Sunday, July 15, 2012

I Wanted to be a Graduate Student

I wondered if the Italian American professor in front of me could tell that I was dying on the inside. His last name was Romano. Like Ray Romano, like Romano's Macaroni Grill. Did he know how badly I needed an assistantship? I was 22 years old and in my final semester as an undergraduate student at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. I had promised myself that I would only go to graduate school if I could finance at least part of that expensive education. Tuition racked up to at least 6,000 dollars every semester for international students, and that was not including the other few thousand dollars that got spent on rent, food, expensive textbooks (many cost over a hundred dollars) supplies, transport (air and ground). Most foreign students did not qualify for any sort of financial aid as undergraduates, but they could try for assistantships in graduate school. Assistantships were packaged differently in different universities, but they all got you work experience either teaching or researching with a stipend. OSU, for example, often tossed in free health insurance and waived out-of-state tuition. They would only charge you in-state tuition, which was like one-third of what international students usually had to pay. And I desperately wanted to teach or do research, the thought made me happy on the inside. Being happy though was not my first priority at that time, I needed to be able to afford grad school first, and that was through an assistantship. Any kind. From any department. Doing anything.

But this was early 2003. The American economy had crashed so badly in the time since 9/11. Assistantships and other forms of financial aid had dried up at colleges and universities across the country. I only knew of a handful of international students on assistantships at OSU. They didn't even advertise for them anymore. I had applied for graduate study at OSU and 4 other universities across the US, and I'd got in everywhere. But I needed an assistantship. School would be too expensive otherwise, and I'd have to look for a fulltime job and someone to sponsor a work visa for me, and if anything was more difficult than finding an assistantship, it was looking for a job in the US as a foreigner. And I was only 22 years old with no real-world experience. I knew nobody would hire me. There were thousands of foreign students out there that employers would prefer to hire over me. These foreign students were the older ones or the ones with a master's or a doctorate degree or with previous fulltime work experience. I was at the bottom of the pile - 22 years old with only a bachelor's degree and no fulltime work experience in my field. Only until a couple of years ago foreign students were being picked up by giants like IBM and Microsoft from universities across America and being offered startup salaries like 60,000 dollars per year even if they didn't have any experience. That had changed. The America I witnessed in the 2000s was one of lack and scarcity. Foreign students were now returning to their home countries empty-handed because they had been unable to find a job in the US even in the one-year grace period the immigration department gave them after graduation. I didn't want to go back empty-handed, I knew I was smart, I knew I had potential even though I had tanked on morale. Home is where careers and dreams went to die. Bottom line: I absolutely had to get an assistantship to go to graduate school. I really wanted to study, I wanted to be more qualified, I loved academia. And maybe the job market would improve after 2 years, at least for me, when I was older, had a master's degree, and maybe some research or teaching experience on my resume. I didn't want to go back home. I had worked too hard and lived too alone and sacrificed too much happiness at an age when I was supposed to be partying and dating and learning about make-up and wearing nice shoes. I couldn't go back now. I had to stay in the race.

Did this professor in front of me understand that? I was sitting with him in his little temporary office in the business building at OSU. He was tall, thin, and had a head full of short, very curly dark-brown hair. He wore glasses, and at that moment, he was sitting across from me with his head bent, looking down at a copy of my resume that he held in his hands. I'd never met him before, he actually used to teach at the Tulsa branch 80 miles away. Did he understand that my heart was pounding because he had actually replied to my cold-call email about needing an assistantship and had wanted to meet me? I had sent hundreds of those emails over the past few months, not just at OSU but to every conceivable department at the other 4 universities where I had been accepted. I could not afford to leave any stone uncovered, there was no room for oversight here, there was too much at stake for me. Over the past many months I had physically visited every single department - academic or not - at OSU and left a copy of my resume and a cover letter in every single mailbox. I used to go one building at a time and walk through all the floors and visit every single office. That's a lot of buildings. That's a hell of a lot of printing work and paper usage. If it looked like some kind of office, I'd enter, ask to see the mailboxes, and leave my resume and cover letter in every single box. No one ever got back to me. I must've physically visited at least a thousand mailboxes across the entire OSU campus in Stillwater. I even visited the veterinary sciences department. It wasn't even attached to the main campus. But no one called me back. I couldn't physically do this at the other universities where I had been accepted because they were in other states, so I had had to resort to email instead. I had emailled my resume and cover letter to every single professor at each of those universities. That's when I discovered that my Hotmail account had a limit of sending 200 emails a day. It was an annoying discovery, but I guess all it meant was that I had to wait 24 hours for my email account to be able to send the next 200 emails and so on and so forth until I had covered every professor and staff member in every department at those other universities. I needed an assistantship. Please. But I mostly got no responses. I had a handful of people respond in the negative. I didn't know what more I could do. The head of the department where I had been accepted as a graduate student at OSU had personally told me that no assistantships were available at her department either. They had a waiting list though, and she offered to add my name to it. I knew of at least a dozen people on that list.

