Black, Poor, and Woman in Higher Education: What I Learned From Graduate School

     I have been hesitant to publish this blog post. I’ve literally looked at it for four months contemplating when I would be brave enough to have my say about being a black woman in higher education. I understand having come from a working class background that my position is of privilege. For that reason I give my account of my experience as such. It is rare that we discuss working class issues without negative content. This blog post, is for Imageeveryone but specifically my poor and working poor black and Latina women and girls who are considering entering graduate school or who are already enrolled. We are all human. We all have opinions. I hope we can have a provocative but respectful exchange about this topic.

 “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.”-Toni Morrison (Remember this.)

This is my favorite quote and it reminds me that life’s struggles are difficult but you will always be able to redeem yourself if you learn to ride the waves the wind blows. You will have many waves to practice on in graduate school.

Being a black woman from a poor/working poor economic background is difficult but a privileged position nonetheless. I recently graduated with my master’s degree from a predominately white university. The course work was very difficult, but those are not the lessons I want share with you right now. For every black and Latina woman and girl, this is my account. I promise, you will have your own and your story needs to be heard too.  

This is what graduate school taught me:

 1) Higher education is a tool for one to gain a career within the University or Corporate system. That is it. Learning intellectually can be done in communities or solitude. Trust me.


2) I am a black woman who was raised in a poor/working poor economic community. It was not until I went away to graduate school that I learned my economic status would be the precursor to people’s opinions about what I know and who I am. You should expect this. Throughout my public schooling I did not learn to think critically about anything really. As black folk we are taught to go with the flow, praise Jesus when it gets hard, and shop when it gets unbearable (9/11). I mean that sarcastically but unfortunately it’s true. That does not mean that I was or am not capable of learning and thinking critically. Take advantage of your weaknesses and improve them. Don’t get down about not learning certain things that seem obvious to your colleagues. You have a different upbringing. Notice I didn’t say unfortunate or worse. You will realize that there are topics, words, and phrases that you know and others don’t. Value your upbringing. You have a different knowledge than others. Your differences are only a sign of your culture. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of it. Accept, study, and proclaim it. This is how we survive historical erasure. You must know how unique you are. Be confidant in who you are and where you come from. Situations do not define you. You define you. I say that because it is not uncommon coming from a working class background to be intimidated. Focus on all the good the hood brought you. Haha. Write down topics, words, phrases etc. that you may not understand and research them. Most of it will not pertain to you but it is good to know what others around you know. It makes you personable and expands your interpersonal world. Image

 3) Blackness is a wide spectrum. We come in many flavors including Asian and Latino/a. Blackness and black people are to be respected. Learn from everyone that you feel you should learn from. Especially, your brothers and sisters from across boarders and seas. Most times you will be the only black or Latino in your cohort or classes. Do NOT be resentful or envious of the other black and Latino/women/men in your program. The fact that they are there is rare. Embrace the relationship if the opportunity presents itself. You will gain a friend for life. You may find yourself unable to relate to your black or Latino colleagues. That may or may not be because they are from a different financial community than you. Meaning sometimes damnit, you just can’t see eye to eye. You will be stressed trying to figure out how to pay your bills (in addition to going to school fulltime) and your colleague will be complaining about their parents not buying them a new car all in the same five minutes. It happens. Accept the fact that we are all different and focus on their better attributes. The grass is not always greener. Take this as an opportunity to get to know someone who is different than you. It will build your character and your list of amazing friends you’ve gained through the years.

4) Every black or Latina professor, administrator, or colleague you meet is not going to be your homegirl/boy. Digest this information right now. I promise you the first time you feel rejection from another black woman/man it will hurt you to the core. You must remember she/he is human and just because they are black they have no obligation to you. They are colleagues. Even if you get the opportunity to be mentored by another black woman/man always be mindful that you have to remain professional in that relationship. They are still your colleagues.

5) Learning, writing, and thinking critically are all things that take a process to master. Do not move ahead or behind your process. Instead, stay present and enjoy it. It will be difficult but your process will make or break you. You might as well go through it gracefully. Graduate school is also a test of endurance. If you plan on continuing in higher education as a career your test will be imperative. You WILL be tested. And you WILL pass. You will. Treat your process as gold. 

