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  • Writer's pictureAnn Yebei

What I Wish I Knew Before Grad School

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

Grad School Know-Hows and Current Regrets


Context: Graduate School

After finishing my Undergraduate degree in Kenya, I returned to America for my second degree in Indiana after nearly a year of not being in school. The university was Indiana University’s main Bloomington branch, and the program was in the School of Education: Mental Health Counseling. The degree would hence be a Master of Science in Education (MSEd) with the duration of study set at 2 years’ worth of time. Since I started in the Spring of 2020 (January), I should be done in the Fall of 2021 (December).

My legal status was as an international student on an F-1 Visa. Having family in town, rent and housing was not an immediate problem, and since half of my childhood was in said town, homesickness was brief and culture shock non-existent.

What I Nailed

Being Present and Making Priorities

Attendance is flexible compared to lower education (Elementary to High School). Not to say that it doesn’t matter, it simply isn’t counted in one’s grades. So decision-making is left to you about how to spend your time while on campus. When you claim your education, you will create a meaningful learning and exploratory experience. I understood why I was on campus, so I made efforts to meet the expected class attendance, with exceptions for when I get sick and the like.

The Courses and Class Culture

Classes were diverse, the curriculum was interesting and relevant, and I liked most of my courses (Evaluations and Research are not spots I’m leaping with excitement about). Through the Office of Disability Services, classes were made accessible for me, and the smaller class sizes meant conversations and connections were easier to have. Materials and class content were understandable, and the teachers were experienced with what they were teaching- educationally-speaking and in practice. So, I could ask if something didn’t click (which was seldom) and felt safe enough to do so.

Curating My Social Spaces: Faith

One of the first social spaces I actively looked for was a church. As a practicing Christian, it was important that I had a community to support me in life- socially, spiritually, and in all other areas of my dimensions of wellness. Some people don’t have this as a high priority in their life and seek peers in other areas of interests- as I did- and that’s all well and good. I settled at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church (Rogers Branch) and connected myself to smaller groups for deeper, more intimate, connections with members of the community. It’s a choice I don’t regret.

Curating My Social Spaces: Interests

The clubs I joined were based on personal interests and skills I’d like to develop. The ASL Club (American Sign Language), Bridges International, and Sherwood Oaks' International Coffehour were some of them. When invited to other social groups by friends, I went with the flow and met more people on campus, and in the community. These slowly branching social networks paved way to first-time experiences, such as going to Chicago for the first time, and opportunities of service, learning, and engagement.

While in school I studied, worked with, interned with, and learned besides people from all over the country, and the world. Some of my closest connections are not in my program- or level of education. While I did get close to some of my classmates, I spent more time with people in my spiritual circle. Online networking is however allowing my classmates and I to stay close to one another and continue communicating in the future.

After years of moving often since childhood and changing schools multiple times, I had long since learned that you don’t have to be intimate friends with everyone you meet. And that having acquaintanceships and peers does not equate to apathy or mere formality. Everyone has degrees of relations with people around them, and boundaries are healthy when needed. People can move closer and further from you through these differing levels of intimacy over time, and there is no cap to how many people per level you can have. So, a friend once is a friend for life.

Curating My Life Spaces: Passion Projects

Personal projects also opened avenues for encounters and deepening of friendships. In efforts to stay active, and nurture gifts of service, I volunteered in the community- the 2022 BeGolden Women Empowerment Conference being one space. I look forward to next year’s! My YouTube channel was another one while my blogging has been a discipline practice and intentional self-exposure to the larger world. My interests in health and wellness connected me to IU’s Student Health Center’s Peer Health and Wellness Educators Program, and I met students from across campus during that semester. Personal development initiatives deepened select relationships with like-minded folk and there’s a plan to visit Malaysia next year in a group of close friends.

While Master’s takes up more time, mental, and physical energy, compared to prior educational experiences, the reduced time for passion and social projects leads to intentional mingling. As always, my social circles are small, but the quality is top tier and I couldn't ask for more.

