A new paradigm – How to sustain focus ?

There were a couple of people having a boisterous conversation in the lobby just outside where I was working. My laptop fan was whizzing like a jet engine due to the intensive task it was carrying out. All those sounds reached my ears but my mind was concentrated on the task as if it was in Microsoft’s Anechoic Chamber. Although my mobile phone is in silent mode, there were many incoming messages, notifications, and emails to my mobile phone. Aroma of the flavor from the food which was being reheated in the Informatics kitchen was very much distracting. Though I had not eaten any food in the last 6 hours, I was indifferent and was focussed on the task at hand.

I did not bother about whether I am going to finish the task that day or not. I could not care less if I would get any reward or appreciation for it. I did not think, nor plan any contingencies in the case of a failure of the task at hand. I did not know that it would benefit or harm anyone at any point in the future. I had not blabbered about the task, neither complained about it to any of my friends. It may not be super interesting task to most people in the world who were doing such tasks daily neither for those who were starters.

I was simply making my computer crunch a bunch of numbers and perform some large computations. It is neither a humungous task nor a minuscule one. I simply did not care about its size. I was super interested in performing it, though. I felt like I was swimming in the middle of an ocean by myself. I did not know whether I would be rescued, reach the shore, be eaten, or just die of exhaustion. I was not hungry, neither thirsty. I was swimming for the sake of swimming because I enjoy swimming.

Now, this may sound a little extraordinary. One may argue that one cannot be this focussed every day. Trust me this is what I had been learning in my grad school and I have been very fortunate to have discovered the secret to such unadulterated concentration. From the moment I had known the secret, I have been creating wonders. Whatever the task had been, I have been learning to focus and enjoy doing it.

“One has to learn that the result is not important”

Krishna in Bhagavadgita (A mythical God)

The secret is that one should not have the desire for the result. The motivation you may get from the result is temporary or misleading. But if your love for what you do is genuine and unadulterated, not even a tornado can distract you. Of course, each and every task we do would not be so lovely. But, one can develop a genuine relationship with anything in this world. All it takes is practice and giving.

“The mind is restless and difficult to restrain, but is subdued by practice”

Krishna in Bhagavadgita

I was not a great coder, nor was in love with it on the day I started coding. It was intimidating and It took me a lifetime to be a decent coder. I have been understanding myself and coding every single day. Although many situations stressed me, I had been learning to never feel any pressure of becoming the best, nor show any genuine interest in any results from it while enjoying it. When you associate yourself with either an art, a sport, or a person, or anything in the world, without any desire, such relationship would be so pure and would prosper for a lifetime! Not convinced yet? I am attaching a magical video about how a small kid with a growth hormone deficiency from Argentina changed the world of soccer for good. Hi is my living legend, my idol, and one of the greatest Soccer players of all time: Messi. Watch him, till the end to experience a paradigm shift. Now go create wonders every single day!

Please let your thoughts flow in the comments below!

#hollaatascholar: Building Your Support Network on the Road to Getting PhinisheD

Monday morning around 8am, I get a text message from one of my sista-friends asking me along with four or five other female doctoral students, “Where and what time are we working today?” Tuesday morning, same question…maybe a different person. Wednesday, Thursday, and even Friday or Saturday morning, same question. It’s like clockwork.

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Life in Bloomington: Spring Semester-Winter Edition

January officially marks the second winter season and month that I have endured living in Bloomington, Indiana as a graduate student. As a native from Miami, Florida, this seasonal change, at times, makes it difficult for me to get out bed as early as I would like to some mornings to complete some much needed work. Despite the fact that the seasons come and go in Bloomington, one thing that I try to do to manage my physical and mental response to the “cold” is plan ahead.

For me, planning ahead during the winter months usually involves checking the weather app on my IPhone well in advance to accommodate my wardrobe and transportation for school commutes to teach or attend classes. Planning for the “cold” also means spending a little extra time meal prepping and getting those extra “fifteen” minutes of sleep in that become much needed to be able to get through the day without the luxury of more than one coffee break.

