Snapshots of My Grad School Experience

Photo credit: TwigyPosts |

Photo credit: TwigyPosts |


“So you’re going to be a doctor,” my auntie said.

“Yes,” I answered hesitantly, “but not a medical doctor. An educational doctor. I will learn stuff and teach stuff to others.”

Wow, great job with the description, Pa. You’re going to make an exceptional doctoral candidate at UC, Santa Barbara.

My auntie looked thoughtful for a few seconds. She nodded and looked back at me, “But you’re still going to be a doctor.”

“Uh...yeah,” I said, but I couldn't help thinking that this conversation had gone right over her head. And it was the same feeling I got when I told my parents and my other aunties and my uncles and my neighbors and so on and so forth. Many of them had barely completed a middle school education, so this “educational doctor” thing was new to my parents’ generation--heck, it was new to me--and I could tell it was gonna take some gettin’ used to.

I was twenty-three years old and I was going to grad school. Not just any grad program either, I was going into a Ph.D. program. I was going to be more educated than anyone in my immediate family and more educated than 97% of the Hmong population in the United States. But I don’t think I understood the enormity of that and the blessings and curses it brought until much later.


On being the first

Alex was living in Riverside at the time, and he flew up to Chico to help me drive down to Santa Barbara.

“Let us know if you need anything,” Dad said to me.

“Take care of her,” Mom said to Alex in broken English.

I was the first bird to leave the nest, and I’m sure my parents didn’t hear the end of it for letting me go. I was a girl after all, and what reason did a girl have to go to school so far away from home? Why couldn’t I have just gone to a local school? And didn’t I just graduate?

Nearly eight hours and 480 miles later, we arrived at UC, Santa Barbara, the gateway to the ocean. I had two thoughts.

First, I had never felt so small in my life. The ocean has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and me? Twenty-three years. In the timeline of existence, I was smaller than a dust particle.

Second, what the heck did I get myself into? I don’t know what I’m doing. I don't belong here. These statements haunted me throughout my entire time in grad school.


On belonging

On the first day of class, I couldn’t decide whether to take my backpack or a tote bag. What will the other students be taking? More importantly, what would make me look more like a graduate student?

I went with the tote bag.

In class, the professor had us introduce ourselves. I found myself marveling at my classmates. Several local teachers, a few professionals from the university, students from UC, Berkeley and UC, Irvine and The East Coast. They wanted to study how students learned math and science in the classroom, women and sexual activity in college, how socioeconomic status affects student grades, and really fancy stuff like that. Then there was me who had just graduated and didn’t really know what I wanted to study.

I think I went home that night and cried.


On the perfect location

I could smell the ocean breeze from my balcony. The beach was a ten-minute walk from graduate housing. Undergraduate dorms were even closer. Sometimes I wonder how anyone got their work done in that place.

On days when I had no classes, I walked through the Barnes and Noble in downtown Santa Barbara because it felt like the one in Chico. I sat in coffee shops and pretended to read the twenty chapters assigned for the week while I watched tourists with their maps and cameras. Then I watched rich folks with their polos and over-priced sunglasses eat breakfast in restaurants I didn't dare enter. Sometimes I found myself strolling on State Street, window-shopping, taking in the sun, admiring the Spanish architecture that made Santa Barbara such a beautiful city, and listening to German and French and Chinese all within the same block.

Both the university and the city seemed to crawl through time. Students wore flip flops year-round and on any day you can find some of them beachside. Except for the baristas and waiters, nobody seemed to work. It was the kind of life I had always longed for. Then why did I feel so empty?


On the not so perfect location

In the evenings, I cooked Hmong dishes that I hoped would soothe my restless soul, but they wouldn’t come out right. Not like Mom’s. And I didn’t dare try to make any of Dad’s dishes because no one cooked like Dad.

One Saturday, a few months into grad school, I discovered the local farmer’s market. This I was familiar with. My parents had farmed all their lives. Chico was well known for its farmer’s markets. I immersed myself in each stall, taking in the scents of fresh fruits and vegetables, listening to the farmers talk excitedly about their harvest. It was during one of these moments that I thought I caught a familiar cadence. Tones that only another Hmong person could make. I looked around and quickly spot the older woman in the stall across the way. Her black hair was pulled back into a bun and she wore a sunhat and a floral blouse.

I hadn’t spoken Hmong in months, at least not to a person standing right in front of me. What if my throat didn’t work? What if it came out weird?

“Are you Hmong?” I asked desperately, waiting for either recognition or repugnance. It was a 50/50 chance.

“Yes,” the woman answered. “Are you going to school here, my dear?”

“Yes,” I said, silently jumping for joy. I didn’t want the conversation to end, so I searched desperately for a question to ask. “Where are you from?”

I don’t know if it was because of my excitement or because I just didn’t recognize the name of the town, but I can’t recall what she said. Our conversation was short--not because she shooed me off, but because we were strangers, and I wasn’t a very good conversationalist. I left her stall with gifts: a bag of green beans and lemongrass. Maybe she felt sorry for me. Maybe she saw the desperate longing in my face. It didn’t matter. My heart was full that day.


On looking smart

Sometimes grad school felt like a bunch of talking. Like there had been this conversation going on for a hundred years and we were just joining it. Once we talked for an hour about objectivity with no real conclusion. Another time, you could cut through the tension in the room with a butter knife as we discussed white privilege. But most of the time, I felt like I had nothing smart to say, and the truth was, it seemed like everyone was just trying to say something smart. Trying to prove to everyone else that they belonged in that room and in that conversation.

