This article is part of Mochi’s Winter 2021 issue, celebrating Cultural Capital. In this issue, we highlight ways that we, as Asian Americans, have embraced our identities and culture, and ways that our culture has been appropriated by others. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
Going back to school is an investment, no doubt. When making the decision, there’s a lot at stake — like time and money. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future and whether you’ll get your return. But despite all that, grad school is still an increasingly popular choice among students. In fact, from 2000 to 2019, the number of graduate students in the United States alone grew by 38% to a size that’s now triple what it was in the 1970s — and it’s only gone up since, even during a pandemic.
Part of that may be because of increased marketing and the addition of new programs from the schools’ end (after all, graduate degrees generate a lot of money). But from students’ perspectives, grad school presents the opportunity to compete in the ever-evolving job market, where employers are seeking certain desired qualifications, and a higher degree can significantly bump up your salary potential. For some, it’s also a chance for a career change or even personal growth.
With at least one semester under their belts, Mochi staff members Adelina Sun and Kelsey Tanouye are in the midst of their grad school journeys, although it may look a little different from what it might have been a few years ago. Adelina is on track to graduate in 2022 from the University of Texas at Austin, as part of their Working Professionals MBA program in Dallas, Texas. Kelsey currently attends the University of Southern California, as part of their Master of Communication Management online degree program, with graduation also set for 2022. The two share their firsthand experiences of how it started and how it’s going.
Q: Why did you both decide to take the leap and apply for grad school? How did you decide on which program(s) to apply to?
AS: My parents both have master’s degrees, so they’ve always instilled getting an MBA (Master of Business Administration) and I got conditioned to think of this as a necessary step in my career. It took a while to convince me because I didn’t see the need, but I naturally started thinking about where I wanted to go next after working for a few years — how I wanted my career to evolve and what I would need to accomplish that.
For fun, I ended up attending an MBA event for my school. Hearing about the program and its culture from alumni helped me envision my place and solidified why I wanted to go to grad school. It was a way to help myself stand out in the job market, gain new skills, learn what my options were, and grow in places that I’d wanted to for a while — meeting different types of people, using my voice, and just building my confidence.
Talking to current students in different programs, attending more info sessions, and even visiting classes helped narrow down my plan. Since I only had one school in mind, I kept it simple and applied to their full-time and part-time programs to give myself different options.
KT: Earning a master’s degree has always been a personal goal so it wasn’t a matter of if but when I would complete my studies, especially after finishing my bachelor’s degree. When I finished undergrad though, I was really tired and didn’t want to go back into school right away so I worked on gaining professional experience. Also, I wasn’t set on a particular program for the longest time so I didn’t want to just go into [any] program only for the sake of doing it.
As a young communications professional, I eventually started to also see earning a master’s degree as a career goal so that I could further advance myself. During the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to find myself in a place where I was finally ready to seriously consider starting a program. As I was doing my research, I compared the flexibility of an in-person versus an online program, the focus of the programs, selection of courses and concentrations offered (if any), and even the prestige of the schools as well. Having gone to a smaller liberal arts college for my bachelor’s, I was more set on earning a degree from a more well-known institution. Brand name recognition shouldn’t matter, but let’s be real — it does. Ironically, I had also considered USC for undergrad but didn’t think I’d get in so I didn’t apply. This time around, I didn’t take any chances and actually only applied to USC before getting admitted.
Q: Since we’re talking about investing in yourself, grad school can be an expensive endeavor. What factors did you have to consider when applying and/or accepting?
AS: Honestly, as much stigma as there is around it, I don’t think I could have made this decision without living with my parents. It’s helped me save money, which is such a privileged position to be in.
Because the programs I was looking at were similar in terms of timeline, curriculum, and offerings, the ability to continue working was a huge consideration. Around the time I was applying, I had just started a new job that aligned with my career goals. So with the part-time program, I could keep my role — and stay with my parents, which would put me in a better financial position after graduation.
Of course, there was (and still is) [the COVID-19 pandemic]. I actually remember the day we started working remotely was the day that I had to accept or decline my program offer. There was a lot of uncertainty starting school virtually and the worry of getting the same experience. We did have the choice to defer acceptance for another year, but I think I also needed something to fill the void that the pandemic brought, so I continued as planned and started school a few months later in August 2020.
KT: Being from Hawai‘i, there isn’t as much stigma around moving back in or living with your parents/family because the cost of living is so high. Multigenerational homes are actually common. Still, I am also fortunate enough to currently be living with my parents because it’s allowed me to save money over the years plus finish paying off my undergraduate loans already. Accomplishing the latter was actually encouraged by my parents when I first moved back home after college. If I hadn’t already paid those then I don’t know if I would have jumped back into school yet.
Having saved up a considerable amount of money by the time I was applying and got accepted in August 2021, I actually chose to step away from my job at the time so that I could focus on the transition to full-time studies, at least for the first term. My program’s start date was in September (only a few weeks away) and I wanted to be able to fully commit to it while adjusting to the online and asynchronous format, which is something I wasn’t previously familiar with. I actually needed a break from full-time work too. I knew that I would not have been able to handle both a full-time job and full-time studies at the same time and needed to put myself first. If I didn’t live with my family then I wouldn’t have been able to do this without worrying about rent or other expenses. The COVID-19 student loan pause won’t last forever though so I’m going back into full-time employment this term.
