Making Meaning (Part 2): Why focus on grad students?

A woman in a purple shirt and shorts, her hands over her head, in front of a very large oak tree. She's in the forest and the leaves are on the trees.
Katie in front of a giant, old oak tree at Fairfax State Recreation Area, southern Indiana

At the end of last week, I went on a hike at Fairfax State Recreation Area. I was excited for the new hike and seeing a truly gigantic oak tree. It rained for most of my hike and at one point I lost the trail. I walked along a couple different trails, hoping I would complete the loop. But these just led to dead ends (I think they were actually deer trails). I stopped, stood in the rain falling through the leaves, and ate a sandwich from my pack. I could have panicked and become upset and scared. Instead, I took stock. I was an ecologist who has done tons of research hikes in the rain. I had plenty of food and water and many hours before dark. I wasn’t far from the trail; I could just retrace back to the beginning. I was learning that I could manage being a safe kind of lost.

In an earlier post, I described meaning making as the ways we ascribe importance and significance to an experience. When experiences are meaningful, we create stories about the important pieces of the plot that got us from there to here. We gain insight about our own strengths and limitations and how we put those into service. We see the roles we and significant others played in those moments. And we better understand our relationship to all things. I love keeping graduate students company while they make meaning of their academic experiences. Graduate students need and deserve mentoring that is intentional and cognizant of their meaning making process.

Grads and adult development

Graduate students in their 20s and early 30s are concurrently undergoing an adult developmental milestone. They are in the process of shifting from a social self, when they identify most with their social affiliations and friends groups, to an institutional self, when they are developing identities in relation to professional groups and families/partnerships. Like their peers outside of academia, they are learning the social habits, norms, routines, and language of their professions. Many are forming partnerships and families of their own, separate from their childhood families. It’s an important time of both integrating into and differentiating within new communities. They learn what fits and doesn’t in new contexts and what they want to carry forward from previous contexts. This is a time of integrating the old self: reflecting on important moments, drawing out highlights, transcending limitations, moving to the background previous experiences and ways of being, allowing the change and growth to happen, and honoring that old self for setting the stage for this new self.

Grads and the education experience

Graduate education is also a shift intellectually and socially. The curriculum in graduate school shifts from breadth to depth. Graduate students’ networks shift from numerous and largely social to a dominant academic network that is more narrow and isolating. That shift in networks also means that their sources of authority narrow to their academic mentors. There are many initiation experiences, big and small: orientation, graduate coursework, forming a committee, qualifying exams, proposal writing, dissertating, defending the dissertation. Each of these academic benchmarks is a new experience that often elicits anxiety for graduate students. The disembodied experience developing mental illness while a graduate student is a highly likely part of the graduate education experience. If, however, they are prepared effectively and supported emotionally through each initiation, graduate students will see the experience as a mirror of their capabilities and strengths, that their mentors were fair, helpful people, and that they rightfully belong in the next phase of their graduate education.

Grads as future faculty

The experience graduate students have and the meaning they make of that experience carries forward into their next professional stage. We are helping them draw upon their strengths and expand their capabilities to act responsibly with their expertise. What they learn consciously and subconsciously from how they are treated as graduate students sets the foundation for how they understand their worth in relation to others and how they engage in the future as faculty mentors. Graduate students will learn and internalize academic measures of success, achievement, acceptability, and “the right kind” of ambition. It is possible for them to blindly accept these external expectations, to check the boxes, and to zombie-walk through these initiations and benchmarks of graduate school. 

If their mentoring relationships are toxic, abusive, or perpetually distressing now, the meaning they could make is, “graduate school is supposed to be emotionally abusive, physically debilitating, isolating, dissociating, ascetic” or “I don’t deserve to be treated well.” They learn that to be “good,” worthy, socially acceptable graduate students, they need to don a monkish devotion to their topic, discipline, and academic life.

Positive meaning making is possible

I want graduate students to see and experience examples of positive mentoring of their intellectual, personal, and professional development. I want them to develop devotion to their creative energy and how it can be in service to their communities. I want them to learn that they do deserve support during their development and that they are capable of providing it, too. I want for the developmental passage for graduate students to be honored, respected, admired, revered, encouraged, supported, prepared, and celebrated [even as they still do messy, error-prone, naive things <s> that we would never do </s>.] I want a graduate education experience that feels purposeful and fulfilling for graduate students while they are with us.

Here are three categories of reflections I encourage with graduate students to help them make meaning of their graduate school experiences. 

  • Self-knowledge – Who are you? What are your values and commitments? What are the stories you tell yourself about your strengths and limitations? 
  • Mentoring networks – Who are the people around you who both support and challenge different aspects of you? Who mirrors you back, shows you who you really are, and encourages your capacities? What are your multiple sources of identity authority and affirmation?
  • Future self – How do you want to be of service to your community? How are you being most supportive and compassionate to the person you are right now? How do you protect your time, space, energy, and spirit in support of your development?

With thoughts on these reflections in hand and in heart, graduate students I work with will:

  • Have a core self-concept they can always return to and that helps them act with integrity. This internal compass will guide their decisions and self-talk.
  • Know why they are here and what they hope the degree will do for them and their communities. 
  • Know how they want to be in service to others with their certification, connections, wisdom, skills, and strengths.
  • Have a positive mental model about how they want to be an expert, be an academic, be successful, be fulfilled and living with purpose, and be a person of marginalized identities in higher education. 
  • Develop mastery, build confidence, take risks, and facilitate their own change and growth.
  • Engage in multiple sources of identity authority and affirmation.
  • Be able to support their own positive developmental transition, both internally and with mentors and allies, that is kind, responsive, patient, affirming, and appropriately challenging.
  • Be an agent and authority of their wellbeing in community with others.

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