Dear Director of Admissions, A Grad School Production:
A Follow Up Letter For Future Grad School Enrollment
The following is a letter I sent to a graduate school advisor shortly after attending the Idealist Graduate School College Fair in the city. This letter has been sitting in draft for about 1.5 years now. I want to say I sent this to the advisor I met from an ivy institution. Its been so long that I can’t clearly remember. I was exploring my negotiation skills. Hoping that if I reached out with my needs he would try to meet me halfway.
Dear Director of Graduate Admissions,
It was an honor to meet you at the Idealist Grad School Fair. I really appreciated your time, and thoughtful responses to my questions. I wanted to reach out to follow up with some more thoughtful inquiries I had about the program there at your [Graduate School of Education] (GSE). I apologize for the length here, but I wanted to convey a clearer picture of who I am as a potential GSE student.
I’m currently working in NYC Department of Education as a High School Special Education Teacher. I’m in my third year in the classroom, and have recently finished my Masters of Urban Education (Special Education Instruction) coursework at Long Island University, Brooklyn. I’m also the elected Union Chapter Leader (United Federation of Teachers) for my school building and team. Currently my biggest challenge is building a cohesive and trusting team of teachers, and driving effective and collaborative communications between my school’s administration and its teaching staff, through the education and implementation of our collectively bargained contract agreement.
Prior to this, I worked in the non-profit sector doing leadership development work and postsecondary education technical assistance for YouthBuild USA. I entered YouthBuild as an Americorps Vista as a midwestern transplant eager to relocate to the east coast and enter the professional world. Youthbuild is an international network of community programs working to provide academic, vocational, and service learning experience to young marginalized students in economically unstable communities around the globe. There, I traveled around the country and for three years worked to organize the program’s alumni, student-leadership representatives, and program staff via postsecondary access and best practice conferences.
In the distant future, I see myself working with philanthropic foundations and citizens to help craft targeted and developmental community programs and initiatives within marginalized communities. I also would like to open a leadership academy of my own, to help develop budding community and social development educators, organizer, and activists.
In the near future, I see myself running effective and innovative community and academic development programs for municipal governments targeted to their marginalized citizens. I would spend my time writing, and running workshops at various professional development conferences, and engaging in research and application development through on -the-ground community and mentoring programs.
I’ve included some questions I have about your graduate school experience. Maybe we can set up a phone conference to discuss some of the topics?
How can I get the most out of your GSE program?
What would you have done differently during your time as a GSE student?
What made you a strong student for GSE and through GSE?
As an educator, historical perspective in connection with culturally dominant educational theory is an area of macro-level focus via my pedagogy. To your knowledge, have people of color expressed any doubt or second thoughts about attending a graduate school there? How does the university address the importance of incorporating a diverse, culturally well-rounded and respectful perspective into its curriculum and assessment practices?
What makes your GSE the strongest place to get this education for me as a Black and Male scholar? Why your school over Harvard? Howard? NYU? Brown?
Growing up, my most meaningful and immersive experiences have come when I’m engaged in a cohort learning model. What would the African American Male population look like in my cohort if I were to take classes at your GSE? How does the GSE work to create a strong cohort experience for its students at-large?
Alumni Organization(s) and Engagement:
What student organizations/alumni associations would I have access to, or be able to engage with for mentorship purposes? In addition, what orgs and associations would I be able to volunteer my time and skills to?
What are some of the strengths of the school’s library/knowledge banks?
What type of career and internship options have been made available to students upon completion of the program?
Yes, the search has begun again for another… new training program.
I’ve been an observer since before I could remember. Academically, this skill has helped me take quality notes that pushed me through many a test. Being observant has helped me shield my way through life to get to where I am today. Now, and embattled with my former self, I am far more assured in my knowledge. To be particular, I have better control over my ability to use my knowledge to lean in most instances toward the side of action.
