Monday, April 21

A note to the soon-to-graduate: Your life is about to change

Hello McNair Scholars,

As an introduction to the newer cohorts, including the cohort of 2014, who I'm sure are all really excited to hear from former members of the McNair Program, I thought I would write this letter. My name is Justin Mendoza, I was a member of the 2011 McNair Cohort at Central Michigan University. It was honestly one of the best experiences I've been through as a student. I can remember that summer in Mount Pleasant, working on research that I felt at the time was extremely important to my life. The things to never take for granted in the program are definitely the connections you'll have with the directors and advisors you're connected to. Even more than the research, these connections will give you the things you need to graduate and get into graduate school, communication skills, a support system, and also letters of recommendation. Even more important are the content of conversations themselves. I remember talking with one of my advisors (who at the time was a grad assistant with McNair) who told me that I sounded more like a "public health guy"to be honest, I hadn't ever thought about public health, I thought at that time that I wanted to get a PhD in Neuroscience. After the conversation with her, I started to look at graduate programs in Public Health.

Now, post-McNair, I have the privilege of attending graduate school, granted not in the field I originally set out as a McNair scholar in, and also not in a PhD program (yet), but I am earning my Master's in Public Health from Yale School of Public Health, and I honestly have McNair to thank largely for that.

But this letter isn't just about the McNair experience, its really about the experience that comes soon thereafter, the experience of moving on from your roots at CMU. Through your life to this point, and even with what time you have left with McNair (yes, even you, graduating seniors), you will and have made the strongest connections possible at CMU. At least, that is what I did, and what I hope you did. In a matter of weeks, or maybe a year to the younger scholars, you will be walking in front of a stage full of faculty from departments all around the university. The university provost, president, vice provosts, and department chairs will sit, ornate in their hoods, watching you as you wait to receive a scroll, symbolizing your diploma and your accomplishment (Spoiler alert, the scroll is from the alumni network, asking for donations already... enjoy that). You'll then hear a few more speeches about the world and life beyond college, and then you'll march out of the Events Center to a bright, bustling crowd, including your parents, family, lovers, and friends. There will be hugs, tears, and all together a relief that you finally had a reward for finishing that final paper at 4am instead of going to the Bird (we've all been there). But then, that's it. You're no longer a student at CMU, and you're going to leave your roles behind forever.

In my case, I knew I'd never be an alternative breaks site leader at CMU, the leader of the UAEM chapter there, or a researcher in brooks or the department of public health as I was. For you, maybe you'll never be a non-alumn of that sorority or fraternity, or never again be the leader of your student organization, maybe you even started it. But this is not a sad time, I promise. Leaving CMU's wonderful place behind is going to rock your world.

Graduate school is hard work, so I'd say take a vacation this summer. Relax. Go to the beach, enjoy a Mai-thai, watch lots of movies, see those old friends and family you've been saying you'll visit for years, because many of you will leave Michigan entirely as you transcend into graduate school. Any way you slice it, this summer you need a break, and it'll be over before you know it.

Next thing you know, you'll be walking into orientation at your new school. You'll be told all about the new curriculum, the resources available to you, grad assistantships (if you haven't lined one up yet), and might even hear about the night life and student groups. You'll meet new peers, all feeling just as nervous  about this new place as you, who will want to get coffee, get a drink, get pizza, etc. My advice, do it all. The beginning of the year is mostly syllabi (nope, that doesn't change), so enjoy your freedom and get to know your classmates.

You'll notice right away that no one has the same path from undergrad to here. Some may have worked, some have entirely different undergraduate fields from you, some come from ivy leagues, some from big ten schools. But your roots don't matter that much, you're all peers now, even Western students can be your friends!

But the truth is, you'll love it in grad school. No more useless classes (for the most part) everything will be tailored to what you want to be an expert in. I'd advise you to take advantage of any opportunity you see. There're more speakers on interesting topics for grad students, there'll be seminars with free food and great older students presenting their research like you will some day. Take advantage, learn as much as you can outside of your own research and courses, along with the traditional things. That is beauty of it. But always remember the balance McNair tried to teach you. Go to the gym, seriously, its an amazing place to think about life. Travel with your new friends, you'll be around new sites, and it is so fun to go to new places!

Overall, this is an exciting time, and you will truly enjoy it. I sure know that I have, and I don't think it's something unique to me. Grad-life is amazing, and although you may miss CMU from time-to-time, just remember its time for someone else to shine where you once did!

Rock on Scholars,
Justin Mendoza
McNair Scholar, 2011
MPH Candidate 2015
Health Policy
Yale School of Public Health

PS - if you ever have any questions -

Sunday, April 21

We Are All Vibrators

I follow Marie Forleo because she's hilarious and shares great advice for people interested in becoming entrepreneurs and basically rocking out an awesome life. She hosts Q&A Tuesday's on Marie TV and every week she tackles a pertinent topic and/or question from her subscribers. I had fallen behind in watching her weekly videos but today I watched a few to catch up. Turns out that she recently posted on a topic related to the fact that our new McNair scholars will be presenting in just a few days - overcoming fear and shyness.

Click HERE to check out the short video. Scroll down to hit play.