Although intentional planning is vital to ensuring great performance as an undergraduate or graduate student at IU, it can be tough to achieve or maintain if you allow the season to get the best of you. Sure, we all get sick, and even have our unproductive days. But, one thing is for certain, students of any classification should not check-out of their responsibilities just because the weather makes them “feel like” doing so. At times, the hardest thing to do is wake up about an hour and a half before class to prepare breakfast, get dressed, check some emails, and then scrape snow off of your car while letting it warm up for fifteen minutes.

You may even consider, in freezing rain and snow warning instances, waking up and getting your car warmed up first, or checking the bus schedule to make sure there are no unexpected delays when its time for you to leave your home. Ultimately, the early winter months in Bloomington can be brutal, especially if you are not used to preparing for the weather the same way you would kind of  prepare for class. As the “cold” wind blows, incoming and current Bloomington students know that it is better to be overdressed with layers and gloves, and up earlier to get ready, as opposed to under the weather and academically “snowed-in.”

I’m glad to say that I’ve adjusted to the seasons with some help from some native Midwesterners, and I keep my spirits high by maintaining a proactive lifestyle and warm personality.

Conferences and Networking

When applying for programs, you may find you’re self in this peculiar situation: you attend a conference related to your field, and you find out that folks from your favorite program, or more specifically, the researcher you want to most work with is at the same conference. What do you do? Do you go over and speak with them? Do you stay clear for fear of saying something wrong or ruining your chance as of ruining getting in to the program?

While it is ok to approach a situation such as this with some nervousness (after all, this is someone or a program who you are hoping to work with in the future), it is perfectly fine to look to speak with them. In fact, this is the perfect opportunity to do some very important things:

First, you can take this time to introduce yourself to them, and let them know that you are interested in their program. Ask them their names, ask them what they do or what they teach. Let them know why you are interested in their specific program. While these questions may seem simple, they are good, foundational queastions to ask of them to show that you have researched the program, and have taken the time to get to know these folks.

Second, you can also take this time to ask them more in-depth questions about their experiences at the institution, or at the specific department. Dont ask too many questions, as they’re also there to enjoy their time at the conference, and not be interviewed about what they do back home. But, you can ask simple questions for them to answer. What do you think is a strength of your program or institution? Why should someone come to study at said institution?

Finally, and most simply, just try to connect with them. Youre both at a conference, youre both there to learn, and youre both there to enjoy the company of fellow professionals. This is an opportunity to meet with folks and form your network for the future. Enjoy the moment and connected with them as fellow people and professionals.

Its Been a Week

It’s Been a Week: What can we do?
As I am sure by now you are aware, there happened to be a presidential election last week. The results of said election have brought about many questions and fear for millions of Americans: will I be safe today? Will my family be ok? Will I be able to be who I am, or do I need to hide part of myself?

Now, I want to start out with this: I am a person of incredible privilege. I am a White, heterosexual, cis-male from a middle class family who has gradauted college and will be finishing a masters degree come May 6th. When looking at privilege, theres not much more that I could have. These privileges ensure that I will never face the fears that many of these people (my friends, co-workers, classmates, students, or significant other) will face daily over the next four years. But, it does mean that mylself, and people like myself, have things to do.

When looking at exit polls, the majority of folks who voted to elect Donal Trump were white men, and white women. As a group we do not face the same realities that folks of minority identities do. And, in our current society, we reap the benefits of the systems and actions that oppress these minoritized groups.With this I do not intend to get into the argument that if you voted for Trump you are or are not racist. Rather, I intended it to mean this: Donal Trump’s candidacy was rife with racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, and basically every other ism out there. In voting for Trump, it does not inherently mean that you are racist. It does mean that you were, one the whole, ok with and complicit in supporting the hateful rhetoric and behaviors that Donald Trump represents. While it may be difficult for many of us with privilege to be able to recognize our privilege, and even harder for some to accept culpability for supporting the negativity and hate that we are seeing throughout the country, it is something that we all must do. If these last few days foreshadow what the next four years in the United States will be like, then we as a whole have a responsabilitiy to aid those who are without a voice, who are scared on a daily basis, and who are even now working to ensure a better country for all.