Q: What’s one thing you’ve learned so far about yourself in grad school? Is there anything that’s surprised you about grad school?
AS: Imposter syndrome is very real, especially in an unfamiliar environment. Going into this program, I had doubts about returning to school and myself. But in the past year and a half, I’ve learned that I’m capable of doing things that I thought I couldn’t — and realizing that I know more than I give myself credit for.
It’s easy to compare myself to others who may have more knowledge about something, or even be in different stages of their life. But what they’re doing with their lives shouldn’t affect the way I feel about myself, as cliche as that might sound. It helps that I’m in this environment where I know I’m learning — and I’m lucky to have supportive peers, too.
KT: It’s difficult being a young professional right now with the current state of the world, the U.S. economy, and social media always showing others’ highlight reels. But being back in school has helped me own my skills, my experiences gained thus far, and who I am more. More simply, it’s shown that this was indeed the right move for myself, and I made it when I needed it most.
For a few years, I regretted not entering grad school right after undergrad because I kept thinking I would be so much farther in my career if I had done things differently. However, I can’t guarantee what could’ve happened. At least now, with 7+ years under my belt, I have varied work and life experiences that I’m able to use to my advantage in my studies. Nowadays, I really trust that there’s a process to everything in life — everything happens for a reason, and what’s meant to happen will happen. Overall, I can do anything when I apply myself, and it’s still no wonder what some good time management can do.
Q: What’s it like being an Asian American in grad school, in general, or coming from your personal experience in your program? How are you finding your place?
AS: I feel like I’m in an incredibly privileged position to be able to go into and afford business school. Even though there are people trying to change the trend, I’m also very aware that business is traditionally dominated by white men. As a student, I feel like I’m doing myself a disservice if I don’t remain critical of what I’m being taught — in terms of validity and the values these concepts and frameworks uphold. And as an Asian American, I owe it to myself to stay true to myself and background. I think it goes back to my previous answer — understanding that my perspective is just as valuable and that I deserve to be in the room too. I’ve also been practicing how to advocate for myself — making sure I’m not afraid to take up space and that I’m being recognized and not overlooked as an Asian American woman.
KT: I’m trying to incorporate personal and cultural narratives however I can, when appropriate, in class discussions and assignments, allowing me to both further my exploration as an academic and apply this new learning lens to my own life. As I get older, I’m finding more value in the exploration of my identity as an Asian American, and a mixed Asian and white woman at that, from Hawai‘i. My lived experiences are different from others’ and I recognize the privileges I have, especially living in a place where diversity is more accepted and minorities are the majority.
Throughout everything though, I want to create a louder voice for myself and others, plus gain a greater understanding of the world — that’s what originally led me to wanting to work with Mochi and now pursue this new degree as well.
Q: Is there a difference between how you’re approaching grad school now versus previous periods of school?
AS: There’s definitely more intention in the way that I’m approaching grad school and I think that’s because I know that I’m the one paying for it. When I was in college and high school, most things I probably did for the sake of doing. I knew they would help me, but I don’t think I saw how they fit into the larger picture at times. Going to grad school was a choice that I was able to make (for the larger part) on my own as an adult and because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my end goal, I can better understand the value of this decision.
KT: Honestly, I’m more mindful and intentional this time around and trying to better maintain sight of my “why” for all of this. Currently, I’m trying to tailor my studies so that I have more focus and make sure I accomplish and enjoy what I want to. In doing so, I’m using this time in school to learn, gain new skills, network, and, hopefully, switch industries for my career. Originally, I went into my program thinking that I would pursue a concentration in strategic and organizational communication; however, after further consideration, I decided to complete the marketing communication track so that I could take courses pertaining to global marketing, storytelling in today’s culture, and more. Ultimately, I want to eventually work with global companies in media and entertainment so I believe I’ll find more value.
Q: What would you say to people who are thinking about going to grad school or getting a higher education degree, especially during a pandemic?
AS: Take time for yourself! That applies to when you’re making a decision about going back to school and when you’re actually back in school. At the end of the day, you’re making an investment (in money and time) in yourself, so you should understand why you’re doing it for yourself. There are a lot of options out there, so take the time to figure out what you want and if this is the right step for you — it might not be and that’s okay.
If you decide that it is, that’s great too. In the beginning, I approached grad school with the sentiment of wanting to get my money’s worth and do well in something that I’m dedicating my time and effort to. But school doesn’t have to be 24/7 either — you’re allowed to take a break and set boundaries. It’ll help you enjoy the journey more and keep your motivation going. Know what your priorities are (a B won’t hurt, I promise!), give yourself some grace, and know the value of good time management.
KT: Agreed. Pursuing grad school or any other higher education degree is definitely a decision that should be made when you’re truly ready, financially, mentally, etc. It’s a big commitment to dedicate yourself to and something that you don’t want to take lightly. Do it for the right reasons, whatever those may be to you. Along the way, doing your best to maintain a comfortable work-life-school balance will help you perform your best in each and also enjoy and appreciate the journey.
Cover photo credit: Pang Yuhao/Unsplash
Last modified: February 20, 2022