As far as being a student especially at a University that is majority white, be prepared to have a case of culture shock. You must never ever be afraid to be who you are. You do not have to fit into a certain mold; the people that need to be in your life will accept and support you just the way you are (never forget that). There are some crazy white people who will say very racist things. Take a breath and breathe because there are going to be black people who will agree with your crazy white colleagues. But on the bright side, you will have white colleagues who will be giving those same people the side eye just like you J. This brings me to my next piece of advice: never ever let people see you sweat. Allow yourself to accept the past and move on (slavery, religion, subjugation, etc etc etc). You are in grad school for one reason, to get your degree. Everything else is small to a giant. My last but most important piece of advice be professional. Period. Image

As you can tell from this piece most of the lessons I learned from grad school are about life. Never believe to be enlightened or to gain intellectual wisdom that you have to be accepted to a University or institution. Learning and wisdom begins and ends with your will. The libraries are free and books are abundant. Don’t forget your elders. They are walking history lessons. I learned to love the fact that I have different knowledge being from a poor/working poor background, black, and a woman. Your voice, your intellect is needed and given to you for you to share. Good luck in your endeavors and remember to ride that wind! In the future I will go more in depth about my experiences being black, poor, and a woman in grad school.

Stay true,

R. Smith



42 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ninajtk
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 11:06:12

    This is a lovely post, I’m glad you were courageous to share it with the world. As a black woman who’s now been out of graduate school a few years, I can add that it is completely your choice about what to carry with you post-graduation, particularly what you are going to allow to define you once stepping into the corporate or academia worlds. This is a powerful privilege and should not be taken lightly.


    • consciousdaughters
      Jan 03, 2013 @ 12:21:15

      Thank you for replying! Rashonda put a lot of thought in to this post, and we thank her for sharing.


    • R.Smith
      Jan 08, 2013 @ 13:02:14

      I agree. I will definitely make that point in future post. Graduate school can alter your post graduate decisions in a negative or positive way. It has been healing for me to reflect on the experiences and move forward with a new perspective. Thank you for your response and encouragement. I encourage you as well!


  2. educationaintgottahurt
    Jan 06, 2013 @ 20:51:52

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I think your words provide a source of guidance for young women heading to grad school as well as help those of us who have managed to make it through the beast or ultimate test of endurance feel empowered to share our stories as well. I think what you illuminate beautifully in this post is that it takes courage and strength to be a woman of color in this unjust society, but it takes a whole different level of strength to be a woman of color in grad school. I also appreciate your post because you remind us that we must be empowered to teach each other and learn outside of institutions. Grad school ain’t the only space a black woman can become a theorist! And, one more point, I thought I was going to burst a lung screaming when I read “Every black or Latina professor, administrator, or colleague you meet is not going to be your homegirl/boy. Digest this information right now. I promise you the first time you feel rejection from another black woman/man it will hurt you to the core.” Yess!!!! This is the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about. But, you are so right. When you realize this, its like that first time you realized you were different in some way be it race, class, weight, etc. You never forget it, I know I sure didn’t. Your post is brilliant and I am very much looking forward to reading more of your work. Thank you again!!


    • R.Smith
      Jan 08, 2013 @ 13:14:05

      “Grad school ain’t the only space a black woman can become a theorist!” You better say that!!!!! I had a professor tell me theory was not for everyone (specifically economically underprivileged people, which is me and pretty much all my family and friends). I was fortunate enough to have another black woman whom I now call sister, to help me understand we as black women were born theorist. The fact that we exist and continue to challenge black women’s historical erasure (and interpret the erasure and our lives and the lives of other women of color) is the foundation of that truth.
      I can tell you have had some similar experiences. I will surely be talking more about reconciling with the rejection of leaders of color. It NEEDS to be talked about. Please share your stories. I send you love and light! Your voice is a powerhouse, And you are right, education ain’t gotta hurt! We need each other to survive. Thank you for your response!!! Be encouraged in all your endeavors. Until the next time…


  3. NorissaJuly
    Jan 13, 2013 @ 10:43:58

    This post was excellent and reflective of my experience as a black woman in a PhD program who felt completely outside of the experience of those in her cohort. Thank you for validating me. I wish I had seen this and gotten a community of support five years ago when I started this degree, but it does make me want to look back and create such a community for those coming behind me. –So again…thank you!


