IRT Arts & Sciences Specialist Brittany Zorn, IRT ’13 and Education Specialist Leislie Godo-Solo, IRT ’91 share their thoughts with IRT Scholars.
The first couple months of the New Year is always my favorite time of year- and no, it’s not because I’m an Aquarius Sun or because New England winters are the prettiest of anywhere (ok not JUST because of these things). The start of the New Year is my favorite time of year because it is admissions season!
For IRT scholars, the first six months of their IRT engagement is rigorous and time consuming; conducting school list research, making connections with graduate school folks, curating application materials, and crafting close to a dozen quality statements of purpose keeps scholars busy from June through December. Admissions season is the time when all that hard work pays off and scholars begin to see the fruits of their labor in the form of invitations to interview or visit campus and offers of admission. It’s always a season of some uncertainty and great celebration. The shock, joy, and relief that students often feel when the offers (and the dollars!) start to roll in is something I am grateful to share in each year.
While admissions season brings lots of exciting news, it also comes with a new set of stressors. Through the pre-application season, scholars are often most concerned with packaging themselves legibly to graduate programs- the emphasis is always on the scholar seeking approval (admission) from these graduate programs- but the post-application season introduces a new dynamic. Once an offer has been extended the power of approval (accepting an offer or not) is shifted into the hands of the scholar. After months of scrutinizing program websites, scouring faculty profiles, and drawing insight from one-to-one conversations so that they might be judged worthy of entry into a program, scholars are now faced with determining whether these institutions are in fact worthy of THEM.
This concept that we- as folks who have had to work twice as hard to get half as far- would be in a position to evaluate an elite institution’s “worthiness” in any context was as foreign to me during my graduate school application process with IRT as it is to my current cohort of advisees. In fact, it was during my 2013 IRT Summer Workshop experience that I was first introduced to the idea that I should be as discerning about where I matriculate as these graduate schools would be about whom they admit.
The message came from a personal mentor of mine and well-respected IRT alumnus Dr. Reginald A. Wilburn, IRT ’98, via a talk he titled “What’s in a Name?” Reggie delivered this talk to my Summer Workshop class as he had rather famously done to many classes before and would continue to deliver to a few more cohorts still. (In fact, this talk has become such a staple of the IRT curriculum that it was immortalized in a video recording, which we continue to make available to our scholars year after year). In short, his takeaway was that each of us should select an institution which is worthy of our name. Which program do we want our personal brand to be associated with, where would we be proud to claim membership? I reached out to Reggie in writing this piece to invite his voice to my testimony, and here is what he had to say:
In the years since I’ve taught at IRT, the landscape of higher education has undergone significant changes. Indeed, Covid and the #blacklivesmatter campaign has given scholars of marginalized identities new ways to consider their scholarly relationship to the most prestigious institutions our nation has to offer academics. What has not changed, however, is the need to know thyself as fully as one can, to trust the process, intelligence, and navigational capital of you. Institutions, faculty, mentors, and administrative leaders can never do this work for us. When we surrender ourselves to the power of institutional names and faculty of note, we diminish the hard-fought victories referenced in our resumes, transcripts, and statements of purpose. It remains an ever-abiding truth in my opinion that our daily quest to be worth the name our degrees are printed on remains one of the best testaments to whatever successes we pursue. No institution could better define our trajectory, and if it could, then it’s worth asking what power actually resides in the name our parents dared to bestow upon us so lovingly and with hopes filled with great expectations.
Be worthy of our own namesake, he said, and I heard him as loudly and clearly as I hope my current advisees hear me when I repeat these themes and ideas to them. Historically marginalized groups tend to live in constant states of gratitude- a disposition which is reinforced by the work of the pre-application season. The post-application season- admissions season- demands a dismantling of that disposition. If I could leave the 2022 cohort with just one piece of advice for effectively making a matriculation decision it would be this: do not compromise on the conditions which you know would allow you to thrive. Having a specific name on your resume does not do much to nourish you (physically, spiritually, intellectually) in and of itself, thus, you would do well not to weigh national rankings more than the rankings of your mind, heart, and soul.