So, as a person of privilege, how can we help?

The first and easiest step is to be aware of what is happening. Read the news (not just one news site or source, multiple), learn about the current political climate, and educate yourself on the experiences of those without your privileged identities (dont just ask someone who you know how they’re doing or what their life is like, look up articles, research, books, etc. to build your knowledge base).

Second, learn about your local government and how to get involved. Call your state representatives in federal government and let them know what you believe, and hold them responsible for their conduct in their position. Join local groups that will get you engaged with politics and that can teach you about how to make a difference. If you are a person of privilege, then use your privilege: you are safer in making these claims, youa re respected in making these claims due to your privilege, and use it effectively and often.

And, while this not the only thing, be there for others. There is going to be a lot of things that come up over the next 4 years, and there will be a lot of people who need your help. Be there for them however you can. Support them whenever necessary. Be in protests. Listen. Anything.

What comes next no one can say for sure. But, “United we Stand, Divided we Fall.”
If youa re looking for resources to learn more about current movements, to support others, or become informed:

“Just Keep Swimming, Just Keep Swimming”-Dory

There are many things that we can learn from our childhood and adolescent experiences. As we get older, we often discover that our propensity towards wanting to be “right,” and doing the “right” things is not as important as actually committing to something where we choose to apply ourselves with the fullest extent of our efforts for a desired outcome. How are we to learn if we do not take calculated risks? How are we to discover what life has to offer if we do not explore our wildest imaginations, and “just keep swimming” even if we occasionally fail at achieving a goal?

Dory is one of my favorite cartoon characters from the Disney Pixar children’s film Finding Nemo because of her repetitive affirmation to self to, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming” despite her struggle with short-term memory loss. No matter what happens in the film, Dory continues to swim in order to support Nemo’s dad’s quest to find his lost son, and also helps in her personal journey of finding her parents whom she lost as a child in the sequel Finding Dory. Although I watched these two children’s films as a young adult in my 20’s, I refuse to be shy about the reiterated lessons that they have taught me that are resonate from my own childhood, which have shaped me as a person, college student, and future University professor today.

As a person, I’ve learned that you cannot let any one thing get you down for too long, or at all for that matter. You have to be intentional about finding ways to cope and manage life as it comes at you, and need to be deliberate about living in the now. I’ve also learned to be flexible with myself whenever I set academic or personal goals. There are certain instances when my research needs to be flexible due to demands of its audience, whether it be for a conference or fellowship opportunity. I’ve often revisited saved digital assignments, and printed articles from past courses to trace the topics of what might become a publication or abstract in the making. Furthermore, it is important to learn that you are allowed to change your mind about things, which is a notion that I’ll explore with some personal and colorful commentary in my next post.

Ultimately, the journey towards graduate school follows the trajectory of your own life circumstances, preparation, and goal-setting. If you want to achieve something bad enough, you will make the decision to pursue it, and then invest yourself in thriving in it until your tasks are complete. Someone once told me, “graduate school is a marathon, and not necessarily a race.” I agree with my good friend who empathized this point with me in a moment where I was venting about being overwhelmed with deadlines and demands in my Ph.D. coursework, but then I also thought about Dory. A little voice popped in head just as my friend finished delivering his comforting statement, and it was cheering, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”


Grad school and Advisor/Mentor relationships

Grad school is not a journey that you take alone, but rather one that you traverse with the help of others (e.g. Advisor or mentors). Since being accepted to grad school, I have had the realization that while I am in the process, I am not alone. I am surrounded by supportive professors who want to see me succeed. I would venture to say that most graduate student both in Ph.D. or Master’s programs have opportunities to connect with those who can help one to advance both academically and professionally.

