and your GPA will thank you. Keep in mind that it’s all about time management and once that exam is over and that paper is submitted, you’re free to do as you please. This is a good segue into the third struggle.

3) The Financial Struggle: Chhiiiiillllle! Grad school will suck every last dime out of you, IF you let it! You want to live like a grown-up but that checking account quickly reminds you that ya’ broke. I’m talking waiting on that refund check at the door broke.


As best you can, spend your money on academic related materials while saving for a rainy day because that day (and potentially many others) will come. This will look like substituting those nights out at “fancy” restaurants for nights in having potlucks with friends, taking advantage of pizza deals, and five dollar sushi… lots of sushi, which isn’t too bad in my book.

4) The PPP (Preparing a Plan and Path) for the Future Struggle: I’m not going to make no bones about just how frightening planning for post graduation can be.  I mean, you’ve put in all that work and sacrificed so much with hopes of landing that dream job. Dissimilar to other stages in your academic journey, grad school doesn’t always offer a readily available counselor that will walk you through the job application or tedious post-doctorate application process. However, there is hope!


Reach out to those select advisors whom you’ve built connections with for guidance. Make sure to research what opportunities exist. Most importantly, ask yourself what will make you happy after you graduate..not your family or friends, but YOU! What type of work will allow you to feel fulfilled? Then, go after it. Meanwhile, slow down and appreciate the process. You’ll get there, taking it one step at a time though!


Staff Writer; Mehrete Girmay, Ph.D.

One may also connect with via LinkedIn; Dr. Mehrete.

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