Tag: First Generation

My Experience as a First Generation Student

Ronunique Clark headshot

Ronunique Clark, MPP’23

Nearly five years ago, I took a huge leap of faith and gathered all my belongings to move 3,000 miles away from everything I knew in hopes to purse higher education. Fast forward: I am now nearing the completion of my first year as a first generation Master of Public Policy student. WOO!

In retrospect, I attempted to begin my journey without any expectations because when I began undergrad I had so many expectations for what I thought my college experience would entail, but everything does not always go according to plan. I wanted to come into my graduate student journey with a clean slate and a open heart and mind. I did not want to assume that any of my classmates would be similar to me, or that my professors would either be helpful or not, or if I would even be able to utilize all the resources provided  to me.  I came into this program wanting to be a sponge, soaking up all information and knowledge in relation to my interest and my future career goals. This program however has exceed anything expectations that I could have possibly created.

One thing I’ve appreciated the most about my time here at Heller is that the classroom  is extremely collaborative, open, and vulnerable space for students to voice their interests, opinions, and concerns on important policy issues. In undergrad, I rarely felt comfortable working in groups or voicing my opinions because I felt others would not understand my views or value them. I appreciated the push from my fellow peers and my professors at Heller, who encouraged me to share my experiences and thoughts. To my surprise, in most cases, others would have similar experiences, shared interests and thoughts. My professors deemed my insight as important and provided extensive feedback on how to tailor my skills. Being a first generation graduate student, it meant the world to me to enter a space without feeling as if you do not belong there.  Reassurance is key for connecting with first generation students because we can easily feel imposter syndrome. The feeling of knowing that you earned your spot like every one else and that your insight matters is the best feeling when navigating higher education.

What I have learned on my journey thus far is that time management is everything. This is something most first generation students struggle with because we do not have the luxury of just being able to attend school; at times we have to cater to needs of family members or work jobs that will assist us in paying for our education and survival. This can be overwhelming for many individuals, but what I have learned from this is that it is okay to ask for help, it is okay to say that you do not understand, and it is okay to say that it is not feasible for you at the moment and to ask for an extension. No one in this program wants to see you fail because of things outside of your control. Being able to speak up about  your needs is important and you never know who might be able to support you or point you in the right direction.

School is far from easy and I never expected graduate school to be so. I knew I was in for a challenge, I just did not know what it was going to be exactly. I am proud of how far I have come and I am looking forward to what is to come next. To all my first generation graduate students: do not forget that you deserve to be where you are no matter where you come from.  Continue to always show up in spaces as your greater self and even though some days maybe harder then others, just remember where you started and where you will be when you are done. Take care of yourselves– we got this!

Financing Graduate School as a First Generation Graduate Student

Ronunique Clark headshot

Ronunique Clark, MPP’23

The feeling you get when you receive your offer into the graduate school of your choice is undeniably one of the best feelings ever! You may have been working on your application for months, recommenders may have bailed out on you, the personal statement began to look like a blur after too many rewrites, but you finished it, submitted it, and got in. The next order of business is always “so how will I pay for this?” This can be answered in many ways, but for now, I will just offer my own two cents.

For me, I was lucky enough to leave my undergraduate institution with minimal student debt because I was granted a full scholarship. However, unlike undergrad, I knew that it would be difficult to secure sufficient funding in grad school. When I started my grad school application process, I would search the websites to determine how schools would disburse financial aid. Heller usually offers at least a 30-50% merit scholarship to most students applying to their programs, though some programs may offer more. This was a green flag for me when applying because it showed that Heller did not want students to unnecessarily worry about the financial part, but to come in and be able to learn without the additional stress.

A few things I learned when seeking funding for grad school: First, I learned when searching for funding, you need to be specific in your wording. I would recommend searching for “scholarships for public policy students” or “scholarships for graduate students”, which would narrow the information down to my particular request, avoiding the disappointment that comes with finding a great scholarship only to see in the description, “this is only for undergraduate students only”.

