Accompaniment in graduate student development

the entrance to woods. There are young trees on either side and grasses in front. It is fall - leaves are yellow, some trees are already bare. The sky is blue and the sun is shining.

A graduate student asks difficult questions about their training experiences: Should I stay in my program? Should I change advisors? A colleague ponders a professional change: Should I say yes to a new project? Should I apply for that job? I hear these phrases a lot in my work in professional development of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. 

Graduate students, postdocs, and colleagues are contemplating change, a process of dramatic and emotional self-examination, assessing their environment, weighing options, evaluating their aid systems, and assembling their supportive relationships. Their imaginations are wild with possibilities. They know they are approaching a choice to voice what they want for their true selves. They know they are preparing to, but aren’t quite ready to, decide whether to let a past version of themselves go and a new version emerge. They are near, but not at, a crossroads. They are uneasy about the anticipated changes for themselves and people around them. 

Discernment

I help people discern where they are and then decide on the next smallest step in their self-determined right direction (see Kenny Rogers’ Gambler for some popular wisdom):

You gotta know when to hold ‘em,

Know when to fold ‘em,

Know when to walk away,

Know when to run

Kenny Rogers, The Gambler (1978)

Our conversations often start with their expressions of self doubt, uncertainty, fear, imposter phenomenon, tension, conflict, neglect. They are speaking of ways they want more for themselves and others. Their expressions of the shadow sides of life have an inverse that speaks of hope, possibility, abundance, capability, agency, and dreams. I help them read their own compass. Their compass is usually telling them about resisting and disrupting norms and the status quo. They want to make their lives work a little bit better for them and their community. They’ve come to the right rebellious person because my D&D alignment would be chaotic good.

It’s not that graduate students, postdocs, or my colleagues want someone to do the hard work of deciding and bearing the consequences for them. Rather, they want help to overcome inertia, indecision, ambivalence, option paralysis, and immunity to change. They want help surveying the personal-social-academic-professional landscape and assessing the potential outcomes. They are afraid a commitment would close themselves out of options. They want help accepting the inevitability of change, honoring and grieving what was and cultivating and nurturing what could be. 

There's a light dusting of snow and lots of pairs of bird footprints in the snow.

Holding space

I hold space for graduate students, postdocs and professional development coaches who are contemplating, considering, preparing for, and committing to change. I prioritize multiple senses of abundance, as determined by them:

  • Physical safety – mindfulness; enclosed, quiet, undisturbed space
  • Emotional attunement – validated inner experience, say what’s true, speak with care, detached compassion, focus on functional communicative relationships, power with
  • Time – calm, relaxed, thoughtful, creative, unhurried
  • Community – fellowship, kinship, collectivism, collaboration, belonging, resourcing

To be clear, I am not a trained psychologist or social worker. The people I work with usually are already participating in therapy. I help them put into action ideas from their therapy and counseling conversations within the scope of their higher education roles. We work together to move their concern from an individually experienced psychological distress to a reflection of their overall community well-being. I help them find therapeutic communities. I propose side quests like self-reflection activities, informational interviews, peer mentoring, and low-stakes workshops to gain experience, skills, magic items, shields, healing potions, and more traveling companions. The side quests are supposed to feel successful, boost confidence, and expand their resource map and alliance network.

A hot air balloon high over a green hill. There is gravel and a tree in the foreground. The sky is blue and it is daytime. The balloon is black with a diagonal rainbow stripe.

Nurturing the imagination

I’m a dream reader. “Dreams” could mean the visions in REM brain state or “dreams” could mean ambitions for life. Tell me about recent vivid or reoccurring dreams or a story of a current awake-state conflicted experience you have had in higher education and I can orient you within the nuanced, hidden landscape of your dreams, hopes, and agency. Many times people need to give themselves permission to imagine and speak of the dream in the first place. Sometimes people need help hearing and interpreting their hopes within the visions and fears. Or they need help reconciling and prioritizing the dream with other tensions. Sometimes they need help taking the smallest step, turning the imagination from dream as an absolute (from not-allowed to accomplished-task in one giant step) to a dream as a process (from unthinkable to improbable to possible to likely in many, small, incremental decisions).

They arrive wanting resourcing, a sense of safety nets, a feeling of not being alone, feeling understood and believed, and to be watched over and shepherded. They continue their journeys equipped with validation, perspective, orienting, cultural interpreting, wayfinding, accompaniment, companionship, co-journeyers, witnesses, mentoring, and coaches. 

If you’re interested in learning more about accompaniment as a professional practice, check out M. Watkins (2015) Psychosocial Accompaniment, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 2015, Vol. 3(1), 324–341, https://doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v3i1.103.

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