How I Prepared for (and Survived) Graduate School as a Queer Student
Come May 11, 2018, I will be graduating with a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing – Nonfiction. Ultimately, my experience was very fulfilling but it had a lot of challenging moments too, especially as the only openly queer student in my program. Here’s how I survived.
- Do the research.
I was fully aware that I was going to a grad school that was small, located in Indiana, and lacked in diversity. Deep down, I knew that I was going to make the choice to go but still I gave myself a few days to let it sink in. Not only was I leaving friends and family behind, but a culture behind as well. New Mexico has a large demographic of Latinx and Indigenous people. It wasn’t out of place to see people wearing “Brown Pride” shirts. Culturally, the people are more upfront. When I went for a campus visit, I couldn’t help but stare in wonder at how “college straight out of a CW teen drama” it looked. I first looked at it in wonder and then felt like a total alien. The culture shock wasn’t as hard hitting thanks to research.
Some questions to consider when doing research:
- Am I okay with being underrepresented at my college?
- Is the location I’m considering really that racist/homophobic/transphobic?
- Is the school considered a political and social “safe zone” in the middle of a conservative area?
- What is the school’s philosophy?
- Make a visit.
If possible, seeing the campus and the location in person prior to moving out there helps a lot. Not only do you physically encounter the space, but it’ll give you an intimate portrait of what it feels like for you to be in that space. I’m a believer in gut feelings and think that you’ll know from standing in that location if it’s a space you want to be in or not.
Questions to consider:
- Can the program pay for any of the expenses (flight, lodging, food)? Many programs are seeking diverse students and some are willing to accommodate you.
- What other places can I visit? (Mini vay-cay?)
- What resources does the school/outer area provide for LGBTQIA+/diverse students?
- Make friends.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from moving across the country is that you’ll meet awesome people no matter where you go. It wasn’t easy dropping everything I knew in NM to spend the next four years in the hands of strangers but with time, I’ve built up a small and genuine support system.
Questions to ask:
- Is there a queer support group/alliance club?
- If not, is there one in the wider area?
- Don’t be afraid to do some weeding.
When growing a garden, you’re bound to encounter weeds. The same goes with friends. I befriended a lot of people from the program on social media. I attended the events and smiled and chatted with them … only to realize that a chunk of them were quite toxic. Rather it be low key homophobia or racism, they proved to be weeds, leeching water from the brightly colored buds trying to bloom in my garden. It may make you a social pariah, but then again, you’re queer. You’ve grown up feeling like a social pariah your entire life. Popularity is never worth the price of your identity. After all, you came here to school to become someone stronger. You’re pursuing your dreams, and I’m sure a big part of that dream is being your authentic self. What hurts in the beginning will heal later. So, get rid of those weeds!
Questions to ask:
- Are these people going to help me reach my ultimate goal?
- What does my gut say about them?
- Are the scales of give and take balanced in this friendship?
- Seek help when you want it, not just need it.
There is a difference between the words “want” and “need.” “Want” is still in the realm of desire and “need” is in the realm of necessity. Unfortunately, around the time I was letting the toxicity of others poison my garden, I didn’t seek out help even though I wanted to. Each day I said I was going to go to the counseling center and set up a meeting. I waited and waited until I became manic and suicidal (I suffer from bipolar disorder). Survival instincts kicked in and I started telling my friends and family that I wasn’t feeling right. I made an appointment and since then, almost two years later, I’ve been seeing counselors at the campus counseling services. It was a great idea because it’s helped to ground me when I forget my reasons and goals for being a grad school.
Questions to ask:
- What counseling services does the school provide for students?
- What outreach/mental health services does the school provide?
- Are there any queer friendly counseling services available in the outer area?
- What services can I find online? (NEVER FORGET that the internet can be a tool for helping you too! There are many people out there who are willing to help you.)
- No matter what, DO NOT let people bully you back into the closet.
There are so many ways people can and will try to break you down. It can happen in subtle ways. For me, it was the erasure of my queerness in my creative works. I heard things like “that’s something we all go through” which is basically a way of saying “your struggle isn’t valid.” I almost let this get me down but I pushed back. My works became aggressively gay. I’d invite you all to do the same. This is your queer life. We’re still in a greater struggle for equality.
You’re queer and you’ve got a purpose.
Don’t let the assholes squander it.
Questions to ask:
- No questions. You are you. Live your life. You deserve it.