I’ve only been away from college for a couple of months and I’m already thinking about going back. I don’t know if it’s the uncertainty of our current moment or getting my first real taste of professional life, but in the past couple weeks graduate school, and whether or not to get another degree, has been on my mind a lot.
I was in school for 19 years of my life and as a first-gen graduate with an interest in education, there’s a lot of my identity that’s wrapped up in being a student. But there’s a laundry list of reasons as to why now isn’t a good time: We’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s causing major turmoil in higher education, I just finished college with debt and have no interest in taking on any more, and I’m not exactly sure what I’d want to study. Yet more than once I’ve found myself wondering if I should go to grad school.
I’ve heard it said that a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. Having a bachelor’s degree no longer guarantees you the entry into the professional world or the high-paying it jobs it once did, so on a practical level, it feels like a good idea to pursue an advanced degree.
There are some in my profession who argue that college isn’t as importantas learning on the job. Having the opportunity to learn practical skills through internships and co-ops while I was still a student was invaluable to me, but I’ll never pretend that I didn’t need to go to college. As a Black woman from a low-income background, having a degree legitimizes my skills for people who would otherwise doubt me. For some, a graduate degree on a field that doesn’t require it might seem like a waste of time, but for me, it feels necessary.
But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t part of me that feels a certain personal expectation to continue my education. As a first-gen student, so much of going to college is about proving that you can accomplish a goal no matter what obstacles are thrown your way. Once you do, that desire to show you can succeed against the odds doesn’t just go away. I’ve already done what once felt impossible, so why not do it again?
When it comes down to it, the real reason I want to go to graduate school is that I love learning in a classroom environment. I don’t know what degree I want to pursue because there’s so much — from public policy to Black studies to creative writing to journalism — that I want to learn more about.
‘A lot of the struggles students face in graduate school, I had already navigated in my undergrad’
I haven’t made any decisions about what I’m going to do, but as I think it over, I wanted to get some advice from a fellow first-gen student about pursuing an advanced degree so I spoke with Cassandra Salgado-Geiger, the director of the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools. Cassandra has a master’s of education from DePaul and is currently working on her MBA at Northwestern. We talked about how to make grad school work for you and why being a first-gen student gave her the resilience she needed to get through her graduate programs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ZO: What was your undergraduate experience like?
CSG: Going to college was always a really nebulous thing that my mom and I couldn’t quite grasp. My first introduction to the idea of really going was when a coach approached me in high school at a cross country meet and explained to me what a liberal arts college was. I started off doing what you’d consider a more traditional four-year experience, but it felt strange. I had a lot of moments where I felt out of place and I always felt like I had to fight for grades.
I eventually left and started to work and ended up doing my undergrad part-time. I was a new mom and being in those classes and working was a lot to manage but I felt much more comfortable. Taking classes at night, there was usually a mix of student age ranges and experiences. I took much longer than four years to finish that undergraduate degree. But I finally got it after about six years.
ZO: When did you know you wanted to go to grad school?
CSG: I was interested in doing advising and that was actually because I was inspired by meeting with an advisor in college. The way she spoke to me and the knowledge she was able to give me in that one sitting I found just fascinating. She told me about the master’s of education and counseling that she received at DePaul. So I started to look into it and develop a whole strategy of getting advanced degrees.
There are many higher ed institutions, as part of the benefit for their employees, that provide some sort of tuition reimbursement or a percentage of tuition reduction. There was no way that I would have been able to get that on my own financially and I was scared of massive amounts of student loans because I already had some from undergrad. So I basically made a spreadsheet of all the institutions around me that had a master’s of education counseling and also had any openings that I could apply for and position myself to get in.
ZO: When you started your graduate program did you feel like going through undergrad had prepared you for what that next portion of higher ed would be?
CSG: It was a learning curve, but not as steep. I felt like I had an edge almost because I had gotten my undergraduate in high pressured circumstances. So I did feel like okay, I can handle this, I can manage this. By then, I started to understand what being first-gen was and understand that it could provide me with an advantage or at least a different angle of approach that would help me through the experience.
It was easier to manage the social interactions because I didn’t feel like I was coming in at a deficit in any way. A lot of the struggles students face in graduate school I had already navigated in my undergrad.
ZO: What advice would you give to a first-gen student like me who’s on the fence about graduate school?
CSG: You’re going to have to hustle it to figure out how you’re going to do this. For me, the saving grace was that higher ed institutions had that benefit but I know other students who worked several jobs, and whatever approach you take has to be the right one for you not what you think you should be doing.
If you go, throw yourself into the experience. This is the time to sit in front of the class and voice yourself even if it feels scary. Once you figure out the logistics, understand that you have an advantage. You have the benefit of being first-gen. You’ve made it this far without some of those things that help other students leverage their experiences. So when I say it’s time for the hustle, you have the skills to do that already.
Thanks for reading,
📚 Good reads:
- “Things I wish I knew before I started grad school (and j-school again)” by Karen K. Ho
- This thread on the rhetoric around international students in the wake of the recent ICE decision
- “Thousands of community college students withdraw after a lost semester amid coronavirus,” by Nina Agrawal for the Los Angeles Times