These are the people who study with me until 1am. These are the people I go clubbing with for the first time in Bloomington. These are the people I would drive around for even when I’m at quarter tank. And these are the people who would scavenge for me if I needed something; pooling resources and prayers accordingly. So truly, I am not in want for more company.

The more the merrier, certainly. But I don’t feel lacking. Just open and grateful.

Disclaimer: Privileges and Advantages

The final bit under what went well is a disclaimer. I have privileges that factored in to how my graduate school experience turned out. One, I have native fluency in English- in speech and writing. This makes schooling, socializing, and personal exploration and social play easier than it may for other international students.

Secondly, I identify as bicultural. So, there was no strong sense of alienation, disconnection, or otherness while back in the US. Due to my mixed upbringing across the countries (Kenya and America), it just feels like I returned to another home. Naturally, my adulting involved my black identity development alongside my other identities (sexually, deafness, gender, spiritually, etc.), but I am aware that even on the level of Blackness I have the benefit of being an African. I’m not Diaspora. I’m not “Black”. Ethnically, sure. Experientially? No. I wouldn’t dare to claim that.

Last, but not least, I have both family and friends in Indiana and other states- some citizens, others on Green Card and well situated at their places of work. There was a social network, or support system, already existing when I returned for further studies. So, a sense security and belonging were present.

Where I Drowned

Expenses and (lack of) Financial Literacy

I didn’t look for work on campus immediately upon arrival (Visa restrictions limit me to the school during sessions), and whenever I was on break in town (for Summer session). Even before I left Kenya. There was a lack of entrepreneurship through my first year and a laissez-faire mindset about money. I’ve never had to work to get money to provide for myself before. Some pocket money for things here and there, sure. But for large sustaining needs? I always had my parents.

Scholarship applications aside (I did get a couple), we ended up taking out student loans to help clear my expenses for my program. I’m fortunate (once again) that my dad cleared it, so I’m entering the workforce with no student debt. As I’m writing this, it’s sinking deeper just how much my parents have provided for me- and just how hard they have worked to be able to provide me such overhead.

Let’s break it down. My saving was not consistent because I wasn’t working. I wasn’t working so I had nothing to save. And when I saved, I wouldn’t leave it alone long enough for it to be a buffer for emergencies in a distant future. What had to be paid for included: all of my courses by credit hour (needed 60 to graduate), course materials, club dues, gas money (when the car came into the picture), food (I’m the only pescatarian at home and I’ve been playing with food more lately), leisure/social life, and my optional trainings for internship (that I would obviously grab).

Should I re-do my program again, starting from last Fall, the 2022-23 program’s Fall costs are as follows:

Instructional Fees:

Out-of-State Grad Tuition Education

($1,515.17 x 9 hrs) $13,636.53

Mandatory Fees:

Combined Mandatory Fee $717.33

Total: $14,353.86

And living in Bloomington has costs, alongside getting supplies, food, residence for those who are renting, personal expenditures, transportation, and windfall- or emergecy cash. That could raise the costs to the $20,000 range- for just one term. So, after 2 years…where each year has 2 terms, it may be around...$80,000.

If I took classes over the summer- and say I still did 9 credits each (that's around 2-3 classes, depends on the course honestly)- that would rack it up to $100,000 thereabouts. Or so. And that's a weak estimate- living expenses change over time- as does tuition at times. I also didn't deduct costs through scholarships, grants, assistantships, etc. (I also hope I did the math right!).

In Kenyan Shillings, that's like a Million Shillings.

Just for one higher degree.

Hm…yeah. That’s a lot.

I knew next to nothing about financial literacy and added it to the top of my things-to-learn list during my second year in the program. Feeling out of the loop about money was not healthy for me in the near or distant future.

