Rejection From Graduate Programs as a First-Gen Hits Differently

Graduate Programs BELatina Latinx
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As a first-generation college student, one of the proudest achievements of my life was to graduate from one of the top colleges in the country. I had the privilege to walk across that stage and shake hands with the president of my college, all while my family watched from the audience, augmenting their celebratory shouts with a wooden matraca.

Since it is late May, social media is flooded with proud graduation photos from high school seniors, undergrads, and graduate students celebrating their many years of academic pursuit. Fewer things warm my heart more than seeing first-generation scholars ready to take on the world because I was and am one of them.

At the same time, a group of folks — myself included — have hidden their experiences with continuing their education out of shame. I’m talking about those who tried our best and landed short of scoring an enrollment in one of our ideal graduate programs.

Just like graduating can be one of the best feelings in the world for first-generation college students, the many rejections from graduate programs can feel like the most devastating, shameful results of having applied. At least for me, it most definitely did. 

When every decision counts

For context, I went into the workforce right after I graduated in 2019, and in 2021, I decided to apply to seven clinical psychology doctoral programs to start in the Fall of 2022. 

Before I decided on clinical psychology, I had virtual meetings with several faculty at the university where I was working to try and tease out which graduate program was the one for me. 

At this point, I could see myself with a Ph.D. in education, family studies and human development, and even women’s and gender studies. I took the majority of my time figuring out which track would be the best for me, and once I decided on clinical psychology, I didn’t reach out to faculty and focused on my applications instead.

That was my first mistake. 

I did not make the same effort in reaching out to faculty at all of the institutions I was applying to in the same way as I did just to figure out which graduate program would be the best in getting me to my professional goals. I researched faculty to work with at the other six institutions, but I did not connect with them in the same way. 

I’m glad that I took the time to figure out which track would be the best for me. I did not want to commit to a program of four to six years without truly knowing that I wanted to pursue that degree. What I would have done differently would have been to put just as much effort into reaching out to faculty at other institutions to connect with them and identify who I connect with and could work well with. 

I will say that preparing for graduate applications is like a part-time job, especially if you’re first-gen and navigating all of the systems at play to make your application as strong as possible. 

Each meeting with a faculty member got me closer to understanding how to approach making my academic goals possible, but they did take a length of time that I clearly underestimated. Perfecting my personal statements, rewriting them for each program, and filling out the same information for each application took time and drained me mentally and emotionally.

And when after all of that esfuerzo, as nicely put as each institution tries, rejection email after rejection email feels like a slap in the face. I already struggled with imposter syndrome as an undergrad attending a predominantly white institution. Every rejection made it easier to get stuck in cyclical thoughts of unworthiness. 

I felt crushed and I felt ashamed, especially because I had shared with my parents that I had decided to apply, and they were both so excited for me. “Échale ganas, mija,” they would tell me. And I did, as best I could. 

I dreamt of filming myself telling them about my future acceptances and posting them on social media, sharing my accomplishments with the world. Instead, I had to fight back the tears in letting them know that I didn’t get into a single program. I felt like I was the biggest letdown of a child. 

For a time, I felt guilty because I felt I had wasted the time of my recommenders. 

On top of feeling the embarrassment and shame of having presented all of myself and being told I was not enough, I didn’t know anyone else who was dealing with what I was experiencing. I was feeling broken, ashamed, unheard, and lonely. 

I didn’t know where to pour all of my feelings or deal with them, so I dug into the depth of the internet and found solace on Twitter. I connected with a person who had not been accepted to medical school and who had been vocal about it on Twitter. We talked over Instagram, and sharing similar experiences was something that my soul needed. 

Regardless of everything that I was feeling, at least one person out there understood why I felt how I did. I owe them an immense amount of gratitude.

That being said, finding community and being vocal about my experience post-rejection has been essential to my healing process. My family and friends have been nothing but supportive and loving. Having been through this process, my mentors and recommenders validate how I feel and understand, as all of us should, that rejections from graduate programs do not reflect how capable someone is. 

Many factors come into play when evaluating a candidate for a doctoral program, and many of them have nothing to do with the person themselves, like funding.
Now, I am strategizing for the next round of applications, and I am going to use all of my negative emotions as fuel para echarle ganas this time around.