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Graduate Culture

Graduate Culture
Thinking about graduate school? Read this first.

By DaShanne Stokes

Most Americans are the descendants of immigrants who risked everything to come to this country to chase the dream of a better life. 

Get an education, our parents told us. So we went to school, and then we went to college in hopes that we would fare better than our parents and our parents’ parents. A college degree led to better pay and more opportunities.

As we realized the dreams of our forbears, more people wanted a piece of the action. What was a steady ingress of students into universities became a tidal wave. The 13.8 million college students who enrolled in 1990 grew to 15.3 million by 2000, and the U.S. Department of Education expects these figures to rise to 17.7 million in 2012 — a 28 percent jump over 1990. Today the undergraduate degree has essentially replaced the high-school diploma as the basic level of educational attainment. To compensate, more students will need a graduate-level education to achieve their professional goals.

Many will find they are ill-prepared for graduate school. With a few exceptions, being a graduate student is nothing like being an undergrad. Graduate school is a different world, with languages, customs and traditions all its own. Contrary to what we learn as undergraduates, success in graduate school isn’t all about grades or test scores. Professors and veteran students aren’t interested in sharing many of their secrets. Newcomers must take the initiative to stake out the new playing field.

And long before applicants even consider applying to graduate programs, the odds are stacked against them. Contrary to the assertions of recruitment brochures, not everyone wants to celebrate diversity.

There are many ways in which university programs serve to ensure racial and cultural homogeneity; one does not need to expressly ban minority students from the classroom in order to achieve the desired effect. Freedom of language and expression, for example, are integral parts of most cultures. They foster ways of thinking and relating with others, strengthening cultural and spiritual solidarity in the process.

People with these values may feel alienated, inadequate or besieged in many graduate programs, where brevity, structure and precision are the basis for grades. Students from different cultural backgrounds and learning styles can also be swept away by a professor’s teaching style, lack of availability, or refusal to answer questions — a common practice in many graduate programs. Many students find themselves spending as much time trying to decode their professors as they do trying to absorb what he or she is teaching them. Even when culturally based differences in expectations and habits are recognized, professors are often ill-equipped to help students find a harmonious solution to the situation.

These are just some of the reasons why minority students may avoid college, and why many do not advance to graduate study. According to the Department of Education, in 2001 80.9 percent of full-time professors were White. In the preceding calendar year, ethnic minorities accounted for less than 17 percent of doctoral degree recipients. Regardless of attempts to overhaul tests and admissions standards, one thing seems clear: Race still matters in graduate school. If, in effect, the education system has become a knife with which to cut away cultural diversity, graduate schools may represent the cutting edge.

— Stokes is a graduate student at Boston University.

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