Many times I find myself having to be the first to make the movement amongst my peers. I prefer to think of this movement through a leadership tinted frame. I haven’t had to kick any doors in just yet. But, I am normally the first to grease myself up to meet a problem head on, and have found a cosily anxious place for myself in doing so. Earlier this year, I watched a panel discussion hosted by the New School titled “Are You Still a Slave?” featuring activists and authors Janet Mock and bell hooks. In it Ms. Mock powerfully states, “this little space that I have in this world, is mine.” (Mock, “Are You Still A Slave @ 27:00 mins”, 2014). Janet lets us know that she has control of the space she inhabits, and whether or not we accept it is an issue she’s not concerned with.
Feeling empowered, and in control of my own space and trajectory in life is an extremely fortifying feeling. Janet shows us that it’s ok to take ownership of the space we individually control in this world. As a minority, taking ownership of that space professionally and academically constantly puts me in situations where I’m left feeling exposed and erosive. The unwanted texture is also apparent in many of my long running personal relationships as well. Its something I’ve battled with as I’ve come to understand and play with knowledge, thankfully at this more receptive stage in my life. I’ve tried to make it clear to everyone that my aim is to engage in this fellowship and get every last drop of worth out of this personal investment that I’m embarking through.
What else but a controlling emotional “devil” so blinded American white intelligence that it couldn’t foresee that millions of black slaves, “freed,” then permitted even limited education, would one day rise up as a terrifying monster within white America’s midst? The white man’s brains that today explore space should have told the slavemaster that any slave, if he is educated, will no longer fear his master. History shows that an educated slave always begins to ask, and next demand, equality with his master. (X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1992)
The battle between dynamic confidence and neutral observance is perhaps the current zone of proximal development for me. This space is ideal for my role as an educator, academic, and burgeoning activist. What space does one who appreciates education occupy, when they have tried so earnestly to use the tool of education to enlighten and empower himself? The pull, for now, has eroded my surface, exposing pores filled to the bristle with newly molten passion seeping out and messing everywhere I move. I’m at a state where I feel I’m constantly exposing my knowledge and leaving its unwanted residue behind in my daily interactions. Nonetheless, these interactions serve as evidence of my growth as a man over these past few years. Even now, my observing eye, casts a frictious gaze upon my words – calling me back to the rubric tasked to assess the credentialed value of my scholarship. Yet with every word typed I feel lured further away, allowing for a freedom of space to let my piecemeal stories tell their tale as personally and satisfactorily as possible.
At this point in my life, passion is the pheromone that greets my peers before I even step around the door’s edge. I feel, on right now. My navigation and GPS are perfectly targeted at the moment. I don’t exactly know what that means, but I have progressed, I can feel it, and that’s a powerful bath that I want to bask in for the moment. It’s difficult to craft words clear enough to explain my concepts of teaching and learning. For me, it’s far easier to find words for these situations once I’ve removed myself from the context for a while. Only then, am I fully able to benefit from the experiences, activities, cognition, metacognition, emotions, interactions, etc… that contributed to my growth in that moment.
Knowledge, as a concept, is boundless. It’s almost crippling to be tasked to boil down what I’ve learned into words for this analysis. To be concise, knowledge can be represented through infinite numbers of schema that we lay on top of each day, like maps. These schemata allow us citizens to interact with, and maneuver through, the institutional landscapes of our societies to meet our daily needs and wants as we please. There are probably more schema than there are grains of sand on the globe, but some examples may include: privilege, high fashion, urban education, gender, gender-bias, poverty, opportunity, etc…
I wouldn’t define knowledge via claims, see common core standards, explainable through definition, always accessible through current assessment, or self-stimulating. The closest I will come to defining knowledge is the process in which an individual lives an experience where skills are gained, understanding of something is accomplished, and/or curiosity for more interaction with said experience is demonstrated in any combination of social phenomena. I also want to make the declaration that knowledge is contextual in that societies deem certain knowledge as meaningful and others as less so.
