• Alicia Sepulveda

A small town girl gets a PhD

Before the PhD

I didn't know what a doctorate was growing up.

I had no plans to pursue a graduate education because I just didn't know what it was. I was first in my family to go to college.

In college I met a professor, Dr. Krantz, at Florida State University. I was in class one day and he talked about graduate school and how there were a lot of opportunities if you go. He asked for anyone interested to show up to his office hours. I had never been to office hours willingly (I went for a grade if I had to). Dr. Krantz was pretty intimidating, but I showed up.

Little did I know that this meeting would be such a pivotal interaction. Up until this point, I was told that I was "smart" and that I would "go far in life." I never felt that way and I just did what I was told. Never questioned, never drew outside the lines. I followed the rules. And teachers love that.

Dr. Krantz was the first person that I can remember that challenged me to think bigger, to dream bigger. He made me question what I wanted to do and he helped me take the steps I needed to get my Master's degree in Social Work.

Towards the end of my MSW, I applied for a PhD program and didn't get accepted. Self doubt crept in like a mo-fo.

I wasn't really smart. And I wasn't good enough.

I worked for 3 years as an academic coach, re-evaluating my goals and exploring what my options were. During this time, I applied to another PhD program, where I found out late that they had lost my application materials. I was bummed. I already had so much doubt that I could "do a PhD" and these circumstances felt like confirmation.

After 2 years working in Maryland, I decided to apply again. I studied for the GRE (ugh - I never performed well on standardized tests - Quote by Carol Dweck - "Test scores and measures of achievement tell you where a student is, but they don't tell you where a student can end up." Maybe they don't even tell you where a student is actually at.). I applied to 5 schools - rejected by 2, waitlisted by 1, accepted by 2. I took the leap to visit University of Northern Colorado.

I was by myself when I visited. I remember being on the plane, looking at the mountains outside of the window and I tried to hold back the tears. It didn't seem real. I never dreamed I would be able to visit Colorado, let alone have the opportunity to pursue a PhD. I arrived on Friday, when it was 70 degrees and sunny (in February!) and the next day, it snowed SO MUCH. I had to spend the night in the airport because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to drive for my early flight. It was an adventure.

I interviewed for a Graduate Assistantship because I told myself I wouldn't go back to school without getting it paid for. (Side note: I didn't know this was a thing in my master's program - check it out or feel free to ask me if you aren't sure what I am talking about). I was offered my number one choice of assistantships - to create a coaching program, do research on that program, and do some college access work. It was LITERALLY everything I had done, everything I wanted to do. So I committed.

Carlos started applying for jobs immediately. As the months went by, we started getting nervous. Then, he got an in-person interview at University of Colorado Boulder for a live-in position as a hall director. His flight came in super late, but I wanted to hear everything! He felt the interview went well, but we didn't get our hopes up. The next day, we were on our way to get breakfast and he got the call. They offered him the position!

We moved to Colorado June 2015. I was eager to get started but I had about a month off. If you know me AT ALL, you know I did not sit around. I read, we explored, and I started to reach out to people I wanted to be like.

At the time, I wanted to be the go-to person for life coaching for college students. Still kind of what this, but in a completely different way. My original goal was to become a professor and do research. I knew that goals can change often during the PhD process.

Before I started in August 2015, I had a Skype meeting with Christian van Nieuwerburgh - a well known and respective researcher, professor, and all around amazing human! I wanted to be like him and I asked him for advice. He encouraged me to read, write, publish what I could, and to keep in touch. Fast forward 4 years later (August 2019) and he came to speak at a Summit for coaches in higher education. It was a dream! We, along with a handful of other amazing people had beer together and talked coaching like nerds. We may even write a book together soon (!!!).

This is just another reason to make friends, reach out to random people, and be open to what unfolds.

During the PhD

If you didn't realize in the previous section, I have had to battle a lot of self doubt throughout my life. That feeling of never good enough, or smart enough has held me back quite a bit. IN ALL THE WAYS. But I told myself that my doctorate was going to be different.

The first journal article we had to read for class was a research study about imposter syndrome in PhD students... so this just confirmed I was in the right place.

