How I Re-Entered Graduate School With a Passion

Like many college students who are slowly reaching the finish line to receive their college degree, I scrambled to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It’s odd to admit this because I still have the journal from my 4th-grade writing class where I wrote about how much I wanted to become a mechanical engineer at the University of Michigan. For that reality to almost come to fruition and to feel so desperately far from realizing what my career would look like, I instinctively knew something was wrong. What did I do? I panicked, searched, and questioned people who I thought might be able to direct me toward an answer that at least made some sense.

“Maybe you should consider working in the energy industry?” or “How about going to graduate school for a master’s in mechanical engineering or an MBA?”

The suggestions went on and on with things that sounded nice but didn’t align with my interests or with what I had envisioned for my career. Did I want to spend more time in school struggling through tough mathematical concepts and difficult scientific theories that I couldn’t directly apply to my life? How would I use an MBA and where can I find a cool energy job in snowy MI outside of DTE? I knew I had a heart for serving others. But where would I go with such a broad desire to help?

After reviewing my past experiences in college where I had a lot of fun working, I discovered that I enjoyed mentoring freshman engineering students and informing middle and high school students about accessing college. Furthermore, the supportive bond formed between my academic advisors and I played a significant role in my success in college. Working in this capacity for other engineering students, especially underrepresented undergraduates, seemed like it met the criteria for serving others while also possibly using my engineering degree to tutor them. Determined to work in this role, I applied to the University of Michigan’s School of Education for a Master’s in Higher Education Administration with a concentration in College Access and Student Success. My career goal was to become the Executive Director of the College of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Diversity & Outreach (CEDO). Again, this sounded nice.

Right before, I began this program; I worked for CEDO’s Summer Engineering Academy as an Academic Facilitator working with middle and high school students who aspired to be engineers. I loved this job. There wasn’t a time of day that I wasn’t willing to put in work supporting the students and staff. It was during this time that I discovered Engineering Education. It seemed to be a combination of the two things that I had a passion for: working with students and engineering. I was determined to make the most of the master’s program by finding more work with CEDO and doing research in engineering. It was time to begin fulfilling my destiny toward my dream career at an institution where I had always wanted to be. Nothing would stop me unless I stopped myself.

The following Fall of 2016, I began Graduate School. For some reason, this experience was vastly different from that of my undergraduate existence. Expectations were that we would read many articles and write many essays which I preferred more than answering a ton of engineering problems. Social events were more mature than in undergraduate life as we discussed a variety of topics more in-depth than I experienced in years past. Graduate life felt great, and I thought that I fit the mold. To top it all off, the professors were excellent educators, the peers in my cohort were easy to get along with, and the new graduate apartments that I lived in were immaculate. From the outside looking in, graduate life was movie worthy. From the inside out, a storm was brewing.

The University of Michigan had just announced the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion strategic plan with much pushback from a particular student body. There were racist flyers spread all around campus among other trespasses against underrepresented students. As a black male student, it was difficult to feel safe while hearing about the experiences of other friends of color. Toughing it out was the only option for me, but this was untrue. I began experiencing stress at new levels which were also compounded by a dangerous mix of medicine prescribed by my doctor that led to a hospital visit. I decided to withdraw from school after a lot of sleepless nights and long conversations with family. After growing up living by “Colquitts never give up” mantra, leaving school felt like a death that I would not get over.

There is always a light at the end of the tunnel and no…it is not a train. After recovering from a “failed” semester, I got a job working as an Applications Engineer in Customer Education and Application Support. I soon found myself traveling across the country training customers in several industries (e.g., automotive, aerospace, medical, etc.) on how to measure their parts with my company’s hardware and software. Somehow, this job fits me better than any other situation I could have conceived of as I had a knack for education. However, I knew that this would not last forever as I had a strong desire to pursue a Ph.D. in Engineering Education at Purdue University.

I spent a year working on my application. My confidence in my work was so strong that I did not doubt that I would gain admittance. Once I received that letter that confirmed my belief, I excitedly planned out every course, certificate, and program that I wanted to participate in during my time in the program. The first day that I arrived on campus during orientation, I felt a strong sense that I belonged. It was an unparalleled feeling I never felt before. This campus was right for me after all the tears, doubt, frustrations, and lostness. This degree was meant for me…finally.

After completing my first semester, I am happy to tell you that I feel great! During the holiday break, I couldn’t wait to get back to school which is something that has never happened to me despite my 4.0 GPA in grade school. Tough times were trying to balance reading a ton of articles, writing long papers (a requirement foreign to engineering students), and having an existential crisis about what my dissertation would be. I developed a keen interest in the intersection of entrepreneurship, engineering education, and inner-city youth in high school. My confidence in myself was boosted by how empowered I felt to pursue my ideas and create content based on them in my courses. Making content has undoubtedly allowed me to express myself in ways that I hadn’t given myself the time or energy to pursue.

What I’ve learned from this 4-year journey are the following:

·         Trust yourself to learn throughout the process of self- realization, and self-actualization.

·         You will overcome every obstacle because they all will come to pass.

·         You must start every journey with uncertainty. What matters is that you begin which unlocks new possibilities for yourself that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

·         Give yourself time, patience, and forgiveness regardless of the mistake or the consequence.

·         Never give up, but do not ignore a better route along the road of destiny.

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