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My Story: When They Say 'You Have It Together'

imageBy Briana O'Neal

“You just seem to have it all together.” I cringe every time I hear the phrase, knowing nothing could be further from the truth.

I spend my days working full-time on campus in a role that is equally as demanding as it is rewarding. I wear many hats as my job includes duties related to academic advising, course instruction, coordinating student programs, and engaging in prospective student outreach and recruitment. In a student-facing role like this, there’s no such thing as the end of the day. The office doors may lock each day at 4:30 P.M., but my phone still rings and my inbox still fills.

As busy and unpredictable as it is, I love my job, and it dovetails nicely with the PhD that I’m currently pursuing in Higher Education. That’s right, I kept my job after I was admitted to a PhD program here, so Maryland now owns my nights as well as my days. I’m constantly engaged in a 24-hour cycle of trying to find the balance between serving Maryland students and being a Maryland student. And, honestly, there are many days when I feel like my student identity comes second to my practitioner one. My degree is in higher education, and my research interests center around the college experiences of underrepresented students in STEM fields.

That being said, it’s sometimes hard to prioritize being a student over helping a student when helping students is why I went back to school in the first place. There are several times when I have arrived late to class to spend a few extra minutes at work with a student who needs it. Instead of using my lunch break to review my notes for a presentation I have later that evening in class, I might instead choose to return a phone call from a hospitalized student who has missed several assignments and wants to know his options for returning to campus. Or, I might forego a few hours of sleep to squeeze in an evening work event and still finish a class assignment on time.

When I’m not in class or performing my standard job duties, any spare minute I might have is at the mercy of my instinctual habit of saying, ‘Yes.’ As a doctoral student in my 20s who constantly gets mistaken for an undergrad, I am keenly aware of my youth, my limited years of experience, and the importance of capitalizing on opportunities for networking, professional development, and academic development. So, phrases like ‘I would love to join’ or ‘I don’t mind doing it’ or ‘I’ll be in attendance’ just fall right out of my mouth. In the few years that I’ve been at Maryland, I’ve joined committees and research teams across campus—some in my capacity as a practitioner, and some as a student. I appreciate every activity, as they have all been valuable opportunities for growth, but the law of gravity dictates that every ball we throw in the air must, of course, eventually come back down.

Perhaps if I were only juggling the two balls of school and work, I might not be writing this reflection. However, I have added other commitments to my plate because, let’s be honest, DMV rent ain’t cheap. So I signed on to teach additional courses in the evenings, and I started doing some consulting work on the side—both rewarding yet very time-intensive gigs.

People often tell me that they don’t know how I do it-–the ‘whole school and work thing’-–and that they admire how well I’m handling it. Truthfully, I’m not convinced that I’m handling it well. If we’re not careful, ‘keeping it together’ professionally can come at a personal cost—especially for those of us who are working full-time while in school. A lot of people have this idea that in order to be taken seriously as a scholar (or as a practitioner), you have to be 100% devoted to “the work.” My birthday passed recently and, in reflecting on the last year, I realized that the energy I’d been pouring into balancing the two sides of my professional life had come at the expense of adequate sleep and engaging in activities that reenergizing me like visiting with family, making time to catch up with friends, or just spending time alone. My missed call log was miles long; my text response rate seldom at best. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to the gym or spent some real, quality time with my family.

If you look up my senior photo in my high school yearbook (please don’t), you will find this Cesar Chavez quote sitting beneath my picture: "Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own." My parents, both of whom are military veterans, raised me to have a strong sense of service. Others before self. Seventeen-year-old me paired myself with Chavez for yearbook-eternity because of this value. Ten years later, 27-year-old me is learning that neglecting yourself is not a prerequisite for serving others. I would give that advice to anyone who is considering working while pursuing a PhD. The balancing act we must perform is not between work and school. The true risk of imbalance lies in giving 100% to your professional self, because that means you’re giving 0% to your personal needs, and that’s neither healthy nor realistic. Sometimes saying ‘yes’ to yourself means saying ‘no’ to others, and that’s okay. That’s the balance.

Briana O’Neal is a full-time program coordinator in UMD's Clark School of Engineering and a part-time doctoral student in the College of Education. She previously worked as a research assistant at the Penn State's Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Prior to that, she was a college access counselor for high school students in rural North Carolina. Her research interests include underrepresented students in STEM, transfer pathways, and minority serving institutions. She earned her M.S.Ed. in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania and her B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Social & Economic Justice from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can reach her at (Photo Credit: Briana O'Neal)

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