Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Graduate School

I walked out of the University of Illinois frustrated. The things that interested me in the program had been cut, moved around, or misrepresented on the university website. I had already invested several months moving toward the graduate applications at that point: preparing for the GRE, researching schools, deciding which of those schools to actually visit, setting up appointments with professors and graduate coordinators, and scheduling it so that I could see everything within the short window that I had in the United States. I had narrowed my search down to four schools, and my first meeting had already eliminated one of the four.

University of Illinois at Chicago (X)

My meetings at the University of Texas, the University of Pittsburgh, and Arizona State University went significantly better. I left the schools excited about the programs and ready to apply. I started getting my application materials together soon after returning to Korea. This took months: I researched and wrote a new 20-page writing sample from scratch. I wrote and rewrote statements of purpose fine-tuned to each school. I found recommenders, paid application fees, gathered transcripts, updated vitae, and provided each idiosyncratic paper for each school. I then checked, double checked, and triple checked that I had everything in order. I made lists and checked off the items. I reviewed the applications websites and rechecked the items. I sent everything to Mom in America, where she added things that had been sent to her, and then we went over my lists one more time and rechecked everything one last time. Then she sent everything off for me to meet the deadlines: first Texas, then Pittsburgh, and finally Arizona.

And then I waited.

The deadlines ranged from early-December to mid-January, but there was no chance that I would hear from schools until at least mid-February. After sending everything off, I had a huge sense of relief. It was done. My applications were out there. There was nothing more I could do. It wasn't long, however, until the panic set in.

It was early-February when I first really started to get anxious. I started looking around for any hint of when I might know the results. I surfed graduate message boards and tried to find out when last year's results had come out. According to my research, Pittsburgh would notify first. Last year, the first person to hear anything got his or her response on February 9. But as I anxiously waited, the 9th came and went. I didn't receive a response, but neither did anyone else.

The first person to post a response online came from the University of Texas on February 11. It was a rejection. I took this to be a good sign. If rejections were going out, and I didn't get one, then maybe I was accepted, right? But I still had two more weeks to go until I finally received my email from the University of Texas. In the meantime, I had waited patiently as acceptances came in at both University of Texas and the University of Pittsburgh. I was nervous and worried. I wavered between optimism and panic. Some days I didn't think about my applications at all, but most days, I checked my email during every break between classes and sighed deep and hard every time I saw that the message wasn't there. The message finally came on February 25th.

University of Texas at Austin (X)

The University of Texas was my first rejection and with it came a wave of dread. I knew that getting in was a long shot, but to actually see the rejection in front of me was deflating. It was then that the questions started to flood through my mind: What would I do if I didn't get in to any of the schools? What if I had made some huge glaring mistake in my applications that I was too naive to see? What if I just wasn't cut out for grad school?

Both acceptances and rejections had come in at the University of Pittsburgh, but I hadn't heard a thing. I emailed the coordinator to ask what was happening, and he told me that there were still many names to announce and that I shouldn't worry. But of course, I did. On the graduate message boards I had found, people began discussing their acceptances and how they were getting funded, and where they planned to live. I encouraged them and said I hoped that I would be joining them soon. By late February, I wasn't sure what to think. A single acceptance had been sent out to Arizona State, and I was starting to think that maybe I really was going to get rejected from all three schools.

I started considering what I would do if I didn't get in. I looked at job possibilities and ordered a few books about technical writing. That might be something I could do, I thought. I could do it, and if I hated it, I could apply for a PhD again next year. I read through the books I ordered with interest at first, then with detached boredom, then with resentment. It seemed like a job I'd do to fill the time, not a job I'd do because I wanted to.

I tried my best to push my obsession about the letters out of my mind, but I still compulsively checked my email and the message boards several times a day. I checked and was disappointed over and over again. On March 4th, the University of Pittsburgh suddenly had a flood of rejections as applicants received letters by regular postal service not email. I text messaged Mom to see if I was on the mounting list of rejections. She texted me back with an answer between classes at school.

University of Pittsburgh (X)

I almost couldn't even teach my next class. The only feeling that I can liken it to is a break-up. These were schools that I had imagined going to and planned a future around. And again--for the second time in two weeks--that future was suddenly dashed. It left me with a feeling of deep hollowness. I felt like a tree that had been stripped of all of its wood. I was only the remaining bark.

After a few days of recovery, I started to seriously think about my other options. Hye Sook and I talked about it and decided that acceptance or rejection, we'd move to Phoenix. She could still go to cooking school. I could get a job. She applied and got in within days. I looked at jobs and felt that maybe something was waiting for me. I forced myself to stop checking my emails, and I tried my best to just let go. I had moments where the possibility of rejection would still suddenly hit me, but I was dealing with it better than I had been. Hye Sook was going to cooking school for sure--we were moving forward. We could at least start to plan our move even if we didn't know for sure what we'd do when we got there. At least that was a little comfort.

In the following weeks, an acceptance or two came in for ASU, and with each one, I felt a little panic. Several came in all at once, and I thought for sure that it was the Pittsburgh situation all over again. I thought for sure my rejection would come in the mail. I got to the point where I didn't really care if I got in or not: I just wanted to know. I just wanted to know so that I could start to plan one way or the other.

On Monday, March 22, I sent an email to the coordinator at ASU, and the next day she got back to me with a short reply: "Hopefully I will know something tomorrow or Wednesday." I tried to let go and not let it bother me. I had already lost too much sleep, and I didn't want to lose any more over something that seemed rather tenuous. It was on Wednesday, March 23rd that I finally got my last response.

Arizona State University ( )

Hye Sook must have been as nervous as I was because on that morning, she sat up in bed and watched as I checked my email. Before I even opened the reply, the subject gave me my answer: "Welcome to ASU English." The relief was overwhelming. I was almost late to work because I spent the next twenty minutes sending replies to the university and emails out letting everyone know. The feeling I had at that moment reassured me that applying to the schools was the right decision: this was what I wanted to do.

It was only yesterday that I got confirmation that I received a teaching assistantship (teaching classes in exchange for free tuition and a stipend). Everything had fallen into place. I finally stopped obsessively checking my email. Just this afternoon, I put away the half-read technical writing books.