Now, I realize that not everyone might feel as if they are shy, but I would venture to guess that most people (myself included) feel a bit of anxiety (or fear) before speaking in front of others. You have another practice session tomorrow - I invite you to check out this video by Marie to gather up three tips that just might help you reframe how you feel about presenting. The goal: be your best no matter what you are feeling.

Here's the gist:
  • You are a vibrator. Your body is a mass of atoms. Stop associating your feelings (like nervousness or anxiety) with something bad. Just recognize that we all vibrate with different feelings and emotions - it's not good and it's not bad. By just experiencing what we are experiencing - without putting a label on it - we can simply experience it and move on. Easy peasy.
  • Nickname your vibes. This one cracks me up but I think it can work. Instead of putting a name to your feelings like "I'm nervous" or "I'm scared" - call it something else - something light and funny. Josh uses the example of "shushi" - "I'm feeling shushi" - that's it! It reduces any negativity that might be associated with it and simply accepts that we are vibrating and feeling a bit of shushi at the moment. What name will you come up with?
  • Ride it, don't hide it. Take any vibrations you might be experiencing when it comes to presenting and just see it as creative fuel - it's something that's going to propel you into action. Let that energy empower you instead of trying to downplay it. Try to speak authentically from whatever place you are finding yourself. Both Marie and Josh stress that if you allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you are feeling fully, it usually only lasts for seven to twelve seconds. That's all.
The bottom line - reframes can be really powerful in our lives.

Here's the challenge that Marie poses:
  1. Tell us the sensation/emotion, that you struggle with most, that you would like to "overcome."
  2. Describe the emotion in terms of vibrating atoms. What does it feel like?
  3. Nickname your vibes and commit to riding it and not hiding it.
>>>>Be sure to click on this week's ACTIONABLE to complete the challenge.

Try this out when you practice your presentation this week and put it to use on Thursday at the symposium!

Monday, April 15

"The Helpers"

I am the President of the Student Social Work Association. Annually, we pick a location, drive there, and volunteer. This year, I chose Washington DC. I rented a 15 passenger van, 3 hotel rooms, and drove 11 social work majors down to volunteer. We hopped in the van on Thursday morning and drove 12 hours.

On Friday, we departed the hotel at 9:00am and went to work with an organization I came into contact with via email, called Friendship Place. This program does a variety of things, but mostly it is a non-profit organization with a grant from the VA to provide homeless veterans with housing. Half of our group cleaned an apartment for a veteran with some hoarding issues. The other half of us were expected to move a homeless veteran into a new apartment. Friendship Place provides intensive services for 3 months. The first month, they pay the veteran's rent. The second month, they pay half. By the third month, they expect the veteran to be self-sufficient because of the budgeting and other skills they have been provided (but Friendship Place is there for backup).

We were on our way to meet the veteran when the landlord called us and told the coordinator that he was misled and no longer wanted the veteran in the apartment because the rent was not guaranteed to be paid after 3 months. It was literally SO sad. We had to give the homeless veteran the bad news. Instead of reacting negatively, he still wanted to meet us (the student volunteers). He kept saying "I want to meet the helpers". The veteran had the best attitude and was so grateful that we wanted to help him. He was sweet, kind and yet...homeless. It was a true social work experience that I am grateful, yet sad, about having. Because we could not move him into the apartment, we went to the drop-in center that Friendship Place runs. At the drop-in center, homeless people can come Monday-Friday for food, showers and clothing. We sorted clothing donations and talked with clients for the remainder of our time. Once again, we meet people in awe of our service and were so thankful. I could not believe that after all of their troubles, these people took the time to thank us and wanted to hear about our lives. One man is trying to prepare for his daughter's wedding; she is returning from the Peace Corps.

Our next project on Friday was with an organization called New Communities for Children. It is an after school program that runs Mon-Fri 3:30pm-7:00pm. It is completely free and it helps children succeed both by providing school help, child care and a place for children to go after school to stay out of trouble. There were kids from kindergarten to high school. Friday was a fun day, so we got to play games with the children, take them to the park, and play basketball. Our goal was to promote positive peer interactions. The response was overwhelming. The children clung to us, took our pictures, cried when we left, and left a mark on my heart. I always thought I wanted to be a rural social worker, but these urban kids really tugged at my heart strings and I could see myself working in a similar area.

On Saturday, we completed our last volunteer project. We went to the community swimming pool and worked with an organization called KEEN. The children served are developmentally or cognitively impaired. The organization attempts to keep these kids healthy through exercise. Two CMU students were assigned to each kid and we were instructed to play with them in the pool and just have fun with them. I was assigned to a 10 year old boy with autism. We played in the pool for two hours with the kids. Not only does this community engagement benefit the children, but the parents receive a well-deserved break as well.

Our group of 12 students took off for DC with nothing more than emails from organizations accepting our plea to let us volunteer. We took initiative and gave back. We put our lives on hold to help others. But as much as the children and veterans benefited, we benefited as well. We learned what it was like to be "helpers". We brought empowerment to these individuals. We showed DC the skills we spent years learning at CMU.

I got back to handfuls of emails and assignments I need to complete. I need to register for MSW/PhD classes tomorrow and I have no idea how. I need to accept my Dean's Fellowship still. I need to find an apartment. I need to email my adviser..... But none of my needs are as great as those whom I was able to serve this weekend.