Grad Student Corner (Fall 2020): Graduate Student Development Requires Opportunities Beyond Classwork

By Megan Welsh posted 10-09-2020 23:21


Valeria Zunino-Edelsberg, UC Davis

I am a Ph.D. student at UC Davis, and probably you have felt the same way I have: there is never enough time. We can’t seem to read all the papers we would like nor attend all the exciting events offered by the University. Our ability to get things done just can’t keep up with our ever-growing curiosity! We must constantly prioritize the multiple demands and opportunities that arise and apply our criteria of how to prioritize our workloads. In my experience, I think we naturally tend to make these decisions based on short-term goals, losing sight of important experiences that will further our long-term professional development.

While looking at NCME website last summer, I came across a list of internships offered by different institutions. One of these institutions was the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), which I had the opportunity to visit years ago when I was working for the Education Quality Agency in my home country of Chile. I immediately remembered everything I learned from my visit to NWEA and how friendly they were to receive us. That memory motivated me to apply for an internship with them even though the call for applicants did not include focus on topics within my area of interest (i.e., English Learners; ELs). As such, I decided to opt for a topic closely related to my previous job in Chile: the development of standardized tests and score reports. However, in my application I did mention that my main interest was in developing research related to ELs and was lucky that this was a topic turned out to be one that NWEA was very interested in developing. The researcher in charge of this research area opened the doors of her team to me.

Before starting my internship, I was somehow worried that I did not have much topic-specific knowledge and experience to contribute, although this was the topic that interested me.  Fortunately, from day one, I was able to see that NWEA's interest was in my learning rather than in the contributions that I could make in the short term. During my internship, I had the opportunity to participate in various meetings, and I never felt different for being an intern. They made me feel as though my comments and feedback were valued as equally as anyone else at the table of those meetings and I realized that had a unique perspective to contribute.

As an international student, this experience allowed me to recognize some differences between Chilean and American Institutions in their ways of functioning, their policies, and their norms around expected behaviors. For example, it’s not unusual for a Chile meeting to start 15 minutes later than scheduled, or for a participant to join in later. In contrast, in the U.S., this is very inappropriate. Thank goodness I quickly realized this and was on time for all the meetings!

It is impossible not to remember the circumstances in which the world and particularly California, found itself during my internship. The wildfires and the pandemic put me in a bit of extra trouble like everyone else. However, being part of a team helped me feel less isolated and motivated me to keep going. It helped me focus beyond the daily challenges of my immediate environment, and to think about the person I want to be in this world, the contributions I want to make, and the steps I need to take to get there.

I cannot guarantee that all internships will be as rewarding as the one I had, but I am convinced that it is an experience that will be beneficial for any graduate student.

I am also very grateful to have taken the opportunity to work as a TA for the Department of Chicano Studies and as a Graduate Student Researcher for Global Education for All, an initiative led by UC Davis Global Affairs. Both experiences have allowed me to meet exceptional academics and broaden my horizons. Lastly, my relationship with Chilean professionals has continued during these three years in the US, and I have contributed to generating links between the UC Davis School of Education and UC Davis Chile, which had always been a dream for me.

Each of these experiences was not necessarily obtained because of my academic performance. I believe that one of the great mistakes of the traditional educational system has been to focus almost exclusively on developing hard skills and encouraging competition between students through grading practices. Especially in recent years, I have realized that the experiences lived and the relationships built in the educational and professional trajectory make the difference between professionals. Unfortunately, being immersed in highly competitive institutions sometimes makes us lose sight of what it means to be a comprehensive professional and encourages us to seek rapid and visible recognition. I believe that we must be alert to recognize the relevant opportunities passing by our side.

After several years as a professional and student, I can see how each experience and each relationship has been intertwined in some way, giving rise to opportunities that perhaps I never thought I could obtain. I recommend looking for different kinds of experiences; they can probably bring you much more satisfaction and growth than getting one more decimal in your GPA.