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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

You Are Not Alone: Reflections and Encouragement on Graduate School and Being Whole

Sailboat in San Diego Mission Bay, 2019

Perhaps you are a newly minted Ph.D., out in the scary world of academia trying to weather the storm, unsure of when to ease the mainsail, terrified of capsizing yet just as scared to lose momentum, stranded, unable to reach the final destination for your career, or, life. Or, like me, struggling to navigate and tack, attempting to move forward yet spinning in circles. Maybe you're a Ph.D. student, trying to reach the dock, where "ABD" is scrawled above, yet you are stuck in irons with no power to go, the wind blowing in the other direction, and your sails simply fluttering in the wind. Or, you're a candidate with so much data that you cannot for the life of you figure out how to get to show, with choppy winds and heavy gusts while you've forgotten who to reef your sails, pulling them in and reducing risk.

Please know that while I do not know your exact situation: you are not alone

This evening, or, late morning at around 1:30 am, I stared at myself in the mirror. Black smudges of eyeliner were smeared across my eyes. My recently dyed hair is out of place, the now burgundy colors evident in my reflection. I turned and stared at my children, who fell asleep in my bed, and quite honestly, I sobbed. I cried because of how much joy their snark, laughter, beauty, creations, and talks. I cried because of the anguish I feel for feeling like I've missed so much of their childhood. I feel lost, I struggle, a lot, and while I always come through, I say this because again, you are not alone.

I know the moments some of you may have felt - from the times you cried after putting them to bed because they had an outburst, wondering when you can play with them. Or the times you had to tell your family you couldn't make it to the gathering because of the next due date eating away at you. Sometimes, it is even easier to push people away because the stress is mounting, drowning you, and there is no easy way to express it. I am here, and many others have been. You are not alone in that.

Ph.D. Graduation, May 2023

On May 12, 2023, I walked across the stage and had the beautiful privilege of being hooded by my amazing mentor and advisor. Because my Ph.D. program was between two schools, I then had the honor of going through that process again, but with two other mentors at the other school. As a first-generation college student from my bachelors up, this was to be celebrated and it did fill my soul. Momentarily, anyway.

I had family come out and we celebrated. I hosted a bonfire to celebrate with my friends who, as much as I would have loved for them to be there, were unable to because of the limit of tickets available. We roasted marshmallows and talked by the fire, finishing the night with a display of fireworks in the distance.

And once this subsided, the glaring reality hit: what next?

Margarita in Belize with Company

After I successfully defended my dissertation on March 20, 2023, I took a trip to Belize. I flew alone. This was the first trip anywhere without my children since I went to a conference in Toronto in April 2019. I was anxious beyond belief. COVID did a number on me, anxiety was already high, and I did a lot of firsts: my first time truly flying alone internationally, my first time taking a trip anywhere for a true vacation that was not for the purpose of visiting family, attending weddings or funerals, or a conference. I took a puddle jumper, stayed in

San Pedo all by myself, explored the town, and while it was quite an emotional trip since my kids are dearly attached to me, it was a beautiful experience. While there, though, somebody asked me that dreaded question: So, what's next? We were in a restaurant at the time, and when I said that I had no idea, he replied, "Your margarita!" At that moment, that was quite literally the only thing that I had on my mind. I wanted nothing more than for that to be it.

San Pedro, Belize, March 23, 2023

Every person who has asked has the best intentions. While there, an academic and I spoke for several hours about my, "What's next?" and when I said I was unsure, he asked, "Then why a Ph.D.?" I know my whys, but at the time, I had no answer aside from personal satisfaction, though, that doesn't quite justify the amount of debt I have. Because I thought I wanted to be an academic. Because this was one of the few choices I made where I did not have the pressure of outside influence on me, dictating what I should or should not do.

But then, still, is it worth it?

Enjoying the sunset and my kids at the park

Since finishing the Ph.D. and then the semester, I have been at a standstill. Application after application, like so many others, with few interviews, only for those to be rejections. Scouring the internet daily, adjusting each cover letter, and sending off each email eats away at my soul. Then, while I receive those reminders that this did not produce the job prospects we believe it may, having to hold dearly onto the classes offered to me out of fear that I will lose them, juggling 6 classes per term to teach across different campuses, and still trying to find time to publish, just so that I can feed my children, afford a ridiculously expensive apartment, and mildly enjoy life. Today, after being in bed for almost two weeks because I have been extremely sick, isolated, and depressed because I could not attend a conference I have been looking forward to for months and I planned on attending with one of my best friends, I finally was able to get out of bed and take my kids to the park. These little moments remind me of my own humanity and to appreciate the moments. But, it was not always the case during this journey.

