L. Virginia Martinez, IRT ’21
I will preface by saying that this is my experience and my journey, and everyone will have their own set of challenges and good and bad moments. While this journey was very long and often resulted in many tears, it was one of my most rewarding journeys. I joined IRT during my first gap year while an AmeriCorps Fellow. If I didn’t join in 2021, my gap year might extend more than two years.
After my service year ended in July, I applied for my first “big girl job’, and I got it. While I thought this would be the most exciting time of my career, I was sadly mistaken. There is a long list of things that were red flags, even from my first day there. I had a weird feeling in my stomach on my first day, but I figured it was jitters, the rainy weather, or a mix of anxiety and excitement to have my first real job. Months later, I realized my instincts were trying to warn me. Shortly after I started, I was miserable, overworked, underrepresented, and depressed. I didn’t have much support at the job, except for three co-workers who I still communicate with. (Spoiler: I left after three months). I couldn’t take any PTO until my third month working there —I had to bill a certain number of units per week, I drove over 2k miles in my short time there, and I was frequently vocal about the lack of diversity in the organization and how my position as one of the few women of color there affected me.
I was so overwhelmed with the job that I had to make some sacrifices. I did not prep for my GRE or had seriously thought about my school list because I worked 50+ hours per week. I decided to reach out to my IRT Advisor, Brittany Zorn, IRT ’13, and told her about my situation. I cried when we spoke because Brittany had become one of the few people who knew about the hell I was experiencing at my job. She told me to prioritize myself. She reassured me that IRT wanted to support me in making the best choices for myself and if that meant leaving IRT to take care of my mental health, that would be ok. Because I am stubborn, I told her I didn’t want to give up my dreams of going to graduate school in the fall of 2022. It was not an option for me, so she told me to think about it and connect with IRT alums and ask for insight. I quickly connected with one of my friends – an IRT alum and a graduate student at Harvard. I told her about my experience and welcomed any advice she had. She told me to continue IRT, start prepping for my GRE, and slowly build my college list. As a former college access advisor, I had all these tools already – I just needed to use them. After that conversation with Brittany and my friend, I felt motivated, seen, and empowered. I reached out to my former supervisor and told her I wanted to go back into the college access realm and needed her to help me transition out of my current job. Within two weeks, I met with my Statement of Purpose (SOP) Advisor to develop an SOP, applied to new jobs, interviewed, worked 50+ hours, and prepped for my GRE. It was a lot. This was the most intense process I have ever been through. I did not sleep. I lost more than 10 pounds because I did not have time to eat during my workday and would stay up late to finish progress notes for work. The transitioning period was awful. When I finally got the call of freedom, meaning I got a new job offer, I was overwhelmed with joy and immediate liberation in my body and spirit. This transition was a true testament to how resilient and goal-oriented I became to overcome such an unpleasant experience. And for that, I am proud of myself. I am glad I trusted my network of professionals and friends who had my back.
Approximately three weeks later, I had officially started at my new job. I was working from home and doing what I am passionate about -supporting marginalized communities to thrive in college. This meant I had way more time to focus on my graduate application process. It must have been divine intervention because my SOP advisor, Joe Baez, IRT ’18, and I miraculously clicked. I quickly learned I could lean on Joe for support throughout this process. During mid-October, Joe advised me twice per week to meet application deadlines. They enabled me to make up for previous sacrifices and choices. This commitment to my success allowed me to thrive through the SOP advising process. Joe reminded me that I was no longer in THAT environment (my old job) and to be gentle with myself, to give myself time to process what I had gone through. As someone as *extra* as me, this advising required more writing, effort, and time. Since I was applying to many programs (public health/policy, sociology, and community psychology). While that was intense and stressful, Joe was patient with me and more than understanding. While there were tears in our advising meetings, there was also lots of laughter, honest conversations, and vulnerability. I knew I produced some excellent content when Joe would look at me and say something like, “Virginia, you delivered!”, and if it wasn’t as good that week, Joe would say, “This wasn’t giving. You could do better.” I was not offended at all. I loved the feedback. We built a stable foundation that was real, genuine, and transparent. This mentorship was unmatched because not only did Joe care about producing something meaningful and purposeful, Joe also cared about me as a person and believed in my success.