Asking one’s student to frame his own knowledge while still inside of that context is a bit oxymoronic to me. To contextualize in Big Bang fashion – I will provide a starting point to frame my knowledge development:
In February 2012, approximately 2.5 years ago, I officially received word that I had been accepted into the New York City Teaching Fellows program. I used the remaining four months to pack up my Boston life. It wasn’t long before I was stuffing my two large suitcases underneath the Bolt Bus and heading full steam ahead to New York City for the beginning of the Cohort 23 Fellows orientation. It was at that point that I decided that this would be my very own modern day hero’s journey. I’ve never made a clear version of this lens, and to do so now seems inauthentic. How would I handle this situation if I were an ancient African Prince charged with empowering and protecting my citizens? Through this lens, I’ve worked to soak up everything from my surroundings. Using words to describe the knowledge I’ve gained feels limiting and abrasive compared to how I’ve worked to view this process. However, in service to the program, I would say that the LIU coursework has taught me to consciously engage with my environment in the following ways:
Cultural/New York City – being purposeful and optimally navigating transactions with systems and institutions, proactively aligning energy to support my workloads, exposing myself to globally and geographically diverse cultures, flowing with the developmental power of competition.
Academic/Professional – Theory: African American education theory, Popular/Mainstream American education theory, academic-social-emotional disabilities, prejudice, privilege, various cultural institution(s) of American society. Skills: thinking of and creating thoughtful/scaffolded lessons, units, and individual education plans. Defining a research focus, scavenging for and analyzing resources, implementing changes to my practice through these resources, and analyzing the effectiveness of these changes through my target’s measured performance. Differentiation of materials, Professional and Academic self-reflection, productivity and time management.
Personal – Resilience, Confidence, Empathy, Love, Passion, Strength, Self-value, Self and Cultural Exploration, Personhood, Belonging, Leadership. Networking, Mentoring, and various other social and emotional development skills.
Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot during my two years of treacherous teaching, gregarious graduate school, and nouveau New York City. It’s scary to admit, but I’m not the same Paladin I was two years ago. I mean… I loved who I was, a beaming 26 year-old coming into the fellowship, freshly clipped wings flapping freely and growing strong in my protected Boston shell. Finding comfort in being a different version of myself is probably the force that has been making my personal relationships so texturally different as of late.
I’m a confident person now, and I say this from a humble place, but also having recognized the need to congratulate myself for the growth I have lived through and witnessed. Let me say now, my mission in life is to always be true to that humble, grateful, altruistic boy nurtured in the Chicago suburbs. But, I am not him anymore, and that’s ok. Not long ago my friend from undergrad received her Master’s in School Counseling. One of the first things she said when I called to congratulate her was, “Homie you can’t tell me nothin, cuz Bitch I got a Master’s!” I died laughing… and hopefully you will too.
However, it wasn’t until recently that I’ve realized I can laugh with the phrase as opposed to at it. To be clear, it’s not that having a graduate degree is a status symbol proving to the world that I’m good enough, though for many it can be, as it’s definitely already on my resume. It’s that through this rigorous process I’ve experienced and learned more than I could imagine about this world, this country, its people, their customs, and the ways I can measurably think and produce around through and to these entities. This schema, fortunately brings immeasurable value to the ways in which I can continue to add on to the positive and productive canon that supports our development here on on Earth.
I’ve learned so much through this program. With LIU’s support I’ve gained an understanding of, and first hand practice with, structure, bureaucracy, education, work ethic, creativity, historical pedagogy, Paladin, and of course my own teaching practice. One of the crucial pieces of knowledge I’ve gained, and have tried to infuse into all of my interactions since, has been that opportunity is ever present! I don’t know how I came to this revelation, as we’re not taught not to see opportunity. We’re taught to go against opportunity. We’re taught to be afraid of it and to wait for someone else to give it to us. Those that take opportunities are seen as maniacal and cunning individuals. This understanding of the Opportunity Paradox has helped me push myself to accept all incarnations of opportunity into my life, and to create it where at first there is none. To me, that is the truest realization of knowledge that I’ve come to hold in respects to this graduate program.