One of these important relationships is that of your advisor/mentor. I put the “/” in between those titles because the two can be separate individuals or the same person. The role of an advisor/mentor can differ greatly based on the goal of the relationship. For example, an advisor may provide guidance when it comes to courses, professional development, etc… but may not be open to discussing non-academic related issues that may impact you as a graduate student.

A mentor, however, may fill the void that the advisor does not address by providing support in non-academic areas. How you as a graduate student identify potential advisor/mentors can make a huge difference in your success. In short, advisor/mentor relationships are a crucial component of grad life and you should be encouraged that in the game of grad school you do not have to be alone.

Navigating Grad School: When to Ask for Help

Navigating Grad School: When to ask for Help

            When we graduated from college, we learned how to hold ourselves accountable, become a responsible, young adult, and be independent. While it’s important to be able to do things on your own, it’s also important to know when you’re struggling with something and need to reach out to someone who can give you proper guidance. However, as a student in grad school, it’s important to understand that sometimes the help you receive may not seem incredibly helpful at first.

Throughout one’s undergraduate career, there are times when you’ve reached a point in your course work, whether it’s related to your major or an elective, that there is a problem or concept you are having trouble understanding and can’t solve on your own. This is when you should go to a fellow classmate, the professor, or a tutor to get help in gaining a better understanding of the concept. Fully grasping concepts in grad school is important, because the material you learn in your courses will be not only be needed to conduct research projects or write papers, but also will be critical to the career path you choose following graduation. That is why it’s imperative you have thorough knowledge of the material covered in your courses. So when you do seek help with a class, it’s important that you’ve not only paid attention in class, but you’ve also reviewed the material on your own time. You can’t expect the professor to just give you the answer. The profession can give you hints or a general idea of the necessary steps to solve the problem. Unlike reaching out to a professor, your classmates can be more helpful when getting insight about a particular concept you are struggling with.

Getting help with a class from a classmate can be more beneficial than getting help from the professor for various reasons. If the classmate has already taken the course or has studied the subject in question, he or she can give you better insight on how to understand the course material. In my first year at IU, I got help from a second year PhD student in order to get a better understanding of the material in my partial differential equations class. Thanks to him, I not only got an A as my final grade, but I also gained a better understanding of the material. If you ask for help from a classmate who is in the same class as you, it too can be beneficial as long as you put the same amount of work in the learning process. Teamwork and collaboration is necessity not only in academics, but life as well. Although teamwork is positive, each individual must be able to contribute. I say that because while classmates will want to help you, whether it is studying or doing homework, when it comes to completing the work you shouldn’t expect to mindlessly copy their answers and consider that to be “getting help.” One reason that’s bad is because it can make the other student feel like he or she is doing the homework for two people. Another reason that is unacceptable is because you cheat yourself by copying the problem without understanding the mechanics behind it. As I stated before, this is material you’ll need to complete your PhD program and even in your career after graduation. So the help you get from the classmates may not seem like the help you want, but it’s the kind of help you need.

At some point in a person’s graduate student career, getting help from someone else will be required. It’s not just about getting the answer but understanding the material and knowledge needed to get the answer. Lastly, in order to succeed in grad school, you have to help yourself and to do that, you have to have the drive and desire to learn the material in your classes.

Did I say something wrong? Are there things not to ask current students?

You’ve finally decided on a program, but what to know more about the student experience at the institution, and in the program. You’ve found some current students who are happy to answer your questions, and are waiting on your email. But, you start to wonder: what is appropriate to ask a current student? Is there anything I shouldn’t be asking?

Some questions do fall into the “taboo” category for many folks. Those questions usually fall into the benefits category of a students experience: how much are you getting in scholarships; how much are you getting paid if you have a job though the university; do you receive health insurance through the institute, etc. It is important to remember with questions like this that they are sensitive in nature, and can be information that many folks are not prepared, or willing to answer.

