It’s September, that time of year when many of us are returning to campus after the summer holidays, whether it’s as college freshmen, graduate students, researchers or faculty. The university is a contradictory institution, at once a tool for advancement and opportunity as well as a hierarchal institution that produces inequalities and barriers for people from marginalized backgrounds. For Somali students who have already faced and overcome many of these institutional and systemic obstacles in order to reach university, the additional burden of having to navigate academic environments as underrepresented minorities can be taxing on an already stressful postsecondary experience.
A BA and MA later, and now a PhD-in-progress, here are my academic survival tips:
Remind yourself, and remind yourself often, that you are at the institution you are because you are just as intelligent, able and qualified as your peers. This is especially critical for students of colour and women to keep in mind given the current demographics of postsecondary institutions and stereotypes regarding racial and gender incompetence and inadequacy. “Imposter syndrome” is something that affects everyone, but it affects some of us more.
2. Find a routine that works for you, and stick to it.
Not everyone puts in their best work at the campus library, and I’ve always been fond of doing my reading and writing at a local coffee shop in the afternoon or evening, with just a bit of music and a steady crowd for people watching when I get bored. The important thing is to figure out what hours you are most productive and what environments are best for you, and maintaining consistency. Stay on top of your work and try to read and write each day, even if it is not directly related to your courses.
3. Learn how to read.
This may sound a bit silly, but reading academic books and articles is a completely different skill set and one of the major challenges in transitioning from high school to college, and from college to graduate school. I’ll admit my advice is also more oriented towards the humanities and social science fields, where you are expected to read hundreds of pages of reading a week. Always read for arguments and significance, and ask yourself while reading: why is this article/book important, why was it assigned to this course on this particular week, how does it fit into a conversation on the topic/themes it discusses, and what is it saying that is new about this topic? Asking yourself these questions will ensure that you extract the most important information from the reading, rather than get bogged down in details or overwhelmed by the number of pages assigned. Manage your time well and make sure to budget an adequate amount of time to complete your readings before class.
4. Self-care comes first.
School is not your life – it’s one (important) part of it, but it should not consume you in ways that are detrimental to your happiness or health. Always prioritize yourself and your needs, learn when to say no, and do what you need to do to protect your emotional, spiritual and mental wellbeing. Take time away from school work to connect with friends and family and build relationships, get fresh air and regular physical activity, and enjoy healthy meals. Be kind and treat yourself from time to time. A certain amount of stress is normal as a busy student, but stay in tune with your mind and body and recognize when things become too much. While our community may have a stigma against mental health issues, there is no shame in making use of campus resources like on-campus support groups, counseling and therapy services.
5. There is a university beyond your classes.
It is very easy to forget that there is more to campus life aside from your classes, but the classroom only represents a fraction of the intellectual life of the university. Go to every interesting sounding event, lecture and conference taking place, and take advantage of the many intellectuals, activists and public figures who grace your campus while you are there. Venture out of your department and hear what people in other fields have to say. Go beyond academics and find student groups and extracurricular activities to participate in, to make new friends and gain new experiences. Find other Somali students, especially those younger than you who can benefit from your university experiences and wisdom, and be a light.
Helpful links and resources (continuously updated)
Conditionally Accepted, a site that “aims to provide a space for academics on the margins.”
Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, an edited book of personal experiences and research on women of colour and white women’s experiences in academia. They also maintain a Facebook page to share interesting, relevant links.
“How to Not Die: Some Survival Tips for Black Women Who Are Asked to Do Too Much,” from Crunk Feminist Collective, a great blog by WOC academics and academic allies.
“Welcome to Wonderland: Advice for Beginning Graduate Students of Color” by Daniel Heath Justice and Marissa Lopez.
“Welcome to Graduate School” by David Shorter