On Saturday, June 15, I will walk across the stage with my Masters in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. Sometimes it seems surreal, as the past two years have quickly flown by and been full of triumphs, tribulations, and transitions. About six years ago, I began my climb toward the peak of professional frustration, which came to a head in 2010. No longer challenged by the work I was doing, I grew weary of the lack of upward mobility and professional development opportunities. I was at a dead end and unable to work to my potential, even though I demonstrated that I was capable of doing much more. I felt trapped and was at a crossroads. The former, I embraced, however; the latter, I did not.
I would often come home to my partner and vent about the stress and disappointment of work. She patiently listened and provided words of encouragement and advice. Then one day, after another one of my venting sessions, she said, “I know what you’re going through, and it’s unfortunate, but the situation is not going to change. YOU have to make a change, and once you figure out what to specialize in, you need to go to graduate school.” She said it so matter-of-factly. Although she was right, her words were a big, hard pill to swallow. Her tough love even made me a bit anxious. After all, here I was trapped in an emotionally stressful and unfulfilling job, and although I wanted to attend graduate school eventually, I didn’t know for what. This made my life even more complicated. But challenges and uncertainty in life can mean we’re at a crossroads or on the brink of discovery. Instead of pulling back and having a defeatist attitude, though, we can lean in.
In 2008, I received an invitation to apply to be on the board of directors of Affinity Community Services, a social justice organization on Chicago’s South Side that conducts advocacy and provides programs and services primarily for Black LGBTQ communities, queer youth, and allies. I had been a constituent for several years and volunteered on a few committees, but had never served on a board before. Nevertheless, I was excited about this new opportunity, especially with an organization that provided me a safe space to be a Black lesbian and an outlet to be civically and politically engaged. I was voted on the board in 2008, and it has been an incredible learning opportunity. Due to excellent mentorship from women in the organization and opportunities to learn, lead, and follow, I developed the confidence to step up my leadership role even more and, over the course of the next few years, served as secretary, vice president, and, currently, president.
Between the policy advocacy and community building work I was doing, as well as the public programs on civic engagement and social justice that I co-developed in my previous two jobs, I realized my interest in public policy. This was an exciting “Eureka!” moment, as things seemed to be coming together. So, I started applying to Masters programs for entry in Fall 2011.
My parents were so excited about this next new chapter in my life, and my father rooted for me every step of the way. He was thrilled when I told him that I had submitted all my graduate school applications. When I received my acceptance letter to the University of Chicago, I was overjoyed and felt such a sense of accomplishment. I wanted so badly to take the letter to his job to show him but could not, as he had died unexpectedly four months prior. I would have given anything to see his eyes widen and that huge smile come across his face upon reading the letter, but that would never happen. My mom and aunt often tell me, "He knew you were headed back to school, Kelly. It was just a matter of where."
My first quarter of graduate school was a killer. The core classes were heavily quantitative, with an emphasis on economics, public economy with game theory, and statistics. There were several nights when I nearly pulled out my dreadlocks over problem sets and shed many tears. In addition to acclimating myself to being back in school after having worked for several years, I had just lost my father and was in mourning. To top it off, I was taking these rigorous courses in subject areas that were not my strength. I began doubting my intelligence and abilities, and was a sleep deprived and emotional mess. I blanked during my stats midterm and had a meltdown. Every single subject, every homework assignment, and every day without my father was hard, long, and painful. I will always be grateful for the love and support of my family and friends, who helped me get through that grueling quarter. Over time, the voice in my head that was telling me I couldn’t do it was replaced by my father’s voice reminding me that I could. And then eventually, I heard my own voice telling me that I would. And I did.
Each quarter got better and better. I was proud of having struggled through that academically and emotionally challenging period. I realized that I learned more than I thought I had, and began enjoying my classes. I focused on learning and stretching myself and on seeing this time in graduate school as an investment in my professional and intellectual development and a deepening of my networks that would pay off in both the short and long term. When I walk across the stage on graduation day, I’ll be holding a framed picture of my father because he was with me every step of the way. When I was growing up, he always told me I could do anything I put my mind to and to never think otherwise. He said that when things get difficult in life, I shouldn’t quit, but push through instead. He would say, "Kelly, don’t walk away from the game before you’ve even played." I’ve never forgotten this. Dad was telling me to lean in.
I’m currently looking for employment opportunities and have some irons in the fire, which include two interviews and three submitted applications for competitive summer fellowships. Although I don’t know what awaits me post graduation, I am not doubtful and timid. Rather, I’m full of excitement and hope about this next leg of my journey, even in this rough economy. I feel strong, ready, and capable. Any and everything I even think I want to pursue that speaks to my professional and personal interests and passion, I’m pursuing. I must also say that I’m fortunate to have a supportive and gainfully employed partner, which makes this period of transition and uncertainty less stressful. It’s a privileged position that I’m aware of and appreciate.
These past several years have been full of hard knocks, successes, and challenges, joy and pain, and births and deaths. In the midst of it all, I was reminded of a valuable lesson that Dad had been teaching me all along: Live, love, learn, and yes, lean in.