The graduate student experience in metaphorical terms. October 2013. Oakland, CA.
My phone buzzed at 12pm with an appointment reminder; I had an academic advisory meeting that day. After parting ways with my classmates, I trudged up the zigzag stairwell, marched into my advisor’s office, and nervously sat down on the scratchy fabric of the student visitation couch. The first round of graduate level midterms had punched me squarely in the face, deflating my previously existing academic ego, and exposing me to new levels of numerical lows. She greeted me with a cheery hello, but I responded in a slightly quieter voice as I knew an unpleasant chat was in order.
“So, Chrissa,” she began. “I saw your anatomy and biomechanics midterm scores. Tell me about what’s going on? Is it the complexity of the material?”
Internally I cringed under the confrontation, but externally I sought to remain calm.
“No, it’s not the complexity, it’s more the volume.”
” You’ve clearly been successful in the past to get accepted to this program, so are you doing what worked for you before?” she asked.
For a moment, I stared into and oversized poster on the wall that read, IT DEPENDS, and wished it could speak for me.
“Well, it’s different,” I began. “It’s like if I’m a competitive distance runner, and I’m used to racing well on training five miles a day, and then I suddenly jump to ten miles a day. That doesn’t make me or faster, or smarter, it just causes stress fractures of the bones and the brain.”
She nodded slowly.
“ I’m glad to see you’re incorporating the class material in your everyday life. But speaking of running, how are you handling the pace of the program?”
“Um, it’s kind of like a constant sprint. It’s like I’ve been forced to develop a strain of “academia bulimia,” where there’s just a constant binging and purging of information with no time to chew.” I sighed. “But I’m trying my best to get used to it.”
Her forehead wrinkled in concern.
“It’s very important to take care of yourself. A thorough reading of the textbook sounds like it could be quite helpful for you. How are you managing the text?”
Truthfully, earlier that day, I had confessed to a classmate that I considered one of our textbooks spot on similar to a very stale chocolate cake–because it was just that dense, and that dry. However in my efforts to hold back anything whiny, I simply added a hesitant, “um, it’s alright.”
But my advisor is a helpful person and remained determined to find some type of useful action step.
“Have you connected with any of the third year students yet?” She asked.
And again, I refrained. The peer tutoring had helped, but sometimes I avoided the third years because they reminded me of Haymitch in The Hunger Games. They looked burnt out and spoke in harsh terms like, “Here’s some advice, stay alive!” Or, “you should get drunk before it gets worse.”
Bringing my mind back to the present moment on the student visitation couch, I continued to sift through other possible diagnoses of my academic difficulties. Finally, I found the words she needed all along.
“The thing about eight classes at once,” I began, “is that I feel like a single mom of eight babies.”
She cocked her head to the side, and I continued.
“Each baby– I mean class– is dependent on my attention for survival. But that means I can never truly focus because spending quality time with one class leaves the other seven weeping in the back of my mind out of neglect and fear of death. See I love learning, and I like each class individually, but I’m just so new to the whole octa mom thing.” I stopped talking, and then, to my surprise, she smiled.
“That’s great, Chrissa!”
I stared at her, puzzled.
“Even though you’re struggling with the coursework, you can certainly articulate the experience–and your feelings about it, really well.”
Wonderful, I thought sarcastically to myself. Why does my ability to articulate experiences and feelings always exceed that of my ability to successfully execute or handle the respective experiences and feelings? Maybe I should just become a professional “experience articulator.”
I gave a weak smile back, and she continued. “Just keep doing your best okay? Don’t forget to take the time to rest. This program is a marathon, not a sprint.”
And so, I walked out of the office musing over bulimic marathoners running ten miles on stress fractured legs, binging and purging on an informational stale chocolate cake, all the while taking care of eight infants. And also, of course, articulating their experience along the way.