Navigating graduate school as a first-generation student

Enrica Bridgewater

“On behalf of the faculty in the Department of Communication and Media, it is our pleasure to recommend you for admission to the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan.” I woke up to this email on Valentine’s Day 2020 (what a great gift, right?) and was visibly stunned. First, because this was one of my top-choice programs and second, I didn’t think I had any chance of getting in. As a first-generation college graduate and now graduate student, receiving any positive news in response to my applications was surreal. I’ve been working towards my goal of getting into a PhD program since 2014 and still can’t believe that I actually achieved it.

I remember being a high school senior dreaming about the day when I would get my doctorate. I had no idea what it really entailed or the amount of work it would require, but having “Dr.” in front of my name didn’t sound half bad to 17-year-old me. To any first-gen students who come across this article, please don’t ever give up. Academia needs your brilliance and unique perspective on the world! To those who are in the process of applying, here are my key pieces of advice:

  • Don’t compare yourself to others. I did this so much while I was in college and it completely shattered my confidence. I was surrounded by students who had been in research labs since they were freshmen, while I didn’t start doing research until much later (i.e., the summer before my senior year). This was due to my lack of knowledge of what research was and my inability to gain experience earlier. Thankfully, a great opportunity came along in the form of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, where I was able to finally dive into research. However, I began to compare myself to my two cohort mates almost immediately. I still remember the day we had a workshop where the task was to help each other edit our CVs and mine was crap compared to theirs. I eventually realized through times like these that I was doing myself a disservice. Everyone is on their own timeline. Your journey is YOURS. Trust the process. You will get to where you want to be when the time is right.
  • Find your people. I wouldn’t have gotten into graduate school without mentors who saw my potential early on and encouraged me to keep going, especially during the times when I wanted to give up. Your people don’t necessarily have to be mentors at your undergraduate institution, they can also be close friends and family members. Graduate school is HARD and you need as much support as you can get. Make sure that your circle is filled with those who genuinely care about you and your dreams. You don’t have time to waste on people who don’t see your vision.
  • Seek out resources. Take note of any resources you find when you start getting ready to apply. They will definitely come in handy! Everything I learned about the application process came from browsing the web for most of 2018 and the information that I gained was invaluable. Here are some of my recommendations:
  • Stay organized. Organization is key! Creating a system for yourself that allows you to keep track of everything (e.g., required application materials and program deadlines) is going to make applying so much smoother. Using Microsoft Word, Excel, and OneNote as well as Trello was a game changer for me. Find what works best for you and stick with it! You will thank yourself later.
  • Believe in yourself. As a first-gen student applying to graduate school, you may feel a rush of emotions. You may be scared that you won’t get accepted anywhere and that all of your hard work will be for nothing. You may question why you are even putting yourself through this because your goal is probably unreachable. Well, I’m here to tell you that your voice is needed. Despite what anyone says, you are meant to be here and you matter. And when you get into a program (because I know you will!), if someone tells you that you were only accepted because of some aspect of your identity (e.g., race/ethnicity or gender), please don’t listen to them. People like that are ignorant and we don’t listen to ignorant people.

Now that I have given you some tips to keep in mind, I want to mention a resource that I have been working on to help other first-gen students get into graduate school. It’s a blog called “A First-Gen’s Guide to Grad School: How to Get in, Survive, and Thrive”, where I explore topics such as applying to PhD programs in the humanities/social sciences. I created it solely to provide insight into the often “secretive” application process as well as highlighting the reality of being a graduate student as I start my own PhD journey. I go in-depth about ways to gain research experience, how to obtain letters of recommendation, points to cover in a statement of purpose/personal statement, and much more. I wanted this blog to be a resource specifically for first-gen students because I know firsthand how difficult it can be to navigate graduate school without knowing many people who have taken a similar path. The only way that academia will be a more inclusive place is if those who are often left behind or forgotten are heard and valued. This is my first step to making that a reality. It’s time to add some color to the Ivory Tower.

Enrica Bridgewater is a communication and media PhD student at the University of Michigan, and author of

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