At the end of May, I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a Master’s degree in Health Advocacy. This was a long time coming.
When I was first diagnosed with lupus and RA, I was finishing the first year of a PhD program. Getting sick caused me to significantly re-evaluate my priorities. While I set my mind to finishing my PhD, I decided that I wanted to take a really negative experience in my life – getting sick – and turn it into something positive. I wanted to become a force for change and for good.
I didn’t want to take on more education – and debt – if it didn’t seem worth it. But then I stumbled across the Sarah Lawrence Health Advocacy program, and those around me who I told about it, felt like it was a perfect fit for me.
As I learned through struggling to complete a PhD with multiple chronic illnesses, I knew that a purely academic career was no longer what I really wanted. To this day, my dissertation committee does not know that as soon as I finished my PhD, I moved to New York to get a second Master’s degree.
I once had a totally hypothetical conversation with my dissertation advisor, and she told me that if I pursued a Master’s degree after my PhD, she and my committee would view it as a backwards step. This was long before the Sarah Lawrence program was even on my radar.
When I had started graduate school the first time, my hope was to knock it out of the park, to be the best. But when your health suddenly becomes a full-time job, being the best doesn’t really matter anymore. Getting through the day becomes a major feat.
My classmates and those around me did not get that. To them, graduate school was the top priority, and luckily for them, it could be.
I wasn’t the top student. I didn’t win any dissertation awards. But I did it my way. I did it on my own terms. I stayed true to myself, and I got it done.
That being said, I worked hard and ended up with a very respectable GPA.
And ultimately, I followed a path beyond that, which most people don’t. I didn’t originally intend to go to graduate school beyond my PhD. But it was something I needed to do for me, and hopefully for my future career (which will be hopefully happening sooner rather than later).
Fitting in, in graduate school the first time, was difficult. I experienced “imposture syndrome” at two levels. At one level, I experienced it as many graduate students experience it. I had gone from being the best in my program in undergrad to being surrounded by others who had also been the best in their programs in undergrad. I questioned my ability to be there.
On another level, I experienced “imposture syndrome” in a way that most other graduate students don’t. I hid my health situation from almost everyone. I took pills in secret. I wore long sleeves, even in warm weather, to conceal the bruises that peppered my arms from frequent blood draws. In other words, I pretended not to be sick, which is a great way of coping with illness (not!).
I hid my diseases because I had to. The few people I told reacted very negatively. As a graduate student in the same department I was involved in as an undergraduate, people who knew my ability suddenly questioned my ability to be in the program at all. The only thing that had changed was that I got sick.
But when I got to the Sarah Lawrence Program, my illnesses were not seen as a liability. They were assets, and they were what brought me to the program. Everyone knew my health situation. I was completely out – and unapologetic – about it. It was really liberating.
And honestly, I’m sad that it’s over. I walked away from my PhD program feeling that I had paid my dues. From Sarah Lawrence, I will truly miss the community that I built with my classmates.
And the crazy part is that I’ve never not been a student. I have been in school for 24 out of my 29 years of being alive. So it’s weird. I’m grateful to have weekends free from school work, and I’m enjoying being able to read whatever I want. But I don’t know what happens next. I’m looking for jobs, and feeling pretty bummed about the post-school slump. I feel pretty useless.
I have two Master’s degrees and a PhD, and I’m unemployed. But I always persevere. I persevered through chronic illness, eight years of graduate school, and the death of my dad. And I know I’ll persevere in the next challenge that life throws at me.
I am so grateful for the opportunities that I have been given thus far. I know that there are people who aren’t able to go to graduate school at all, let alone twice. And I don’t take any of those experiences for granted.
It’s funny because in eight years of graduate school, the most important lessons were learned outside of the classroom. There were things I learned about myself, both personally and professionally, that I will always carry with me.
Because my undergraduate graduating class was almost 4,000 people, no one walked individually. I didn’t walk when I received my Master’s degree during my PhD program, and I didn’t walk for my PhD because I was in school in New York. So getting my Master’s degree in Health Advocacy was the first time I got to hear my name announced, walk across the stage, and accept my diploma. It was truly one of my proudest moments. I really felt like I accomplished something great.