"You don't have anything even in the Tulsa branch?" I had asked her without thinking in a flat and dull way, which was how I had become in those days. I felt small, helpless, and emptied out. I had nothing more to offer. All these months, all that effort, all that initiative, and nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. It was not fair. This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

"Oh," the department head said. "I'd never thought of the Tulsa branch. I don't know about our department there, why don't you contact them directly? We only keep track of our Stillwater assistantships." The Tulsa branch of OSU was just a handful of small buildings, a small extension of the sprawling campus in Stillwater. So I emailled the professors there with what remained of my extinguished spirit. I was not going to try for anything after this. There was absolutely nothing more I could do.

And I got a response. From a professor in Tulsa who said that he wanted to meet me. He was going to visit the Stillwater campus in a few days, and I could meet him in the temporary office he had there. I was terrified. He was the only person who had got back to me with something other than 'sorry', got back to me at all actually out of everyone else. I set an appointment to meet him in his office in the business building on my campus. From that moment on to until I sat in his office before him, my heart kept pounding and I kept breathing badly. I watched him looking over my resume in front of me. He's thinking my resume is unimpressive, he's going to tell me that he hates my face, that I'm underqualified, I am not special, how dare I waste his time. I wanted to cry because hope felt more terrifying than giving up did. It was cruel, it hurt. I sat there before him in my cheap ill-fitted jeans, worn-out sports shoes, and discount jacket. I was 22 years old, and I was wanting to die. Just say no, just say no, please don't make me wait for you to change your mind about me.

He looked up at me.

"I am impressed that you made the effort to contact me. I can take you on as a graduate assistant, I need some help with some research that I'm doing..."


"You made the effort to contact me on your own, I can appreciate that, that is why I had wanted to meet you."

The whole meeting didn't last more than 10 minutes. He didn't even ask me any questions. I was going to get to go to graduate school. My life and career was not going to end at 22. I didn't cry in the office, but I must've afterwards.

* * *

One of the offices I had discovered on my very thorough coverage of the Stillwater campus was the Career Services office. I had left a copy of my resume and a cover letter with the lady at the front desk. And I'd forgotten about it. I had zero expectations from non-academic departments, assistantships were usually only for teaching or academic research, but I just did not want to take a chance. Might as well leave them my papers while I'm scouring the whole damn campus anyway. And I ended up getting a call from them, from the Career Services office. Their department head had wanted to meet me. His name was Amjad Ayoubi, and I set an appointment to meet him. I had no idea what to expect, this was a non-academic department.

Amjad was really nice. He was from Palestine but now lived in America and had a family here. He was short and had a glow to his very open-looking round face. He was sitting down, but there was something very happy, eager, and rarin'-to-go about him. I sat across from his desk, completely unsure what to expect. He had a very nice, shiny, wood-and-carpet office with motivational posters on the walls. Someday I wanted to have an office like that. Maybe even a whole house like that. It was possible in America.

He slid a shiny little credit card in front of me. It was actually a mini-CD in the shape of a credit card. I remember it was metallic orange in colour. Orange because that was our university colour. We were orange-and-black, the tigers. Amjad's dark eyes shone as he looked at me. He was very excited on the inside.