Recently one largest insurance companies selected for special training in this line fifteen college graduates of our accredited institutions and financed their special training in insurance. Only one of the number, however, rendered efficient service in this field. They all abandoned the effort after a few days’ trial and accepted work in hotels and with the Pullman Company, or they went into teaching or something else with a fixed stipend until they could enter upon the practice of professions. They thought of the immediate reward, shortsightedness, and the lack of vision and courage to struggle and win the fight made them failures to begin with. They are unwilling to throw aside their coats and collars and do the groundwork of Negro business and thus make opportunities for themselves instead of begging others for a chance. The educated Negro from the point of view of commerce and industry, then, shows no mental power to understand the situation which he finds. He has apparently read his race out of that sphere, and with the exception of what the illiterate Negroes can do blindly the field is left wide open for foreign exhibition. (Woodson, 2012, pp. 47 – 48)
I appreciate that I’ve gotten to a place where I can freely posture, virility exposed and all, thanks to my ability to view all situations through this opportunity context. Being able to create this confident and asset-based frame at-will feels almost dangerous to yield. I wish we all could imagine what this world would be like if more of us were able to view the world from this constructive frame. The more tactile strands of my knowledge have shown me that I can maneuver myself in and out of situations, and when we show up… it pays to be engaged. With this powerful weapon at my side, I am confident in my ability to use my values, skills, and gifts to make something happen for me in this field, and to bear the positive change I so desperately sought during my ignorant beginnings of this journey as an urban educator.
“The Black artist must do, what all the other artists do, talk to each other. I love Latin-American literature, and Russian literature. It would never occur to me that Dostoyevsky was supposed to explain himself to me. He’s talking to other Russians, about very specific things. But it says something very important to me. And was an enormous education for me.
When Black writers write, they should write for me. There is very little literature that’s really like that. Black literature. I don’t mean that it wasn’t necessary to have the other kind. Richard Wright is not talking to me. Or even you. He’s talking to some White people. He’s explaining something to them. Leroi Jones in The Dutchman is not talking to me. He’s talking to some White people. He’s explaining something to them.
It may have been very necessary. It certainly was well done. But it wasn’t about me. And it wasn’t to me. And I know when they’re talking just past my ear. When their explaining something. Justifying something. Just defining something.
But when that’s not longer necessary, and you write, for all those people in the book, who don’t even pick up the book. Those are the people who make it authentic. Those are the people who justify it. Those are the people you have to please. All those non-readers… They are the ones to whom one speaks…Not to the NY Times, not to the editors, not to any distant media, not to anything. It is a very private thing. They are the ones who say yea, uh-huh, that’s right. And when that happens very strangely, or rather very naturally, what also happens, is that you speak to everybody. And even though it begins as inward and private, and gets its own juices from itself, the end result, is that its communication with the world at large.” (Morrison, 1975, 1:14:00)
Sometimes you have to step back and let the body of work introduce itself, and I think this is one of those times. I want to thank my sister Samantha, and friend Judah for proofing my domain drafts. Thanks to them you all will notice far fewer grammar errors in those sections. In crafting this portfolio, I drafted the Domains first, then moved on to the Claims. As a result, you’ll see that the Domains contain a bit more fire, while the claims hold a bit more love. Hopefully that informs the way you want to read through this body of work.
A few months ago I was in one of my late night Youtube trances, and I stumbled upon Oprah Winfrey speaking at Maya Angelou’s Memorial Service. In it, she shared the final piece of wisdom that Maya had given her just a few days before she passed. While the two talked on the phone, Oprah shared with Ms. Angelou that she was about leave to start filming her new role in the movie Selma. She says that Maya told her to do what she always says when she’s about to begin a new job.
“Baby, I want you to do it, and I want you to take it! Take it all the way!” Raising her fingers to the sky, and basking in the crowd’s gasps, Oprah calmly grabs her glasses and her notepad and begins the journey back to her seat.
I can’t encode what was expressed in that moment. But I will say that this project embodies that message. I took this all the way! If I could, I would encourage my peers, and my students to do the same. Take it all the way!
In closing, I would just suggest that you to let my words spark a conversation between you and someone you trust. Share them on a piece of this portfolio and let my language spark a different conversation between you. It could be the beginning of something amazing.