Second, I live by the saying “closed mouths do not get fed” and from this, I took the initiative to reach out to my mentors, former supervisors, or programs that I worked/volunteered for. This can be helpful because many jobs or programs have funding to support individuals’ academic efforts. Sometimes these can be free without any additional requirements, or you may have to fill out an application and work out a system to receive the funds. If you do not advocate for yourself and your work ethic, then who will?

Lastly,  working and going to school can be difficult. I found full-time or part-time work-study jobs to be beneficial. Note that most schools do not offer work-study for graduate students, especially international students. But even if it is not work-study, some on-campus jobs are able to hire students directly to their payroll if the department allows for it.  I advocate for on-campus or work-study employment because they work the best with students’ academic schedules, and they also are able to provide support and resources, and you may be able to score a job that fits your academic interests.

Seeking funding for graduate school can be rough, but it does not have to be. Always reach out to the school of your choice and see what resources they provide to graduate students; if you do not ask, then you will never know. This information is sometimes public but not always, so it is important to really advocate for yourself and your needs when you’re applying, during your time in the program, and even after you graduate.

Applying to Graduate School as a First Generation Graduate Student

Ronunique Clark headshot

Ronunique Clark, MPP’23

Applying to graduate school as a first generation graduate student is not always as easy as it may seem.  When I started my senior year at Boston University, I was on the pathway to become a law student. I spent all summer and most of fall prepping for the LSAT, deciding what schools I wanted to apply to, endless amount of GroupMe messages… it was all super draining.  Yet when it came time to write my personal statement I could not find the words to say why I wanted to be an attorney. Was it because I wanted to help my community? Was it because I will be financially stable? What was it? I spent the last  two years prepping for my journey into law school and now I can’t even say why I want to be there. I think I was turned off by the law school process. I did not understand the purpose of the LSAT when all the 1L and 2L says the LSAT has barely anything to do with your classes. I did not understand why I would choose to sit in a class discussing outdated laws. I did not understand the process for the bar exam. It all just seemed like a rigged system to me and I no longer wanted any part.

Once I officially decided that law school was not for me, I was right back to the drawing board. Well, what am I supposed to do now? I was set to graduate from BU in less than 5 months and I just shut the door on what I thought was my dream career. I remember speaking with a old supervisor of mine about my concerns: I told her I knew I wanted to help people but I wanted to make a everlasting impact, I wanted to be within the community making the changes they want to see, and that I was thinking of applying for a MPP or MPA degree. She told me it sounded like a great idea and if she could had gotten her MPP or MPA instead of law school she would have 1000% done it. She said to me, “I did not want to study law I wanted to learn the legal and government system to make it better.” From that statement alone I began thinking some more about my personal goals and the field I saw myself in. Once that became clear, I began my search for masters programs.  I had few goals for this new journey: find a master’s program that did not require the GRE (hey, what can I say I was burnt out from standardized testing), only apply for 5 schools, and secure a scholarship offer.

One thing I forgot about once I narrowed down my choices and began my application process was that in undergrad I had way more assistance. I had more time to polish my personal statement, I had more time to search for schools, I had more time to submit scholarship applications, and on top of that, I was chosen as a Posse Scholar, and they pretty much do all the work for you– all I did was show up to an interview and a few meetings. I was on a time crunch submitting grad school apps, finding recommenders, and submitting scholarship essays. Not only did I have to deal with being on a time crunch, I had to deal with the most hated question of college students, “What are you doing after you graduate?” I would answer, “Grad school” only to receive responses such as, “Why would you want to go to grad school right after undergrad?”, “What do you plan to do with a second degree?”, questions I honestly did not have the answer to and probably still don’t have the answer to.  However, my mentor, my posse, my friends, and my family where all very supportive of my decision to get my masters. They always wanted me to do what made me happy and I can not thank them enough for the support. Friends offered to read my statement of purposes, people always asked for updates and when acceptances letters came in I was showered with words of wisdom and encouragement. Most of my family never went to college and sometimes its hard for them to understand the challenges I have to face, but they never doubted my ability to finish strong. One piece of advice I want to give a first generation graduate student is that breaking generational curses starts with you and even when the road looks foggy, trust the light is always at the end.

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