Time Management

I wouldn’t plan my days preceding events, not did I set personal (false) deadlines in order to clear my plate early. Explicit reward systems were also missing, so my passion projects were being executed alongside my learning with no realistic expectations. It was no wonder I would get aggravated when I couldn’t write, film, or read at my time. I hadn’t taken holistic stock of what my priorities where, what time I had to complete them, and what could wait for later days (or be done on a smaller scale to upkeep skill-building, as with writing).

The lack of reward systems resulted in a sense of deprivation, invalidation, and being uncared for. I walked into that one myself.

Time management skill-building kicked in only in my second year (2021) on a nigh-obsessive level. 2022 was the year when I started weekly reflections, gratitude journaling, and weekly projection planning. I also started a yearly projection goal list in 2021 with my top priorities to have completed after a year. I was already half a year beyond my initial end date of study, so I had to control my time to make the best of what I had going for me. Selecting an internship site late in early 2021 affected my practicum timeline, and hence, when I would graduate. While I did graduate at the end of it all, those extra terms meant extra course fees…and they were paid...and I learned that 2 years for Masters were an ideal but not a law. But still.

Maybe, if I had started uploaded to my YouTube channel earlier, while I was in Kenya, it would have set me up for having some personal income by the time I was halfway through my studies? Who knows.

Lack of Personal Agenda from the get-go

My Agui (paternal grandfather) advised my cousins, siblings, and I to plan for life. “Life is planning,” he said. It is important to talk about where you want to go and what you want to do. No one can tell you who to be or decide it for you.

This is advice that seems commonplace, but it wasn’t implemented in my academic life.

I was living day by day, term by term, for myself, and with efforts to complete the bare minimum much of the time. Mostly because that’s how I’ve always gone through school, and since I expected to be able to do everything I wanted: school, passion projects, and socializing. Most importantly, I didn’t have a clear, and strong, image of why I was doing what I was doing. Reality gave me a reminder what Masters entails.

With school taking priority, the first thing to take the back burner were my passion projects- unless connected to my studies (e.g., work or volunteering on campus, church events, etc.). Due to my poor time management, it was clear that I didn’t detail what my 2 years would look like in terms of task completion to qualify for the degree before I started studies. So, with lacking foresight, I didn’t feel like I was living a personal life beyond what was expected of me (i.e., that I was living out an agenda written for me by others).

The idea of having a personal agenda goes beyond the yearly planner and expected-task list. It’s an explicit compilation of aspirational and existing values, goals, and skills manifested in a vocation or long-term project of some kind. This audaciously large life vision would give you guidance on what to do next, and what to prioritize lower on the list. My vision is to be a competent mental health therapist for both hearing and DHH populations, the neurodiverse, the spiritual, and the creatives. My vision has been influenced by my internship practice, so while my soft spot for young adults and youth remains, I am open to adult and elderly clients. Children? I’d like more exposure and training first!

My vision is to be self-sufficient and a part-time (if not full-time) creative writer. A creative and a supportive guide to those in my community. This vision is both a map legend and source of motivation. Revisiting my dream house, dream job, dream Self, gives me something to look forward to that is worth working for. It also reminds me to live for others- and to explore ways I can do so starting today. This minute. This moment.

Not Talking About It

Asking for support is easier said than done, but having at least 1 person to talk to, with whom you feel safe with, is immensely relieving. I have been relying on my friends and social circles for support and empathy (most were in school so this was accessible), but even then, I could have asked for more. Not to mention that my family never knew how much I was struggling because I didn’t vent about it at home.

It was only in 2022, during my third year, when visible signs of stress were noted. I had my first panic attack in February 2022 and started therapy a couple months later. “Anxiety” became a personalized experience.

With my family, personally, I had the internal belief that I should not be struggling in school (that badly)- and that if I was, I should try to resolve it before asking for help. First, this perception/expectation/belief/whatever it was, placed my family outside of my personal circles. Secondly, it created the stress I was trying to avoid in the family, because when things hit the fan, it was in the worst state possible (or close enough). Lastly, it’s the "gifted child" mentality- the experience of expecting things to be easy, and if it isn’t, it is my fault (or it's just not for me). I don’t have the place to complain.