Outside of class, we read hundreds of articles and chapters. They were interesting but dry and research-technical with big words like “scaffold” and “corroborate” and “agency”--not the spy kind. They had tables and charts and numbers and things called ANOVA that I pretended to understand (I usually just skipped to the discussion and conclusion).

I had never been a quick reader or a quick thinker, and I never really got what professors meant when they gave directions like, “Write a response to Chapter 17.” Okay, but what the heck did that mean? And then when I got responses back like “interesting” and “not quite what the author meant” from the same professors, and realized I had missed the point of the article completely, I only felt more like a fraud.

I slowly began to understand that research articles weren’t written for the general public but for other researchers so they could continue this hundred-year-old conversation with each other. I didn’t like that, and that planted a seed in my head, much like what happened in the movie Inception when Leonardo DiCaprio planted a seed in his wife’s head.


On taking out loans

To feel like I was going somewhere with my life, I bought a lie. And the sad thing? I was the one who sold it. I said, “I'm just gonna take out loans and everything is going to be all right.” I convinced myself it was okay. This is an American lie that gets sold to many young people who aren’t ready to be adults and who don’t know what to do with their lives.

Higher education is a multi-billion dollar business. I went to UC, Santa Barbara on a $20,000 fellowship which looked like a great amount of money at the time, but it barely paid for my first year of grad school. I still had to take out loans to make ends meet.

I had a plan, too. I had every intention of finding a job or being a teaching assistant after that fellowship ran out, and I did. The problem? Living in Santa Barbara meant living the Santa Barbara lifestyle and no part-time position I found could’ve paid for that lifestyle.

In the end, the $20,000 they gave me? It was the same amount I ended up owing in loans to the government.


On being honest with yourself

By the end of my second year at UC, Santa Barbara, I had learned how to use big words and make things sound “researchy”. I was twenty-five years old and living in a cold, run-down room behind a kitchen in downtown Santa Barbara. I taught English at a for-profit school around the corner and barely made enough money to pay rent every month. I was also driving down to LA every other month to “do research”--basically, I hung out with a bunch of college students in their environment and wrote down my scientific observations of what happened.

I was on track to be a lifelong researcher. I had spent thousands of dollars to build the skills and I finally had the right mindset. My research topic was also unique enough (my advisor said all I needed was a little bit more data to turn it into a dissertation) that it could be fruitful for me in the future. But did I want it?

That seed I planted about researchers having hundred-year-old conversations with each other began to grow. Did I want to spend the rest of my life looking at data and talking to a bunch of dead guys? No, not really.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire researchers and I believe we need them to help us better understand the world around us, to live long and healthy lives, to prevent the destruction of the earth, to invent new and extraordinary things. It’s heart wasn’t in it anymore. Maybe it never was.

In 2011, I left my Ph.D. program with a master’s degree in education. And as it turned out, whether I had a backpack or a tote bag didn’t matter at all. What mattered was whether I had my heart in it.


On understanding my own identity

When does an individual become aware of her own place in society? I think I must’ve been in fifth grade when I really began to see how low I was on the totem pole. I started to hate being Hmong. If it meant being uneducated, being laughed at, being pushed out, then I didn’t want to be part of it. I wanted to blend in with all the white kids.

I struggled with identity throughout most of my young adult life and only really began to understand it and embrace it in college. My master’s thesis was a 100-page research project on Hmong identity. Here is an excerpt.

Although when they were younger (elementary through high school) all of the students shared negative feelings toward being Hmong, their feelings changed upon reaching college. This can be seen in the double-voicing that occurs during their descriptions of how they felt toward the Hmong ethnic identity. They turned their negative identity practices, such as avoiding association with other Hmong students, into positive identity practices, such as creating culture shows to perform their cultural background, and, thus, their ethnic identity. Instead of distancing themselves further from their Hmong ethnic identity, this new “community of practice” in college allowed members of HSU to reconnect with their roots, current Hmong pop culture (especially Hmong music), and Hmong social and political events, and reinvent and reinvigorate their Hmong ethnic identity.


On learning great lessons

A few months ago, my boss said something that is still rolling around in my head. She said, “I’ve written more letters of recommendation for grad school than ever before.”

This should’ve made me happy, but instead I just felt tired. Weird, huh? (Maybe I’m just getting old.)

I can't say whether or not grad school is the right decision for anyone. I can only say what I wish someone had said to me.

Slow down. Just because it’s the next thing to do doesn’t mean you have to do it. You aren't missing out on anything.

You've gone to school for eighteen years. It's okay to not go to school.

Give yourself permission to try something new, to do something you're not used. Go on that trip to Thailand with your parents, join the Peace Corps, participate in Teach for America, get a job. Make use of your undergraduate degree. You worked hard for it and you haven’t even seen what you could do with it. Be brave enough, be patient enough to give yourself a chance to take your education for a test drive.

Graduate education is important, but some will argue that experience is equally important. And remember, more education and a fancy title doesn’t guarantee happiness or peace of mind or a job you love.

However, if you are 100% sure that grad school is for you, then be there 100%. And when you’re no longer there 100%, be brave enough to leave.


Have you or someone you know decided to go to grad school? I’ve created some actionable tips that will take you through everything you need to do before you even apply. You can download this tool below.