As an IRT alumna who matriculated in the 2nd IRT Workshop many moons ago, I know, firsthand, that the IRT graduate school process changes lives. It totally altered the trajectory of what I envisioned my life’s work to be. Like each of you, this inner-city girl from Cleveland, Ohio took a chance on IRT and it has brought me to each of you. After 21 years of working with IRT advisees, I can say that I never tire of the “IRT March Madness.” No, I do not mean college brackets and basketball games; I am referring to the month of March through April 15th, when students are anxiously awaiting admissions news, weighing a host of decisions including matriculation, selection of the ideal mentor, funding offers and negotiations, and turning down those schools that you will not attend. In choosing which school to attend, our Scholars do what I call the “soul searching” regarding the institution that will be the best fit for them, not the ideal fit, as we all know that none of these institutions are perfect. In other words, which school has the most pros as it relates to their academic coursework, mentorship, fellowship funding, family and community support, as well as determining if the location is accessible for their everyday needs and “getting up out of there,” via car, plane, train, bus or Uber options, when necessary.
On the other hand, the university graduate school landscape can be filled with a plethora of cons. Unfortunately, universities often replicate societal inequities such as the need to take GRE tests that we know bias students of color, impersonal interactions that dehumanize and impact one’s self esteem, exclusion of one’s research agenda as a BIPOC individual, or having encountered one’s research being appropriated at the hands of someone you trusted, not sharing information that will make your academic journey easier, and omitting opportunities that will ensure your success.
In deciding which school to attend, IRT Scholars engage in a four-tier process. 1)they begin to rely fully on themselves as it relates to career decisions by trusting themselves and developing a stronger voice for self-advocacy. Where their mentors’ opinions carried a lot of sway, Scholars transition from their influence and listen more intently to their own inner voice to make matriculation decisions; 2) they make more nuanced evaluations of their potential living, working, and studying environments according to the things that they need in order to thrive personally and academically. As the matriculation decision nears, Scholars begin to realize that there are other factors that they had not previously thought about or took into consideration which become more relevant; 3) Scholars determine the ways in which they hope to be mentored. Some prefer an involved mentor while others choose more autonomy. There are Scholars who relish detailed feedback in grammar, punctuation and ideas whereas others value the “bigger picture” and only need comments as it relates to content and theories. Additionally, some students want every detail of a Master’s or Ph.D. process spelled out for them while others are simply concerned with the important details. 4) Finally, many IRT Scholars are managing life’s transitions—packing, perhaps for the first time, moving to a new city or state, leaving one’s family behind, pursuing a Ph.D. full time after years of working a 40-hour position with a salary, to now living on a graduate school stipend. Many will establish “home” in a new and foreign place and embrace these communities for the next 18 months to 6 years.
In my mind’s eye, what is most certain is the realization that these difficult transitions also will be hugely transformative and impactful for each of you. Already, simply applying to graduate schools has been an exercise in self-reflection. Furthermore, you continue to make weighty decisions by which you stand. Remember, the world will not end if things do not work out as you initially anticipated; You can take a different route; ultimately, you will end up where you need to be. As you venture into this new world, I offer some gems of wisdom:
Take up space.
Trust your power.
Be who you are, unapologetically.
Love who you are, as no one can love you like you love you.
Get involved in “Good Trouble.”
Whatever you do not know, you can learn.
Speak your truth when you feel compelled even though you may be afraid.
Lean on your family and friends for support when the need arises; they want to help you.
Hold fast to the habits and hobbies that make you happy.
Build and surround yourself with community (i.e., your classmates, professors, family and friends, IRT peers and mentors, a church family, civic and professional organizations.)
If you are going to a new city/state, discover the area.
Do not apologize if your work/research impacts a marginalized community, this intersection is a good thing even though you may be told otherwise.
Remember that there may be no one doing the type of research you plan to engage. You are becoming the expert you wanted to see and that we need in this particular niche.
Remember that you are all that and more! You are brilliant beyond measure and…you got this!
I am wishing each of you much success and countless blessings!
Leislie Godo-Solo, M.A., Ed.S., IRT ‘ 91
Education Programs Specialist, IRT