In September 2008, I moved overseas to Austria to teach English at two Austrian high schools through the Austrian-American Educational Commission, sponsored by Fulbright. I was 22 years old. While there, I had no idea what my future would truly hold, but several members of my cohort were all applying for graduate school. I had long considered teaching as a career, but the School of Education at my alma mater began its coursework in May and I was contracted to stay in Austria through the first of June. Instead, I made a misinformed decision to apply to graduate programs strictly focusing on German Literature, and several months later I had an offer for a full-paid ride in a blended Masters-Ph.D. humanities program. I accepted.
I moved out to my new university in August 2009. By September 2009, I realized I had made a huge mistake. I wanted to teach. In fact, I had known for quite some time that I wanted to teach in some capacity – I just was not sure if I wanted to teach at the high school level or college level. Either way, I wanted to teach, and had applied to a Ph.D. program with the end goal of becoming an educator. I was under the impression that I could leave with my master’s degree and find a job teaching German in a public school. I eventually learned that this would not be a possibility due to state licensure requirements; further, the possibility of even teaching German full-time was slim due to a lack of interest in comparison to languages such as Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin.
Instead of teaching, I found myself deeply depressed and researching authors I did not care about, applying theories I did not care about to the authors I did not care about, and just generally in a rut. “You’re probably just homesick,” my mother said. “You probably regret that you didn’t stay in Austria for another year,” my father responded. At 23 years old, I was still fully reliant on my parents to help me make decisions, and at their advice, I decided to tough it out.
There were some good moments in grad school. I absolutely loved teaching my second year, especially when I was given two subsections of a class. Those students kept me going. I also did read some really good books while in grad school that I now consider my favorites. Further, I made some great friendships, primarily outside of my department. I spent my first year in grad school feeling remarkably like a robot; something about having friends outside of my department made me feel significantly more human.
The good moments were overshadowed by all of the bad moments in grad school. I would wake up with anxiety attacks in the middle of the night. I often felt depressed, but felt embarrassed by my feelings and as if I did not have enough time to take advantage of the counseling provided by my university. The feeling that I remember most, though, was a paramount feeling of never being good enough. No matter what I did, I had a hard time rising to the expectations of my professors. A B+ that I would have happily received in an undergraduate course suddenly felt like a slap in the face. As a cohort-member told me when I first started, “A B+ is really an F in graduate school.”
A huge turning point came when I went to go visit a friend for spring break, and realized that I could not talk to him about any of the research I had been doing. He did not care about travel literature from the 1600s, nor did most people. Feelings of selfishness surged through my body. My original reason for attending graduate school was teaching: I was in this for students. Yet, I found that so much of the work I did really only served me. At this same time, I also watched so many students in my department finishing their Ph.D. and applying for job after job after job. Some had a great amount of success with their job search; others had a great amount of difficulty. I realized around this time that I kind of wanted to be closer geographically to my parents, as my dad was going through some health issues. A Ph.D. in a really specific humanities field was unlikely to land me back in Virginia, no matter how many universities were there. So… I decided to leave with just my master’s degree and move back home.
My department was disappointed, of course, probably because this made their attrition numbers go up, but we all agreed that it was for the best. I took a year off, and eventually did return to graduate school to receive my Master of Art in Education. Family members stopped asking if I would ever return to earn my Ph.D. in the humanities field I originally pursued.
I have been an elementary school teacher for the past three years, and absolutely love what I do. In some ways, I’m very glad that I had a negative experience in the world of German Studies – had I applied to my alma mater’s teaching program while still living in Austria, I would likely be licensed to teach German rather than Elementary Education. Teaching, especially in the public school system, is not without its challenges – I wouldn’t wish the paperwork upon anybody. But at the end of the day, I leave my job knowing that I have an impact on children and that they leave my classroom each day knowing a little bit more than they did the day before.
The joy that I felt while teaching in Austria has returned to me. My students in Austria left me on a daily basis with some new bit of knowledge about life in the United States. My fourth graders leave my classroom with even more knowledge on a daily basis, and I am so proud of the work that I do with them every day. If I were to ever return to a Ph.D. program at this point, the program would be in Educational Leadership and would serve to improve the lives of the children I work with.