As an alumnus of the University of Illinois (PhD, 2014; MA, 2008), I’m often contacted by the University of Illinois Foundation to participate in a giving campaign or by the Graduate College to serve on an alumni panel or take a survey about my experiences at Illinois and beyond. Recently, I was contacted by the Editor of the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, the local daily newspaper, to participate in a project celebrating 150 years of the University. Select alumni are being asked to share a specific spot on campus that comes to mind when they recall their days at Illinois. Responses will be featured in a special edition of the newspaper. I was hoping to be creative in my response and identify a spot that would resonate with the readers. In reflecting, I kept being drawn to the designated office space for teaching assistants in the Educational Policy Studies doctoral program, a spot unknown to the average student on campus or reader of the news Gazette. Here’s what I wrote in response to the editor’s prompt:
“Room 372 Education Building, formerly the Educational Policy Studies TA Office”
It was in this space where a group of PhD students of color, affectionately known as “The Village”, gathered at all hours of the day and night to support one another on the journey to the doctorate.
It was in this space where we witnessed the academic grind and received words of wisdom from our faculty, advanced doctoral students, alumni, and each other.
It was in this space where we grooved to the latest music blasting through our earbuds, while trying to write the perfect sentence.
It was in this space where we birthed conference papers, dissertations, cover letters, and greatness.
It was in this space where a group of emerging scholars from different parts of the U.S. were brought together to choose community over competition and become lifelong friends…chosen family…The Village.
This space is sacred.
I share this response for two main reasons that I hope resonate with you, especially those of you who are graduate students.
First, identifying a safe and inviting space to share fellowship, read, write, and be inspired by others is critical to being a successful student. Graduate school, in particular, is often characterized by students as an isolating or alienating experience. It is true that there are times when you’re going to need to “get ghost” to minimize distractions and be your most productive self. However, “schooling” goes well beyond taking classes, studying for exams, and writing papers. And honestly, it gets old and routine and some days you have to “dig deep” to muster up the energy to persist, especially when you’re broke and feeling broken. We need others to inspire us, “coach us up,” “charge us up,” and hold us accountable to achieving our goals. I received just that in Room 372.
Second, we can all eat! Too often, students choose competition over community while in graduate school. The Village taught me that I could be my most competitive self while doing my part to contribute to the wholeness, well-being, and development of the Village. We believed that we didn’t have to tear one another down to shine and score some wins. We celebrated job offers even when we were in the same hiring pool. We edited each other’s fellowship applications and conference proposals even when we were applying to the same fellowships and conferences, respectively. The Village concept helped us to think beyond self. We believed that if one person in the Village was “winning,” we were all winning. Our families were winning. Our communities were winning. The Village concept kept us grounded and connected.
The African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I’ll add, “It takes a village to raise a scholar, too!” Thus, as you continue to go forth in your academic studies, I encourage you to think about the space(s) you frequent to receive inspiration and accountability. Additionally, I encourage you to think about the ways in which you have benefited from, contributed to, and withheld from your village. Make those spaces sacred. Protect your village.
Dr. Ivory Berry, also known as “Dr. Get-Your-Life-Together,” is the Assistant Dean for Student Success for the College of Education and Human Development. He shares his no-nonsense wisdom every day in the Office of Student and Academic Affairs, and occasionally, here on the Student Success Blog.