  4. R.Smith
    Jan 16, 2013 @ 10:46:47


    I believe we go through everything for a reason. Share your story. The things you endured were for your gain and those that will come into your path as students. I am inspired and you validate me by occupying a space in academia. Thank you for your response! Don’t be afraid.


  5. Cafe
    Jan 19, 2013 @ 13:31:38

    These are great things to teach in preparation for graduate school, because I think knowing what to expect and being armed with the tools to cope with some of these difficulties makes for a less stressful time. Thanks for sharing 🙂


  6. R.Smith
    Jan 22, 2013 @ 14:33:48

    Thanks Cafe!


  7. Trackback: Black, Poor, and Woman in Higher Education: What I Learned From Graduate School « My Documented Life
  8. Sharon
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 06:46:00

    Your remarks ring true. I’ve lived the experience and wrote about it. When time permits check out “Something Inside So Strong” by Dr. Sharon Ames-Dennard. Wishing you Peace & Prosperity!


  9. uchueca
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 09:42:46

    Thank you for being so brave. You encourage me to one day be brave and share stories too. Also, I really like where you say that it’s possible to learn alone or in solitude. That’s where I’m at and where I’m gonna stay for a minute. Both my parents went to some college but we unable to over come pervious life hardships (classism, racism, mental illness) to finish or use their degree for a long time (for my parent that did finish). I am so thankful to have gone to under grad and for now I’m keeping to self study in community and in solitude. Thank s again !


    • R. Smith
      Feb 24, 2013 @ 19:56:01

      Uchueca, thank you! I agree, there was a time when I was in solitude because I needed to deal with myself. There was also a time when I had no choice. I sense you have it figured out. When you need to be revived don’t forget the well of support you have.


  10. Nisha Gupta
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 10:19:00

    Thank you so much for sharing these thoughtful, reflective and critical comments here. I think that we are really, really behind in understanding how to negotiate identity in the academy – we think we’ve got it at a metalevel but the practices are still so based on norms of patriarchy and whitemale based concepts of “success”. Thanks to Linda Alcoff for reposting this blog on FB so that I could find your story. I cherish your #5, particularly how you articulate this nuanced aspect of grad school – now that I’ve been out of grad school for about 10 years and work with grad students regularly (advising, mentoring, and teaching), I find that this is singularly the most important aspect of education – at all levels.


  11. Anne Valentine
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 11:36:18

    I think one thing that you must realize about graduate school is that it is not undergrad. Making that transition can be particularly hard if you are coming from a HBCU and attending a PWI.


    • R. Smith
      Feb 24, 2013 @ 20:06:51

      Absolutely Anne! We have to get the word out. Lol. Seriously, we do need preparation. If you are not exposed to the process before you enter school, the shock can be overwhelming .


  12. Crystal McDonald
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 12:08:31

    Thank everyone for sharing, I have enjoy reading all the comment. I’m in graduate now at the age of 51.


  13. Jo Ann Hardesty
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 20:37:21

    I enjoyed your honesty in sharing your story. I work primarily with people who are on the down side of power but the education they have learned is priceless. We are a strong people and have overcome so much. We are on the shoulders of giants that didn’t have a lot of formal education but were wise beyond their years. I am so honored to enter this supportive and affirming conversation. You have restored my faith in the power of the internet. Thank you Ms. Smith! You are an example of stick-to-it-ness for the brown and black girls in my circle.


