November 2020

Scaling the Cliff: Surviving My First Semester in Grad School teaser image
I started at Texas A&M University three years ago as a transfer student, wondering if I’d really “earned my place” among my fellow Aggies. I hadn’t quite made the cut for A&M out of high school and ended up spending freshman year at its sister school, Tarleton State University. Located in one of the many self-proclaimed “Cowboy Capitals of the World,” Stephenville, Texas wasn’t a far cry from the culture of College Station. Still, the two semesters I spent there seemed like an eternity.
 
Yet, as overjoyed as I was to at last call myself an Aggie, when I first came here as a student, I was filled with trepidation. Will I make friends? What if my professors don’t like me? What if my work’s not good enough? These questions and more swarmed in my brain like angry bees.
 
This past May, during my virtual graduation from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, I reflected on my initial worries. I ended up making many of what I hope will be lifelong friendships, the majority of my professors were wonderful educators and mentors, many of whom I still wouldn’t hesitate to reach out to for advice, and yes, I thankfully didn’t flunk out. Even beyond that (I’m very proud to say) I somehow managed to graduate with honors in Agricultural Communications and Journalism (believe it or not, we did more than interview cows).
 
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This time last year, I figured that graduation would close the book chronicling my years of higher education, but an interview with a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service for one of my media writing classes changed that. He told me all about his life as a public servant and asked if I’d considered following a similar path. While at the time I’d always envisioned serving the public as a journalist, reporting on issues that mattered to the American people, I have, with the benefit of hindsight, seen my discovery of this new path as serendipity of the highest order, given the current situation in the job market and larger world.
 
Where my time as an undergrad was a hike up a hill, that I eventually conquered with the aid of several rest stops and snack breaks, graduate school currently seems like a race up a cliff face where one misstep could result in sudden death or worse: failure.
 
After practically living in oversized t-shirts and sweatpants during the months of quarantine, at our in-person orientation in August I couldn’t help but gulp as I looked over the sea of professional attire. Though I’d moved less than a mile away from the Ag Department, this was a whole new world. Even as I stood tall in my own heels and business dress, I still half-expected security guards to bust in and drag me away as the faculty realized their mistake in my admittance into the Master of International Affairs (MIA) program.
 
Even as my soon to be department head told an auditorium of MIA first-years that we belonged there, I couldn’t help but think, “Well they do, but I just somehow managed to slip through the cracks.” Many of these students had previous work experience in government agencies or were military veterans, and even the ones that had (like me) come into their master’s program straight from undergrad seemed to almost exclusively have studied something related to international affairs.
 
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A couple of months on, a semester of Zoom classes is somehow more than halfway over. And yet, despite an avalanche of weekly reading, lectures on unfamiliar topics, and class discussions where I’ve felt that I was playing catch up at times, I may finally be getting into my stride. I’m by no means beyond scrambling to complete my assignments in a timely manner nor am I rattling off profound reflections on world events with ease, but with every passing week that I’m at the Bush School, it’s seeming more and more like I didn’t just sneak in after all.
 
You may have picked up on the fact that this blog post is a whole lot of anecdotes and not a whole lot of advice. That’s because, while I’m catching my stride in some ways, I definitely don’t have all the answers. As I write this, I’m still worrying about all the deadline chasing I have left to do before the end of this week and the almost certainly late nights that will entail. What I hope this does show, and this is the one thing I am sure of, is that none of us are alone in this experience. My story is just one of countless others that didn’t get put to paper. If you know where to look, you’ll quickly realize that a bit of imposter syndrome is an inevitable part of the experience any time someone commits themselves to something worth doing.

-- Erin Herndon

Erin is a Masters student in the Department of International Affairs

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