I'm very fortunate to have attended a Ph.D. program that was supportive of its students beyond the scope of what we will contribute to the academic world. My advisor and mentor was understanding, compassionate, encouraging, and phenomenal at guiding me. My life fell apart during this Ph.D. quite honestly, and some of it happened because, well, it's life, and others because, I do believe, indirectly this degree paved the way. Or, rather, it just accelerated the inevitable. I started the program one year after I had brain surgery, and then something devastating happen in my family where a family friend's family tried violating a member of mine. We found out news that rocked the foundation of our family, causing me to help navigate newfound family lineages and connections for my children. And then suddenly, I was being accused of not caring about my family anymore, using the time I had to get caught up, but somehow now being told I was neglectful. My life fell apart after that, where everything I thought I knew about my domestic life was out the window.

Photo of my desk, March 2020

I switched jobs and taught full-time high school and part-time college. Then, you know, a global pandemic hit and I was now teaching online, making home visits, and I had kids at home, too. I caught COVID. I developed long-COVID symptoms. My children had to go to therapy. Life was, quite honestly, a disaster. Yet, the looming expectations of the Ph.D. were still there. Every. Single Day. And my life would not be put on pause for it.

Sure, I could take breaks if needed, but the expectations of coursework, a qualifying exam, a proposal, and then a dissertation were always there. Always. There. Once I submitted my final draft, there was a heavy weight lifted from my shoulders. Something that I could not explain, but many others understand, and for those of you somewhere before that moment, trust me, it comes. It hits. It's amazing and beautiful and exhilarating. There is hope.

About a year ago I started this website. I renamed it quite a few times. One was, "Charley finding joy." Then it had to do with education. Then it was my writing. I tried to keep separate spheres of my life to remain "professional" for when I am on the academic job market. Something did click one day when I realized that I cannot do that. I am a complete person, and not fragments of myself. I cannot possibly talk to my students about being authentic, genuine, presenting themselves whole, and the importance of humanizing oneself if I was unwilling to do the same. The reason I bring this is up is because it's clear that the concept of joy has been at the center of what I want and who I am for a while. I am not actually a joyful person, but I hope for it and encourage others to do the same. And I am working on it. One way is to live in the moments that make me me; not Charlene the teacher, Charlene the academic, Charlene the writer, Charlene the beginner photographer, Charlene the mom - no, the entirety of me.

A Day Out with the Kids

Right now, some of you feel completely isolated. Perhaps you are filling the void with empty activities. Maybe you do not feel yourself, so you lash out. Maybe you stare at a blank screen, the curser blinking. Perhaps you do work endlessly, but you feel guitly on missing the barbeque or family gathering. Nobody warned me about the levels of stress that academia would cause in my personal life. Thankfully, with social media, we are learning more and criticizing more the walls of academia that tout equity but are inequitable in their treatment. We have a long way to go. But you are not alone, and it will not always feel this way.

Despite a proposal, went to a demolition derby with my kids & dad

Take the moment to go to dinner. The dissertation will be there. Enjoy your vacation, that qualifying exam will still be saved to your computer. Enroll in one less class - you will have other classes to choose from. Stop listening to the voices in or out of your own imagination telling you that you need to go faster, speed up, meet your cohort, or that you need to win the rat race. If you want to do it, do the damn thing, finish that Ph.D. but make sure to humanize yourself in the process. Nobody else is going to.

And it's ok to make the choice that is best suited for you and/or your family, whatever that may be. Faculty often forget what it is like to be a graduate student, and sometimes are great on paper, but problematic in person, telling graduate students they do not have what it takes, refusing to support students becase of personal vendettas, or simply becuase they hope to reproduce the same problematic higher education practices they faced all int he name of perverted forms of rigor. Their opinions of you do not matter. But you, the person, do. You matter.

A Date Night with a Best Friend, aka "Wifey"

Sure, sociopolitically, we need to meet due dates. Yes, we need to network. But at the end of the day, none of that matters if you are not you, here, present, doing the work. I have felt like drowning and often still do, and I cannot promise that it will get better right away - I am still struggling, spinning my boat in circles. And some days I am deeply depressed still feeling isolated, disconnected, and at the mercy of higher education's neoliberal nonsense. But the life moments, like sunsets with my kids, snorkeling in the Carribean, driving my car 2,000 miles, reading a good book, writing poetry, taking photographs, having dinner with my best friend, sharing boba with my non-related - that's what matters. I'll have moments of doubt, but I will take the moments over the toxicity any damn day.

7 Magic Mountains Outside of Las Vegas

To answer my own question earlier, yes, the Ph.D. was worth it.

Yes, there were a lot of tears shed, but I found immense laughter, love, & camaraderie in it, and ultimately, I have realized that choosing to finish while speaking loudly against the absuridty is powerful. Yes, I sometimes feel I missed out on my a lot of my kids, but I also think that's because of society's expectations; my kids are often proud of my accomplishments, and they have celebrated every milestone along with me. Always. So for me, yes, it was well worth it.

Carlsbad Flower Fields

So if it's a goal, a need, or you're driven to do it, absolutely finish that Ph.D., but choose you, always. Academia certainly isn't going to do it for you. I learned that the bullshit will be there, but I don't have to be. And neither do you. Afterall, choosing you is an act of resistance.

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