  14. misseloquence
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 21:14:56

    I love the point you made about black people not being raised to think critically but to jusy believe in Jesus and go shopping. I only have my undergrad degree but even there I found out I couldn’t fully enjoy learning I was taught to think critically. I think that is a point of repression for people of color because we have not been taught HOW to think (culturally speaking)
    I love this post and thanks for sharing!! Check out my blog sometimes at


    • R. Smith
      Feb 24, 2013 @ 19:45:06

      I love your blog! You’re funny. Misseloquence, I was upset when I learned the same as you. I was very excited about graduate school and the program I was entering. When I sat in class and everything sound like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoon, I was worried and confused. I was not prepared to think critically. Honestly, a former professor of mine told me some of the things we were studying wouldn’t make sense for a while. She never told me a lie. It wasn’t until I graduated that things became clear to me. I began to dissect the information I studied in school by living in the “real world”. Critical thinking is our key to the get-out-of-la-la-land lock. Ha. Thanks for sharing.


  15. Jovan Young
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 21:55:21

    Thank you so much for posting this! I completely understand, and have felt so alone for so long. This is just what I needed.


    • R. Smith
      Feb 24, 2013 @ 19:29:47

      Jovan, we need a community to BE. I was lucky to have a sister-friend and other wonderful people who allowed me to process, reflect, and then act (for me reacting was writing). If you do not have that you should seek a small community. Some times that community is a group of people who have NOTHING to do with your program or school (haha). I don’t know what or who but don’t go through this alone. I finished my last semester in solitude and though I defended and passed it was harder than necessary. You can do it but it will be harder. Everybody told me this. But I guess I had to learn it to share with you. I send you love, peace, patience, comfort, and a hug. Good luck to you!


  16. Odeth
    Feb 14, 2013 @ 03:50:53

    Thank for posting. I’m finishing my undergraduate degree and I’m planning to go to grad school. Your advise is very helpful


    • R. Smith
      Feb 24, 2013 @ 19:17:55

      Odeth, Congratutlations! I hope some of my experiences will help you when you need it. You will have your own experiences and just remember to share and never forget.


  17. Jp Sarver
    Feb 14, 2013 @ 12:09:45

    I have a question. When you say grad school, do you mean a post-baccalaureate program or undergraduate? I ask because I do see that we have some shared sentiments, but I also have some differing opinions and I it stems from my undergraduate education being from an HBCU (historically black college/university) and my graduate degree being from a PWI (predominantly white institution).


  18. AJW
    Feb 22, 2013 @ 20:01:19

    Thank you so much for this.


  19. R. Smith
    Feb 24, 2013 @ 19:11:35

    Will do! Thank you and same to you!


  20. DJ
    Feb 26, 2013 @ 11:48:16

    Thanks so much for this. It helped open my eyes a little more and taught me some useful things. 🙂


  21. nikkele
    Mar 04, 2013 @ 16:31:52

    Your post rings very true. I come from a working class background and was intimidated my first semester of graduate school, but fortunately I had a circle of sister friends in the same program who I leaned on for support. As a professor, I place a demand on my students to supercede their own expectations, no matter their background, as well as those imposed upon them by larger society.


    • R.Smith
      May 02, 2013 @ 12:39:02

      Nikkele, thank you for your response. I am grateful for professor like you. Without your determination to help students see themselves as able, makes the difference. Sending love and encouragement your way.


  22. CAL 27612
    Apr 13, 2013 @ 12:54:25

    WOW… Ms. Smith- I’m a 48 yo gay, white male- raised in a low-middle class family who had to earn every penny to get through. This year I will earn my M.Ed. in HRD (Training and Development). I loved reading your post and even though I was not your intended audience, I leaned in- connected- as much of what you shared has been my experience as well. I’ve already found myself pulling quotes from your post that I’m sure to reflect on in the days to come. Thank you. 😉
    Riding the wind with you,


  23. R.Smith
    May 02, 2013 @ 12:41:41

    Hey Chuck, if this post touched you then you are my intended audience. I am flatter, to say the least, that you find my words quotable. Congratulations on obtaining your M.Ed.!!! Ride on my friend!


  24. Just-IN
    May 05, 2013 @ 11:17:19

    “I will surely be talking more about reconciling with the rejection of leaders of color. It NEEDS to be talked about.’ These sentences resonated deeply with me. Thanks for sharing. I could have written this reflection myself. I hope you use this post as a spring board to have this much needed dialogue. I’m willing to help in that process. Maybe a symposium?