More then anything, though, I do want to address something which I was told when interviewing for gradaute programs: you can ask any question if you do it right, the worst they can say is no. The above questions are ones that many folks may feel are inappropriate or awakard to ask. But, for many, they are questions that you need to know: how much will you get paid if you’re paying for school yourself; your family doesn’t have insurance currently, will you be provided it. If you need to or want to know these things you should feel comfortable in asking them. But, what is critical is knowing HOW to ask these question.

Step 1: Don’t jump in

If this is the first time you’ve met someone, don’t jump right into a tough question. Get to know them, and discuss with them other components of their expereince before asking. Not only will this allow you to gauge whether or not it is applicable to ask the questions you want answer to, but it will also allow you to gain information related to the program and student’s experience you may not have expected. Getting to know the current students no matter what you may have to ask is critical for your future and success.

Step 2: Ask a lot of questions

No matter if you have difficult questions to ask, or simple ones, ask as many questions of students as you can. You may have a difficult question to ask, and that information comes out in response to another question, thereby eliminating the need to ask. No matter what, questions are helpful.

Step 3: The worst they can say is no

In the end, if you ask someone about their experience, and they decide that they dont want to answer the question, then that’s how its going to go. The worst someone can do is say they dont want to answer the question, or they dont feel comfortable to answer the question.

While, yes, there are some questions that fall into the “taboo” category (questions I will address in the following post), I personally believe that you should feel comfortable to ask any question of the current student. This is, at least, if you do so respectfully, mindfully, and understand that that person has the right to refuse to answer anything they do not feel comfortable answering. Asking very loaded or personal questions may be something that some people are comfortable answering, and others may not. Knowing how to ask someone these questions is, then, essential if one hopes to gain the information you seek. I would like to personally state that I am happy to answer any questions folks may have about my personal experiences or program if anyone has them: my name is Jimmy, and my email is hicks8@indiana.edu.

Civic Engagement; Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

This last weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. With the Civic Leaders Licing Learning Community. Student living in the Civic Leaders community are often members of the School of Public and Envrionmental Affairs (SPEA) and are interested in civic leadership, government, public service, and working with non-profits. This trip was planned in order to connect students to the federal government, as well as to give them an opportunity to meet with alumni living in the DC area what hey could discuss their current positions and opportunities to work in and around the federal government.

On the first day of the trip we traveled as a group to the Executive Building where we received a brief tour and then met with the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and several other members of their staff to discuss issues related to Black Lives Matters, the US prison system, the Its On Us Campaing, and college affordability. After visiting the the Executive Building, we traveled as a group to the Russel Senate building where students met with alumni of SPEA at an engagement. At the end of the evening, students were given free time to explore DC on their own.

The second day we woke early to travel to the Supremem Court, where we took a tour of the building and then had the opportunity to sit in the courtroom of the Supreme Court and to learn about the history of the judicial branch. From there we crossed the street to the Capitol building, and met with an economist, an editor from the Atlantic, and an Indiana senator to discuss the current election and hot topics related to college students in the United States. Free time followed these great discussions, and then was finished with a dinner at The Monocole near Capitol Hill, where students were introduced to current participants in the Washington Leadership Program.

On our final day in DC, we began with a visit to the Newseum where students were able to visit the exhibits, and followed by free time until we returned to the busses in order to return to Bloomington.

Throughout this trip, I was able to hear students say “this is exactly what I want to do after school,” or, “I cant believe that this is something I could do through SPEA.” These comments are what truly mattered about this trip. Students were able to see what they could accomplish with their dedication to academics and collegiate success. And to see the looks on their faces as they were introduced to these new avenues for their future was truly inspiring. It is rare that you are able to see students go through experiences such as this, and even rarer to be able to support those students in a way that could push them to achieving their dreams. I am excited, and ever so fortunate, to be able to work with these students for the rest of the year.