After advising ended, I waited anxiously for those acceptances (and even rejections). It wasn’t until I received an email from a professor I wanted to work with at the University of Virginia (UVA) asking to interview me for the Ph.D. Community Psychology program that I immediately thought: “this can’t be real. She emailed the wrong person.” It did not end there. Three weeks after my interaction with UVA, I got an email from Northeastern University Sociology Ph.D. program stating I was a top candidate. I was (literally) too stunned to speak when I received that email. I remember looking at myself in the mirror, asking if this was real life. I kept questioning my abilities. Why couldn’t I see that I was Ph.D.-worthy? Why not me? The more I spoke to current Ph.D. students, visited the campuses, and asked hundreds of questions, the more I realized how valuable my perspective and presence will be in a Doctoral program.
Even though I thought my decision would be easy, it wasn’t. I was offered admission to both UVA and Northeastern’s Ph.D. programs, and for the past three weeks, I have felt so much pressure and stress over this choice. I was faced with the decision to commit to a program that was either close to my family and friends or one that was out of state. After several Zoom meetings, pros and cons lists, and two campus tours, I carefully evaluated where I wanted to spend the next 5+ years of my life. I am excited to say with confidence that in the fall of 2022, I will attend my dream school, Northeastern University.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want to give up at several points throughout this process, because of Brittany and Joe, who were key supporters in my journey, I didn’t give up. Instead, I leaned on them for support. Without my community, including my IRT advisors, dad, grandma, two amazing friends/former co-workers, and those who I met along the way, I wouldn’t be here to tell my story. Scratch that, I wouldn’t have a story at all. I needed several people in my corner to uplift me, and I am thankful for each one of them who made my journey motivating, worthwhile, and illuminating. When November came around, I was tenacious and energized, putting hours into finalizing six separate statements. Did I regret applying to different disciplines at once? I sure did because it was a lot. In the end, was I happy that I did? Of course, because I had options. On November 12, 2021, just three days before my birthday, I had finalized and submitted all six of my graduate school applications. I applied to three master’s of public health/policy, one master’s in sociology and two Ph.D. programs in community psychology and sociology. All except one were in the consortium. It was a longshot to being admitted to a Ph.D. program. I prepared myself mentally and emotionally to accept that I would not be admitted into any Doctoral programs. I made peace with settling for an MA in Public Health, which is what I originally wanted to go for anyway. But things change when you least expect it, don’t they?
Reflecting on my journey, if I had to offer some advice to future IRT scholars it would be this: this is not going to be an easy road. You will cry, and you will get frustrated. You will get overwhelmed and stressed. But IRT will not let you go through this alone. I couldn’t see it at first because I wanted it to be done – but this is a part of your growth, advocacy, and scholarship. IRT emphasizes the importance of balance and self-care, and they are not here to kick you out of the program, fail you, or make you feel unworthy. They are here to empower you to be the best version of yourself. To be authentically you and to have a powerful voice in your work/field/research. Lean on them and trust them because I did, and they never proved me wrong. This will be your powerhouse, and they won’t go away, even after you become an alum. For BIPOC folks applying to graduate school: prioritize your wellbeing, always. If you are struggling (with work, finances, whatever), reach out to your IRT advisor. They are not just here to help you gain entry into graduate school; they care about you and what you go through. Don’t be afraid to ask for extensions. Don’t make it a habit, but if you are in a time crunch and don’t think you can turn something in on time, just be honest. Connect with current students at the schools you apply to. Drafting is critical, so expect LOTS of drafts. Build a connection with your SOP and IRT Advisors. Stay organized. Ask whatever questions you want and write them down; no question is a dumb question. Take notes during your meetings with graduate students and IRT Faculty/Advisors. When deciding on where to commit, makes a pros and cons list. Lastly, enjoy and learn from this process because it will feel daunting at first. When October hits, it goes by fast, and sometimes you’ll wish you had more time.
To my amazing advisors, Brittany and Joe, I don’t even know where to begin. I can’t thank you both enough for the immense support, venting sessions, and joy I felt during our advising meetings. You are both so funny and real. I will never forget how I almost quit IRT because I was going through so much during the beginning of our journey and thought I wasn’t going to make it. But y’all believed in me, trusted I would make the right decision for me and only me, and allowed me to figure out if this was the right path without any judgment and pressure. I will cherish our advising meetings, which I always looked forward to, and how much I grew from this experience. I needed to amplify my voice to make a difference in these programs. Because of both of you, I started that. I learned so much about both of you as people and as scholars, which allowed me to figure out what kind of scholar I am, so thank you for being the best advisors I could ever ask for. You both have a special place in my heart, and I would’ve never gotten here alone. This was a team effort, and these acceptances weren’t just mine, they were ours.
L. Virginia Martinez