Maybe it’s because “English major” doesn’t exactly lead to clear path forward for an undergraduate, but somehow I knew that I wanted to pursue graduate school right after completing my undergrad degree at Doane College (now University, but forever DC in my brain and heart). My senior year I started making plans, applying to four different university’s graduate programs: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, and somewhere else (lol – I honestly can’t remember the fourth one now).
The spring I graduated, I received rejections from two and acceptance to two – UNL and ISU. Although ISU invited me to visit the campus, something about it didn’t sit right with me, so I ended up accepting UNL, even though I was not awarded a Teaching Assistant position which meant I would have to take out more student loans to complete this second degree. Their initial letter did say I was an alternate for a TA job, but I assumed they said that to everyone and I would be stuck with the loans and whatever odd jobs I could squeeze in around classes. Imagine my surprise the summer after graduation when I got another letter telling me I was in fact being offered TA employment and would essentially have all of my grad costs covered! To this day, I thank my lucky stars for that person who said “no” so I could say “yes” for my much more affordable two years of grad school that followed in Lincoln, NE.
For a Word Nerd like me, grad school was a wonderful place. As an ENGL grad student, life was even more right up my alley, with tons of books to be read and papers to be written. That said, it was far from all fun and games as the majority of it was not novels which meant for dense lectures to consume and essays to produce, not to mention the prep that went into becoming a teacher for UNL my second year of grad school. TAs were all assigned one section of Freshman Composition to teach both semesters of their second year, as a way to cover that general ed class which helped out the full-time faculty by freeing them up for other classes. As a 23-yr-old young woman, teaching those two classes to kids just a few tiny years younger than me felt a bit like getting myself tossed directly into the fire, but I guess that is in fact one way to learn. And hey – almost twenty years later and I am in fact still teaching that very same class, so I guess it didn’t turn out all that bad.
While I was at UNL, I didn’t just teach as part of my TA gig; I also worked in various English-related offices around campus. It was a bit like being Inspector Gadget because you had to have about that many tricks, bells, and whistles up your selves to accomplish all the various grad student tasks. I worked directly under an ENGL professor, proofreading his newest book on Shakespeare; I spent a handful of hours each week reading/rejecting poetry and short stories submitted to the UNL lit mag, The Prairie Schooner; I also lucked my way into hours spent working for the University of Nebraska Press; I digitized content for various projects at the Digital Archives; and I worked on the Cather Journalism Project, coding dozens upon dozens of periodical publications from Cather’s undergrad days at UNL. Those weren’t all simultaneous tasks but there we definitely days when I wished I had go-go gadget arms (and legs) to get me all over campus and through my lengthy To Do list, for sure.
While my TA work was varied and remarkable, as an extra bonus, I was surrounded by some really fabulous humans and scholars during that time, too. My supervisors, my thesis committee, my office mate, my classmates – all provided support both professional and personal during my two year program. When I ultimately made the call NOT to do a Ph. D., a handful of them still traveled to South Dakota to celebrate our wedding the following summer. I also chose that spring not to attend the three-hour graduate programs graduation so it was special to have some of my UNL favorites with me on my other Big Day that year.
I may not totally have understood what I was getting myself into by applying and attending grad school at such a young age, but it’s afforded me the work and career I’ve had since and I’m grateful for all the pieces that went into that component of my educational journey.