Optimism: How the IRT’s Approach Made All the Difference

Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez, IRT ’20

Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez in Trinity College Chapel at the University of Cambridge.
Photo credit: Henry Kamara.

At the beginning of my last year at Bowdoin College, I met with a staff member to discuss how I could apply for scholarships and fellowships of interest. As a Mellon Mays Fellow and anthropologist by training, I always knew I wanted to pursue research and teaching as a full-time career, and I hoped to conduct research ahead of applying to graduate school. This staff member glanced through my transcript and CV and, finally, declared that my GPA was not high enough, my extensive work experience was not particularly distinctive or exceptional, and my lack of language study at the time made me unqualified. This person said I was not a strong enough applicant for the opportunities I was interested in and suggested I craft applications for fellowships unaligned with my interests simply because they had much higher acceptance rates. I sat there dumbfounded, devastated, and began to check out of the conversation mentally. What was the purpose of me going through four years of undergraduate study if I was still unqualified to begin the pathway toward my desired career?

The reality is that many students that identify as members of marginalised groups (such as women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+, etc.) at institutions across the United States carry a disproportionate burden of discouragement from pursuing exceptional opportunities due to the biases of others. This staff member did not look beyond the numbers and the CV to see and understand the potential within me because they decided not to extend the benefit of optimism. They imposed a deficit mindset upon me, and I internalized that discouragement as an accurate reflection of my lack of abilities and an indicator of my dismal prospects for employment.  

In one word, this was gatekeeping. It pushed me down an unnecessary path of difficulty and strife. As an alternative post-graduation opportunity, I applied and was selected to teach through Teach for America because I am passionate about accessible education. However, after almost a year of teaching and navigating a particularly strenuous and discouraging work environment, I decided I needed to make a career switch. I completed a couple of great internships and then transitioned into social impact consulting at an amazing non-profit called Root Cause. In these work environments, I adopted a lot of essential perspectives such as flexibility, proactive communication, asking the right questions, and tempered optimism that began to counteract the deficit mindset I had adopted earlier. Eventually, I learned “the worst someone can say is no” and there are always other, sometimes better, options.

When I was ready to apply to graduate programs in fall 2019, I recalled how much a friend of mine appreciated and found value in her experience with the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers (IRT). The IRT’s mission resonated with her. Her favorite aspect was the encouragement and intentional coaching she received, which gave her confidence in her application writing. I knew that I would need something similar to undergo the stressful process of applying to graduate school. I applied to the IRT in March 2020, right before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IRT was an even more wonderful resource than I anticipated. They provided strategic support such as GRE tutoring and test subsidies, advising on the Statement of Purpose (SOP) and other written components, tutorials on reaching out to and interviewing with professors, and application fee waivers to consortium institutions. However, the IRT’s greatest impact on my application process was how they made graduate school accessible through optimism. During my first SOP advising meeting in fall 2020, I was told that I could be a successful applicant, that there was room for me in institutions of higher learning, and that my aspirations were not too lofty. My SOP advisor dared me to dream bigger and push harder. She truly invested in me by spending an hour every week reviewing my application materials and answering all my questions. I will always be grateful for her perspective and the IRT’s additional resources. These, alongside my professional experiences and the support of my Bowdoin College recommenders and Mellon Mays community, shifted my perspective to one of immense possibility. I felt confident compiling my application materials and began to believe in the potential for success. I dared to apply to a range of highly competitive Anthropology Masters and PhD programs and scholarships in the U.S. and U.K. The worst someone could say was no, right?

In November 2020, I was notified that I had been accepted to the University of Cambridge for an MPhil in Social Anthropology. Then, in December 2020, I received an email that I was a finalist for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship (GCS). GCS is an incredibly competitive scholarship offered by the University for postgraduate students pursuing research that seeks positive impact for communities around the world. I gasped at the email but did not put too much stock in the notification. While my perception of my prospects was growing to be more positive, this was too far outside the realm of possibility that I conceived for myself.

On January 21, 2021, I received the email that I was selected for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. I had, to my shock, notched a fully funded offer to study Social Anthropology focused on a topic I loved and was admitted to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. I accepted this offer and matriculated in October 2021.

In our 2020 IRT cohort, there were three Gates Cambridge Scholar winners (though only one matriculated with me at the University of Cambridge). Moreover, during that difficult pandemic application cycle, I received an additional three fully funded PhD offers from U.S. institutions. I think these are true indicators of the impact and crucial contributions of the IRT to the lives of students and to academia.

I grew academically, socially, and personally during my MPhil program because I was able to learn about and try so many new things in addition to my coursework. Now I know that, while my research has immense potential, I also show promise for meaningful leadership and success. I approached my MPhil year as an opportunity to take on leadership and as a re-introduction to academia because I knew that I wanted to continue my studies through a PhD. When I was ready to apply to the PhD at Cambridge, the IRT was enthusiastic and eager to assist me again. I was accepted to the PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge in February 2022. After interviewing for GCS, I found out in April 2022 that I was awarded a second Gates Cambridge Scholarship to fund the entirety of my PhD I will begin my doctoral studies in October of this year.

I am the first and, at this time, the only Gates Cambridge Scholar to come from Bowdoin College.

While this is the end of my graduate school application process, my experiences with the IRT inspire me to share words of encouragement, resources, and perspective with folks applying to graduate school programs and navigating early career pathways. These processes are difficult, both practically and emotionally, but a combination of comprehensive resources and optimism can make anything accessible. The IRT has this in abundance.

You are more than capable of success. Talk to people, ask questions, apply to the IRT if you are interested in teaching and pursuing research, and remember that you have a plethora of pathways to whatever you consider success.

Be optimistic.

Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez is an incoming PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and a continuing member of Trinity College. Her research considers the relationship between immigration law enforcement and how undocumented Latinos make community in the Detroit-Windsor transborder area. She is a 2021 and 2022 Gates Cambridge Scholar. Prior to beginning doctoral studies, Hudgins-Lopez completed an AB Anthropology and English at Bowdoin College (‘18) and an MPhil Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge as a member of Trinity College (‘22). Between her AB and MPhil, she taught in Atlanta with Teach for America and worked as a social impact consultant with Root Cause. Hudgins-Lopez is a Mellon Mays Fellow and proud Institute for Recruitment of Teachers alumna.

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