Things are in the open with my family now, but the challenge of practicing regular updates and accountability practices into the future remains. Here’s to growth!

With friends, I didn’t body-double or connect with those in my various circles from the get-go for academic support. It was only in 2021, during my second year, when I started deep study sessions with a friend. We’re as tight as ever now and mutual work/study buddies for each other.

2.5 Years Later: What I Learned

Within my 8 dimensions of wellness (IU Health), here’s what I plan to do henceforth, and what I’ve learned. Feel free to divide your life into various categories of your choice and review how you're starting, completing, and reviewing your school life!

Social Sphere

Continue making conscious efforts to regularly contact close friends near and far to maintain relationship. Meet new people and mingle authentically.

Relationships are intentional and it takes conscious action to maintain them. There is always something to learn about others and about yourself (flaws and strengths). Courage is fostered, not innate. Continue being sociable and practicing how to mingle with unfamiliar persons.

Physical Sphere

Continue practicing yoga and focus on consistency and discipline. Consider mixing movement regime with a different exercise routine that is more cardio based. Will research options.

The resistance will come, and it will always be strongest when its time to take care of yourself. Break down the steps. Still hard? Break it even further. Meet yourself there. Show up for yourself because she is waiting for you as well. It’s always been a blessing after the workout session. 😊

Emotional Sphere

Continue reflective journaling, being courageous, consistent, curious, and compassionate. Return to therapy to finalize processing certain topics and use the support systems around me without shame.

Practice courage and connection with your support system. This is a skill. Practice and be kind to yourself.

Environmental Sphere

Build a physical living space with as little resistance to the ideal life routine possible. Be healthy and create the space your ideal Self would live in to actualize that life sooner. Be frugal and an essentialist.

You’re moving out now so this is an ideal practice ground for this! Change where you work as needed to change your mood or energy levels for productivity’s sake. Place visual reminders of your Whys and Agenda for the day.

Occupational Sphere

Work with integrity and be honest about shortcomings. Always continue learning and listen more than teach. Teach when called for and practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Consistency is the secret ingredient to success. Don’t be pressured or hold lofty expectations for yourself. You’re still in training, love. Have aspirational goals not prescriptive ones. Hold realistic expectations and grow.

You build the experience you have. Work hard to grow your capacities, make peers, and play nice. As Dad has said, “Make yourself indispensable”. The future will be opened for you.

Spiritual Sphere

Continue meeting God and practicing relinquishing to Him. Continue learning, exploring, deconstructing, and fellowshipping with others. Grow. Cry. And rejoice.

God has been steadfast for years; He’ll continue to do so. You just need to show up to dinner. The conversations and answers will come.

Intellectual Sphere

Again, continue learning! Read! Watch! And listen. Work with where you’re at, but never stop edging forward. The world only has more to marvel at, so return to your youthful and childhood enjoyment of learning and exploration.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded folk helps. Attend events, workshops, and seminars. Network. And Create with the intentions of enjoyment and service (to share).

Financial Sphere

Learn how to invest and save to attain financial freedom as soon as possible. Practice this year in my first full-time, salary paying, job while living away from home. Manage your time well, rest well, and monetize your blog as soon as possible.

Money is not the answer to everything, but it is a valuable means to many, many, things. So care about it and master the craft of wealth creation.

Summarizing the prior sections, here are some take aways.

1. Make your priorities explicit in every area of your life

2. Create a personal agenda for, and with, specific timelines

3. Manage your time with intention

4. Engage in building the experiences you desire

5. Showing up for yourself will always boost you

6. Your passions are not a waste of time

7. Mingle in diverse spaces whenever you can

8. Consciously build a(n) (intimate) support system

9. Acknowledge your privileges, Appreciate their origins

10. Acknowledge your weaknesses, Grow

11. Always continue learning and building needed skillsets

Wishing everyone a good jump into the new lunar year of the rabbit and a revitalizing and wonderous 2023.


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