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

Alumni scholar post: By Justin Mendoza, McNair Scholar ’11

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 Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. program (yet), but I am earning my Master’s in Public Health from the 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, it’s 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 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 for 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 provost’s, 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 one you even started. 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 (and Lynn didn’t pay me to say this!); seriously, it’s 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!

Justin Mendoza, McNair Scholar ’11

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 it’s 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 – justin.mendoza@yale.edu