Probably the thing you hear me say most come fall is, “have you been reaching out to faculty?” It’s become a mantra in relation to the group of McNair scholars set to apply to graduate school this season. I usually have between eight and ten students applying, and every year I stress myself out worrying if they are “doing enough” to get fully funded offers at their top-choice programs.
I know their intention to do so is there, it’s just that sometimes demands of the semester, coupled with anxiety about reaching out, stymie their efforts.
Each summer I present at a “grad school boot camp” where I talk about the grad application process and how to make those fully funded offers happen. Besides covering the “logistical” aspects and offering a specially designed organizational tool called the Grad App Tracker, the most important thing I tell our McNair scholars is to establish “meaningful contact” with as many faculty members at programs you are interested in as you can. Whether it be through a campus visit (best option), Skype/phone session (pretty decent) or email correspondence (can still be effective), connecting with people you are interested in potentially working with is key to enhancing your chances for admission.
Don’t get me wrong, you have to do all of the other pieces to the best of your ability – writing a kick ass personal statement, building those experiences on your CV, doing the best that you can in your classes, developing relationships with faculty on your campus so that you have the strongest recommendation letters possible. All of these things are important. To really “seal the deal” though, you need to combine the added element of connection.
Case in point is one of our scholars currently investigating applying to a campus visitation program. The process hasn’t been entirely clear and I’ve even tried to reach out to their coordinator for guidance. What it basically comes down to, however, is the student making contact with prospective faculty advisors at that institution in order to be selected for the visit.
A particularly tenacious student, this scholar had been reaching out to multiple individuals without response. Then I get a text with a screen shot of a response from a faculty member indicating enthusiasm for this scholar, as well as “deep respect” for this scholar’s current McNair mentor. As well as the scholar BURSTING WITH JOY! Score! I’m going to wager that this scholar, in fact, gets selected for the visit, which very well might lead to acceptance (with funding) into the program, which is one of her top-choice schools.
This is what I mean by toehold. With these initial connections come the potential for meaningful exchanges that may lead to partnerships in the future. The goal is to establish a “toehold” at as many of your programs as possible. This means reaching out, briefly telling people about your awesome experiences as McNair scholars, indicating a sincere interest in their work and asking whether they anticipate taking on new graduates next fall. Easy peasy! In many cases, these emails will go unanswered. And that’s okay. But the few that do secure a response are the gems that could very well point the way to your future. You just don’t know.
And you especially don’t (and won’t) know if you don’t send any emails.
That’s why I’m constantly asking my scholars if they are reaching out. You never know what kinds of connections you might be able to foster if you don’t try.
It’s like fishing really. Think about how many times you might have to cast that bait in order to get even the first bite. Sometimes they hit right away, other times it takes a slew of casting, sometimes you don’t get any bites at all. But all of that information you are collecting along the way is important in your decision-making process, right? About how to better your approach, about what types of “fishing environments” you’re going to target next.
And when it comes to selecting a grad school, you’re probably going to go where you get some good quality responses. You are going to go where you feel most welcome. And the more of these kinds of “interactions” you can successfully foster during your grad application process the better!
So get out there and start sending those emails. Make it a priority to MAKE IT HAPPEN before all of the sudden it’s Thanksgiving and nearing those December 1 deadlines. I know you can do this. Let us know how it goes!
I spent the better part of Wednesday sitting on the couch. Dazed and confused you might say. I felt sick to my stomach. I watched the speeches made that day. I watched Jerry Maguire because it was on one of the channels. Cuba Gooding Jr. made me smile.
I had tried to do the normal things I would have been doing on that Wednesday. I tried to edit some personal statements. I tried to read some applications. Instead I found myself walking around campus aimlessly, not really wanting to be anywhere. That’s why I found myself on the couch, the next best place to be when you don’t feel like you belong anywhere.
I have a half-written blog post about the excitement of interviewing new scholars for McNair. I haven’t been able to finish it, and darn it, I should have just done that and posted it last week before this all happened. I was in much better spirits then.
I can’t stop myself from being on Facebook and reading about the fallout from some of the more thoughtful and grounded observers out there. I’m not sure what I’m looking for but it’s probably hope.
I’m listening to our scholars and I’m not sure how to engage. I don’t know quite what to say except I’m sorry. I’ve been though some intense times when McNair was in jeopardy. That happened two grant cycles ago when we didn’t even know if or when we were going to be writing for another round of support, we didn’t know how much money was being taken away, and then ultimately we lost 50 of our programs, many of which had been long-standing, very successful McNair programs over the past decade. We made it and I felt relieved and lucky to be able to continue the important work that we do with our scholars.
I’m not feeling that way now. I’m feeling scared and deeply saddened. We’re going to be in for the fight of our lives. We’re supposed to be writing for another five years of support in the next couple of months and we’re supposed to be doing this when I’m reading articles suggesting the U.S. Department of Education will be dismantled.
I have Ph.D. students questioning whether it’s even worth it to get their Ph.D. in a time when there might not be funding for research that is so needed. I have scholars barely making it though college with full Pell grants and I can’t even begin to imagine younger low income students trying to make it though with even less.
So what to say here? I don’t know honestly. Except that we’re going to be in for the biggest fight of our lives. That is certainly clear. I already had scholar graduates texting and asking what they can do. It’s going to become even more pertinent that we tell our stories to as many people that will listen and can hear.
It’s going to become even more critical for our McNair community to support one another and be strong. We have no other choice as I see it.
I’m scared for the future. And I’m feeling pretty helpless right now. My family can’t afford for me not to have a job and it might come to that. My heart hurts to think that I might not be able to do this work with students like our McNair scholars. This work is deeply meaningful to me and it’s helped to define me as a person. The thought of that being ripped away is something I can’t even think about.
But really, it’s not about me, it’s about our students and their chance to pursue their dreams through education. I can’t bring myself to think this might all be dashed. So I won’t.
We’re going to need our entire McNair community to become vocal. Way more vocal than we have ever been. We’re going to have to share the stories of our students, the challenges they face and the obstacles they have overcome with assistance from programs like Trio and McNair. We’re going to have to present a united front to those who might not understand or want to listen. We’re going to have to help them listen and understand by sharing the compelling stories of our students.
That’s all I can say for now.
Our scholars presented their research yesterday and Alyssa so eloquently posted this afterward:
My passion for social equality is obvious in many ways, but one thing I don’t talk about as much is my passion for education. To me, those two things go hand-in-hand. Being a McNair Scholar has allowed for me to dedicate my life to social equality by means of education & I cannot thank the program enough.
“Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela 💕
Let’s keep going McNair. Dr. McNair wants us to, that’s for sure. It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be pretty. But we must continue. We must.