  25. London
    May 10, 2013 @ 08:51:59

    Thank you for sharing these TRUTH-ism. It takes courage for all us to find wisdom in the midst of discomfort. Higher Ed is an institution and like all institutions has the propensity to oppress… as a writer myself I say “Write On” because it is in documenting these experiences that we pave a path for those who are fighting similar battles and for those who will come along long after us…


  26. Canela14
    Aug 13, 2013 @ 19:51:06

    I found this site today during a moment of anxious breakdown. I am so proud to be going into my 2nd year of grad school at an Ivy League institution. As a Latina, it feels great knowing that I worked my behind off to get somewhere not many of us have gone before. Working towards an International Affairs degree, I am dedicating my career to social justice and advancing the rights of women around the world. Even though I know my future will be bright no matter what, my glaring loan amount of 100k is really bringing me down – especially after a white friend just told me her parents have paid for her entire education. Talk about working twice as hard to get half as far. Why is it that I beat myself up everyday for putting myself in this situation, when I should be celebrating such an achievement? I feel like the stupidest person in the world for believing I was just as deserving as anyone else to get this great education? I am so happy in my school, but I feel like a fool for doing this to myself. I just want to help others by educating myself as well as I can – why do others get this opportunity without the blink of an eye but I am crumbling? I understood what I was getting myself into but I find myself breaking down again whenever I see my loan amounts.


  27. QueenSheba
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 05:29:31

    This was a breath of fresh air. I am in my PhD program now and flip-flop between existential crises and “good days”. I contemplate giving up and other days I scoff at the thought of it. I find my peers cannot quite understand and sometimes I refrain from speaking about my trivial experiences because of I would spend more time prefacing my sentiments than actually expressing them. I would like to scream and would much rather prefer to. I feel like I am being put through a meat grinder. Or like a piece of gold going through intense temperatures. I wonder if someone is playing a trick on me sometimes. Ugh. I praise my Jesus still though. I also talk with teachers, peers, and other colleagues to supplement my critical thinking. I believe that critical thinking is a gift if you posses it, but can be like curse if you don’t. I find that most other doctoral “sistahs” in peer bracket need to “talk things through”. As such, it may be beneficial if you have an advisor or have members on your supervisory committee who can accept this. I’ve also been struggling with questioning my intelligence when others seem to obviously know the answer. But as the main post said, we all have different and NOT inferior upbringings. I think the hood taught me good too! I think the Caribbean taught me well also! I’m 24 making 25 in two months. Just came from a Drake concert and I about to get into some reading for a group project focused on designing an RCT. This is my life. I do not like it right now. It is uncomfortable and challenging. But there is something in me that realizes this as an opportunity to “be on the come up”. Even more, it’s a chance to put people back at the crib (my hometown) up on game. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. But I didn’t know that being hear would challenge every fiber of my being. Family and church folk asking “how long you got?” as if a limited duration can be my saving grace. Some boyfriends already asked for a hand in marriage, but tell you to hurry-up (which is why they are old boyfriends. Don’t tell me to hurry up!)/ Bills still need to get paid and I am doing the best I can with what I have. Finally my mother and close family and friends empathizing with my pain, yet practice parsimony because they aren’t sure what to say or realize that there is nothing left to say. the struggle is real. Some people miss the point when they say ” you don’t have to be there, you made the choice to leave your ‘good’ job to go to PhD school”. Yes. I did. I left my good job. Yes, I don’t have to be here. But you don’t get to dismiss my struggle simply because it is different. I’m learning myself and the material at hand #atthesamedamntime. I am in heaven and in hell atthesamedamntime., I am at my highest and my lowest atthesamedamntime. This is where I am. I will not be ashamed of it. Perhaps a pep-talk isn’t always necessary. My professors call these sort of things substructing, where an individual works to make sense of an esoteric phenomena with minimal facilitation. I have some personal substruction that I am working on. Life 101. I tried the hood, why not try the academy? IJS.


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