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Addressing Difference and Growing Your Support

Are any of these thoughts affecting you?

“I should understand that theory or concept already!”
“If I speak up to say I don’t understand something, I’ll look stupid in class.”
“I’m not participating the way everyone else is, so there must be something wrong with me.”
“Where is my community?”

Every graduate and professional student experiences doubt, anxiety or critical self-talk due to the demands of their educational programs. At the same time, there is no universal graduate student experience, and the long-held idea that you’ll automatically be successful if you just work hard enough is a myth. The reality is not everyone enters graduate school with the same access to social, cultural, professional and financial resources and not everyone is treated with equity. This is especially true if you are a first-generation graduate student, person of color, woman, person with visible or invisible disabilities, international student, or a member of the LGBT, Queer or Trans community (one can also embody multiple, intersecting identities and backgrounds).

Sometimes asking for help can feel like taking a risk—that it calls attention to your difference and to your vulnerability. It’s no wonder then that asking for support on campus can either feel truly unfamiliar or feel like a daunting task for many.

Core Programs’ mission is to promote an environment where all graduate and professional students can thrive and to suggest strategies that encourage students to seek out the support they need to reach their intellectual, professional and interpersonal goals. We also see our work as aligned with larger, institutional efforts to address the complexities of difference at the University of Washington.

Here are some tips to help you remind yourself that you belong here and that your work is important:

When you feel you don’t belong. Also known as imposter syndrome, it’s the persistent, internalized belief that “you’re not smart enough, competent enough, or productive enough” to be in graduate school, and that peers, faculty members, and your department chair are somehow going to find out. Notice when these thoughts come up and stop yourself.  As communication studies scholar Dr. Felicia Harris states, “The nagging voice that says I don’t belong discredits everything I’ve done to get to a certain point. Pursuing an advanced degree is an admirable and challenging feat, and I remind myself of this by celebrating every milestone.” Milestones can be getting your reading done, mustering the nerve to ask a professor for their mentorship, or gaining teaching, research, or career experience. Read more from Dr. Harris.

Mentoring needs. There are numerous reasons why you seek out mentors in graduate and professional school.  The obvious ones are to develop intellectual and professional relationships with faculty advisors whose research or career backgrounds resonate with you. Sometimes a single mentor can support you in multiple ways. Yet it also turns out that we often need a mentor network for different dimensions of our lives. Start with an inventory and see where your needs are being met and where you may have gaps. Some dimensions include:

Academic — Specific skills or techniques, new knowledge domains
Career — Sponsorship, exposure, coaching, protection, challenging
Psychosocial — Role modeling, acceptance and confirmation, counseling, friendship
Values — Worldviews, belief systems, politics

Grow your support. In our first fall quarter newsletter, we encouraged you to get to know the campus community by attending departmental and welcome events to make meaningful connections with peers, staff and faculty. Other ways to grow your support system are identifying those safe people you can confide in when things feel tough. These can be close friends, loved ones, members of your faith-based or spiritual community, and even a qualified mental health professional (there’s no shame in seeking counseling).

Jaye Sablan & Kelly Edwards
Core Programs, The Graduate School

Additional Resources

What Influences Your Mentoring Needs, UW Graduate School