"We're planning on using this to teach students at OSU about using credit cards responsibly." His eyes shone some more as he looked at me. "Can you make a website using the contents of this CD?"

A website? I didn't know how to make a professional looking website. I didn't have the software, I hadn't even been trained. I had only taught myself the basics of HTML from a book and made myself a personal website with only 1 page - one very long tedious page - with pictures of my favourite actors on it. This was on the now defunct Geocities. Apparently it's only available in Japan now, or so Wikipedia says. I was a Computer Science major but they didn't offer any web design classes back then. I had no sort of training. I had only recently graduated to tinkering with my website using MS FrontPage, but there was no way I had the technical or design knowledge to pull off a real professional website. Amjad would laugh at me. This whole business of putting yourself out there for something you wanted was humiliating.

But I didn't tell Amjad any of this. I didn't even know why he was making me do this. I asked him for details on what he expected from the website (mostly because I had no prior professional experience to base this new task on), but his face only glowed more and he told me to do whatever I wanted because he wanted to see what I could do. That was what I had been afraid of.

But I went back to my dorm room anyway and made on my dear old PC what I would now think of as a horribly flat, sparkly website with the most unappealing and dull colour scheme ever. I had tried to use OSU's black and orange theme, but for some reason the whole thing turned out chunky and primitive looking. All the links worked but the whole thing just looked so amateurish. But it was the best I could've done at that point. I uploaded the website to the new hosting space I had recently signed up for with Netfirms and sent Amjad the link. I cringed at the thought of how disappointed he would feel. I had created the website, and I knew I could've done better if I had the tools and the training, but I was handicapped by my limited knowledge. He called me back for another visit. I dreaded it. He would tell me that that was the ugliest website he had ever seen, but I was so much on autopilot looking for assistantships for graduate school that I was seriously just going through the motions. I was prepared for the humiliation, for fingers pointing at me telling me how I didn't deserve to go to graduate school and that I was a waste of the world's time.

Amjad ended up telling me that one of his employees needed someone to help her with technical work on the Career Services website, and that I ought to go and set up an appointment to meet her next. I did. Her name was Tina. She was a petite white woman in her late 30s with short dark brown pixie hair, and she looked a little bit like Kate Beckingsale. She was friendly and had the energy of a happy hummingbird. She chuckled a lot. One of the questions she asked me was if I had ever worked very hard towards something and had still failed. I knew all about that sort of thing, and I told her about the various assistantships I had applied for at OSU itself and had not been called back. I remember putting my heart and soul in one particular application and being turned down. I'd lain in bed and stared at the ceiling for a long time after that.

"Oh!" Tina had blurted out, probably not expecting to have me answer that so quickly, "I'm sorry you had to go through that." I didn't know what was happening and why I was being interviewed. I needed an assistantship, and this was just looking like the usual minimum-wage part-time job, the kind international students like me had already done so many times before. Assistantships paid more, were more serious work, and at least at OSU got you in-state tuition, health insurance, and a stipend. That's what I needed. I had to go to graduate school.

And they hired me as a graduate assistant. Around the same time as Dr. Romano did. I ended up with two assistantships for the duration of my master's at OSU and became somewhat of a legend in the international students population. Scoring one assistantship was rare, two was unheard of. Both positions had been created for me and at least the one at Career Services was discontinued after I graduated and left to work with Deloitte & Touche 2 years later. I remember how a number of international students who never used to speak to me or even used to be rude to me had started coming up to me in my last semester with fake smiles to suck up their way as my replacement at both assistantships. I don't think any of them got in. It felt good to have won. And Career Services and working with Dr. Romano ended up becoming the best professional experiences I have had to date.

Amjad and I on my first homecoming after graduate school
Tina and I at lunch somewhere on the way back from a seminar in Oklahoma City

1 comment:

Amanda said...

This is an amazing story about perseverance, believing in one's self, and never giving up. Thank you for sharing.

While so many people have been given things or opportunities, the reward seems so much sweeter when one has worked, and worked hard, for the outcome.