Woo! Yeah baby! That’s what I’ve been waiting for.

One year ago, the prospect of applying to postgraduate programs felt daunting to me. After what was one of the most unusual and challenging application seasons programmes and applicants alike have seen, I am excited to announce that I have received—and accepted—an offer of admission for the Anthropology PhD program at University of Minnesota, which begins in Autumn 2021.

Before we dive too deep into the conditions that made my decision to enter a PhD programme possible during the pandemic, I feel it is helpful to put into perspective the realities of postgraduate admissions. Public and private universities have struggled to maintain funding because of the ongoing public health emergency and the transition through remote learning. Many liberal arts postgraduate programmes in the U.S. have either paused their yearly application cycles, partnered alongside other academic units within their institutions to create themed cohorts, or (perhaps the worst case scenario) admitted students who have already secured multi-year external funding. (For detailed analysis on the inequitable distribution of NSF GRFP grants, one such multi-year funding source, see here and here.) And that doesn’t even cover the loss of time-honored recruitment strategies for attracting underrepresented students.

Of the previous 10 annual application cycles, 2020-2021 is the worst year for the Anthropology department at University of Minnesota in terms of matriculation (new registrant) yield. (Source: The Graduate School)

The Anthropology department at UMN took perhaps one of the best approaches for its situation. It applied for and won the institution’s Creating Inclusive Cohorts (CIC) grant to support the development of recruitment and retention practices for underrepresented students. In addition to a CIC-backed five-year funding commitment—a much needed leverage for the department given its statistically terrible autumn enrolment yield in 2020—professors from three different subdisciplines in anthropology are teaming up to provide a seminar in Critical Race Theory. I met a few such professors with great enthusiasm. They are so eager to learn alongside their students about how to move forward with their programme in a more just and equitable manner. In my interaction with the faculty panel who did my interview, they were quite forthcoming about some of the fundamental flaws of the department.

This leads to one of the conditions that make my choice to pursue a PhD at this time and with this school personally compelling. Given my research interests in BIPOC activism and cultures of institutions, it’s a no-brainer departments who want me should lend itself to student and community voices. The Anthropology department at Minnesota is open about not being perfect. They’re open to learning and doing alongside students. And that’s probably what makes the department’s approach to its equity dilemma more humanistic in my eyes.

The other condition involves how I have personally approached the pandemic and many of its social and psychological consequences. You may recall the advice article I published for first-year undergraduate students who are beginning their journey during an ongoing public health emergency. It’s not surprising to me how much of what I preached still stands. Yet, I never knew just how relevant my own advice would become as I think about my transition to postgraduate training. Many of my undergraduate peers have expressed this is not the right time for them to pursue postgraduate studies, especially if the coronavirus pandemic keeps higher education online through the rest of the calendar year. That’s definitely understandable. I also recognize how privileged I am to enter a PhD program prepared to face the challenges of my training and the pandemic. This was shaped not only by my experiences with the pandemic, but by the supports I received and the personal learning I’ve done making sense of my past traumas throughout my life. In these challenging times, I think it is only right that, as my senior thesis professor reminded me, I work to “continue your engaged scholarship that brings out the best in everyone around you.”

With that said, I’m excited about the opportunities postgraduate training at Minnesota will bring. It definitely could not have been made possible without the support of my mentors, colleagues, and friends who believed in me every step of the way. I’ve taken the most time off social media than I ever have since 7th grade, and it’s given me much needed space to reflect on my relationships and community building opportunities once it became clear I had a place in postgraduate studies. This post came about a month after I received the phone call from University of Minnesota, and I could not be more pleased about my decision to attend the anthropology program there. Stay tuned over the next few months for exciting worldbuilding, informal field notes, and reflections about ongoing institutional issues (because, you guessed it, there’s always something to talk about in that regard!). That’s it. See you.

Olivia Foa’i – My Way (2018)

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