I wanted my doctorate to be different than my Bachelor's and Master's degrees. Even though I was at the same school (FSU) for 6 years for both degrees, there were so many things I missed out on. I worked at FSU after my Master's degree and I had NO CLUE all of the amazing things I missed out on. And for the things I knew about and would have loved to have done or at least tried (orientation leader, dance team, resident assistant), I was too afraid to apply because I was afraid of failure and judgment.

So I was on a mission to get EVERYTHING I could out of my degree.

This meant going for things I didn't think I could get, getting clear about what I really wanted, and designing the experience I wanted. Not just going through the motions and letting life happen to me. Intentionality was the name of the game.

I owe this motivation and drive to the students I've worked with over the years. Some of them did this - they were all in. Other students were like me - they had no clue what they were missing, they weren't confident enough to go for things, or something else held them back. Because I had asked so many students what they wanted out of life and out of their college experience, I was forced to ask myself those same questions.

Because I was purposeful in how I wanted the PhD to go, for the first time in my life, I wasn't ready to get to the end. I was in the moment, enjoying what I was doing. I wanted life to slow down. I was writing about what I wanted, I was still coaching college students, and I was learning how to do research. I was focused on publishing because I thought my goal was to be a faculty member.

But goals change. And so do we.

At the time, Carlos and I lived in Boulder and I commuted to Greeley 4x a week. It took at least an hour both ways so I started listening to a lot of podcasts (fun fact: Carlos had been pushing me for years to do this, but I didn't understand. Story of my life when it comes to our relationship with technology. He was right, ha!). My favorite podcasts were School of Greatness - Lewis Howes , Lori Harder - Earn Your Happy, and Bucci Radio. I learned so much and dove into self help and self development. I prioritized reading and growing myself, continued to go to the gym on a regular basis, and tried to be a good wife and dog mom. I wanted to make my PhD a part of my life, not my entire life.

I was driving to school one day and because I try to make the most of everything (it's a blessing and a curse), I started to listen to a research interview (qualitative research) where I was exploring how college students define and develop their purpose, passions, and goals. So I am driving, listening to this interview I did with a student and it was so good. Then, I was interrupted with my voice! The entire time, I thought the research interview was actually a podcast interview. It was at that very moment that I knew I had to get these students' stories out into the world. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I HAD to do something. It wasn't a choice. It was a calling.

I had no idea what it took to start a podcast (I am not a quick adapter to technology), but I used my student status to figure it out. I emailed the person who did the podcast for UNC and met with him. He gave me tips and shared tools I would need. He demystified the process.

When we see others doing things, we are able to see ourselves as capable of doing those same things.

And I figured it out. And I am still figuring it out. Mid-way through my program, I started questioning what I really wanted to do. What did I want out of my life? What was my purpose? How can I make a difference in the world? I started doing fun projects in my assistantship, reaching out to more people, and getting uncomfortable. I presented at several conferences and met amazing people along the way. I still published, but I didn't really see the point of pressuring myself to publish in order to reach tenure (apparently, it's really hard. And there are only a few of these positions every year in my field. And I just wasn't interested anymore).

Because of my personal development journey, I started becoming interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. So, to make the most of my doctorate, I asked if I could do research or take a class related to entrepreneurship so I could learn how to build a business. I reached out to the professor to see how we could make it work - and I got to audit the course, for free, and only had to do one of the group projects. I just got to sit, listen, and learn. It was pretty old school, and focused on building companies (think tech, apps, creating a store). I just wanted/ still want to make 6-figures on my own. But I still learned some things.

I share these stories because often we can look at other peoples' accomplishments and think that everything went smoothly. But it rarely does. Here are a few highlights and lowlights from my degree. I share these highlights because I am damn proud and think they are worth celebrating. I share these lowlights because it's not just about the good things. But I'll take the bad with the good any day.

Highlights of my degree:

-Getting my first paper published.

-Having a professor from a major university reach out to me to talk about my article. I was SO NERVOUS and now we are good friends and work on research projects together. Then having another PhD student reach out, and a director at an institution about the article. We have a legit research crew and friend group.

-Getting to work with AMAZING people through my graduate assistantship. Laughing so hard during lunch.

-Getting asked to help with a book because of the way that I write. Dr. Larkins told me how impressed he was with my creative qualitative writing.

