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Half-way Reflections

By: Mara Marks, Class of 2018

I can recall the feelings I had when I drove away from my undergraduate University for the last time as a student: a fluctuating mix of relief, excitement and uncertainty. I felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders from being free from course requirements and having to remember deadlines for registration and tuition. I was excited to begin my clinical rotations for occupational therapy, spend time with my family aside from school breaks and get a taste of what life would be like working in the “real world”. I also remember being unsure about how to navigate the ins and outs of the workplace, including the age-old question of where to sit at lunch! Time brought me confidence in handling challenges inside and outside of the workplace.

Fast forward many years, and I found myself with the exact same feelings as I prepared to begin the Master of Science in Health Communication (MSHC) program at Northwestern University. After emphatically deciding years ago that I would not pursue an advanced degree, I realized this program was what I needed as I contemplated returning to the workforce after beginning my own family. The feeling of relief came early on in my research about the program. I was riding the CTA bus and saw an advertisement for the MSHC program. It was the first time I actually looked something up after seeing an ad, and I was happy to learn that participating in the program was a distinct possibility. The program length, requirements and location all fit into my already full life. After attending information sessions and observing some lectures, I felt a connection to the energy I noticed in the classrooms.

My relief at finding a program that was flexible enough for my current place in life soon gave way to excitement upon receiving my acceptance. With my graduate school journey set to begin in a mere few months, I eagerly set about gathering supplies, updating my somewhat dated technology and attempting to ensure my family was prepared for how my new schedule would impact their lives. Attending a student mixer session re-affirmed my positive impression of the program. Meeting members of my cohort further solidified my opinion that I had made the right decision in pursuing this degree. I could tell that my new classmates would teach me as much as my professors. I was comforted to learn that everyone was approaching this experience as a big, although inspiring, change. Some students were re-locating across the country for the program, while others would be going to school across town from where they worked. My peers were a combination of recent undergraduates, those established in their careers, and others who were contemplating a career change. Realizing the diversity of my cohort only added to my growing excitement.

As I began orientation, I noticed that old feeling of uncertainty creep up. Back came various deadlines for registration and tuition, and yes, trying to answer that age-old question of where do I sit at lunch! I wondered how to navigate academics with a larger online component as compared to when I was in undergraduate school. Could I figure out a computer program to complete my reference list for papers, when my prior experience was handwriting each cited source before pecking out the authors and titles on my word processor? Having worked in direct patient care for so many years, I felt as though my vocabulary did not always directly translate into scholarly language or match the jargon of my peers with administrative, marketing and public relations backgrounds. Finally, I wondered, as an older student, if I could keep up with the assigned work and still keep some semblance of family life outside of school.

As I approach the halfway point in the program, I realize how far I have come in addressing those feelings of uncertainty. I can meet deadlines and learned there is always a place for me to sit at lunch. Technology is an adventure for me, but my peers, and resources within the university, have made this part of my journey less painful. The more I communicate with my cohort, the more I realize that we are all speaking the same language, just with unique accents. I have also recognized uncertainty in our scholarly activities, such as identifying uncertainty in access to and quality of care in our healthcare system, or recognizing uncertainty in the context of participation in a difficult conversation. The uncertainty found in the unintended consequences of design applies to my ongoing weekly attempts to divide and conquer my academic work, while balancing the needs of my life outside of class.

Time, just as in the first years after my undergraduate studies, is bringing me the confidence to tackle the challenges that I encounter as I make my way through the program. I have a wonderful group of classmates from which I can draw knowledge and support. My family and I are adjusting to our “new normal” for this academic year. I am discovering new ways that the MSHC program can support me.Although I anticipate feelings of uncertainty to show up from time to time, I know that my excitement of working towards my graduate degree will not only keep me moving forward, but also allow me to enjoy the experience. Knowing that I have this positive energy to guide me forward is quite a relief!