-Applying for and getting my first research grant.

-Building a relationship with my research chair that will continue after my degree.

-Meeting a random guy on a plane, talked for 4 hours, and he ended up becoming my mentor.

-Learning how to prioritize me over school. Continued to workout on a regular basis. It's just a degree.

-Creating a book club so I could make friends.

-Living in gratitude.

-The ability to continue to pay off my student loans.


-Often feeling out of place like I didn't know what the heck was going on. (Life tip: Getting a PhD still doesn't help! I still have no clue what is going on and am just doing my best).

-Not feeling like I fit in with the academy or back home. It's this weird in between.

-Getting an article rejected because of methodology (literally... the worse possible reason in my opinion. I should know how to do that!).

-Having to change my committee twice, both at the last minute.

-Presentations rejected.

-Applying for a research grant in the wrong way.

-The first 2 years, spending long hours commuting and in class - Leave home between 8-9am and get home at 9:30-10:30pm 3x a week. Eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the go.

-Often feeling like I am not a good wife, dog mom, daughter, or PhD student.

-Questioning if it's worth it.

-Struggling hard for 2 full years to make friends because of all the commuting. Crying several times because having girlfriends was important to me but I didn't have time, and I didn't make time.

Biggest takeaways and insights

(1) Try and keep trying if you really want something. It took a while for me to get in to a PhD, let alone finish one. I didn't get accepted the first or second time I applied. And I am so, so, so glad. The program, Colorado, and all of it was a much better fit for me, and for us. I am so grateful I did not get in the first 2 times.

(2) You have to show up in life. I took full advantage of my degree and made it my own - just like I want for every single students, and the purpose of the College Life podcast I started during this time. (Fun fact: this is why my website is called Make College Yours). This means getting outside of your comfort zone and reaching out to people - for help, to connect, to build relationships. Some of them will manifest into wonderful relationships.

(3) The power of possibility. I have really big dreams. And they keep getting bigger. I keep challenging what I thought was possible for me and I keep surprising myself. I am not a huge believer that you can do anything. But I am a HUGE BELIEVER that you should find out what is possible for you. Because if you find out that thing you really wanted to do isn't possible, you will build skills and meet people along the way to show you about other things you had no idea were possible. And they might be better than you could have imagined before. My biggest fear is that I could have had a bigger impact in this world but didn't go for it. It drives me.

(4) Good things take time. It's ok to be where I am now, especially if I am working toward where I want to be. I never understood what "enjoying the journey" meant until my PhD. Students I work with just want to graduate and move on, and I totally get it. Society tells us to enjoy the journey, but they don't mean it.

(5) You don't become confident - you have to build it. During this time I have become more myself. I have learned to show up authentically and awkward as hell. But it's working for me and life is much better this way. I give much less shits about what other people think and it is LIFE GIVING. I wish it hadn't taken me this long.

(6) Doing anything alone is worse than doing it with good people. This process would have looked a lot different with Carlos and Tucker by my side. It would have looked different without my friend, Rebecca, from the same small town going through a PhD, too. It would have looked different without my purpose people, or my level up and book club group. It would have looked different without a supportive chair or colleagues. I am so grateful for the good people I have met along the way.

(7) I still have SO MUCH to learn, so many areas to grow in. Apparently a PhD makes you an "expert" in your field. That feels weird. I will own some of that, and keep learning, growing, and sharing along the way.

Post PhD: What's next

I have no freaking clue. This used to scare me. It doesn't anymore. I have a job that I love right now, and I get to work with an amazing team (hoping COVID doesn't take it away!).

This weekend, instead of graduating like I was supposed to, I am again visioning the day that I will be with my parents and my husband in the weird looking regalia for graduation.

I have felt lost, stuck, and alone on this journey. I anticipate you have experienced these on your own life or college journey. Here are a couple mantras I use regularly to get me through a project, a day, a moment, or a workout.

You are stronger than you think you are.

You are more capable than you think you are.

Everything is Figureoutable (shout out to Maria Forleo)

Share your story. If this helped you in any way, then your story will likely help someone else. And maybe we can bring our authentic selves and start to feel less alone in this world.




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