Along the Way with Cristina Tanzola

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The Along the Way series, in general, is special and important to me. I love having a platform for women to share their stories. While all the Along the Way posts are special, this one is particularly special because I asked my best friend, Cristina Tanzola, to share her story.

Christina and I have been friends since high school, which I can’t believe was more than 10 years ago. Since then, I moved away for college, came back to Texas, and now she has moved to New York for grad school at Sarah Lawrence College. All the while, we have remained close and I am so grateful for our friendship.

I have been very inspired by her journey. Over the last year, Christina took a big leap to move away from her longtime home, San Antonio, and pursue a Masters degree. Her story is a reminder that 1) while it may be terrifying to leave your comfort zone, you will grow and learn so much if you do and 2) to go after the things we want.

Her answers are valuable for anyone thinking about going back to school or thinking about making a major life change.

After working for a few years, you decided to go back to grad school. What is the hardest thing about going back to school?

I think the hardest thing has been being a college student again.

On the one hand, being in the working world and gaining skills from the jobs I've had has helped give me a professional edge and experience to prepare for life after graduate school. On the other, I do feel behind at times in comparison to my fellow classmates. Coming to graduate school immediately after your undergraduate work is beneficial because your mindset is still fresh and you are used to writing and having a solid understanding of concepts and theories that you have learned. When you take a long break from school, you naturally don't have as much practice, so for me, there was a feeling that I needed to catch up.

I also found it difficult to express myself even though I consider myself a very outspoken person. It came from a place of insecurity and was something I consistently needed to work on. The best way to get over it has been to continue to read and give myself time to think about what is actually being said and to be sure that when I speak I take my time and speak with confidence. The more I do this, the more I feel I am making a productive contribution in the classroom, with my professors, and with my cohort. 

Tell us more about what you are studying. Why did you pick this field of study?

I am getting a Master's in Women's History. Our program discusses the literature of history and focuses on the impacts of gender and the contributions of feminist theories. The program also promotes a duty of activism and community participation using the subjects we learn to understand the world around us with an intersectional standpoint involving the overlapping of race, class, and gender.

I focused on this field because, in my undergraduate program, I gravitated towards subjects that pertained to gender and cultural studies. I was able to use the skills in my psychological background to better understand issues that affect different groups of people.

I've always had a want, even as a young girl, to support the rights and lives of women, so focusing on women in history is crucial to being able to move feminism forward. I will be focusing my thesis research on the relationship of women and the US/Mexico border, with attention towards the theories of borders and the different experiences that immigrant women particularly go through prior to, during, and after immigrating to the United States. I want to be able to incorporate my interest in feminism, culture and international politics to be able to look to solutions for the future of immigration and gender issues.

Do you have any tips for someone going back to school this Fall?

The first thing I would recommend is to go enjoy your summer! Go do things you want to do, take a vacation, and enjoy the company of loved ones because the next year is going to be you going full steam ahead and it can be intense. You'll want to enjoy your downtime before you go right into classes.

The second thing I would recommend is to read as much as you can about how to prepare for grad school. I would read tons of articles and blogs about going to grad school and what it meant emotionally and financially which helped me be as prepared as possible. I'm the kind of person that looks for an experience of someone that closely resembles mine so that I can feel less unprepared for what I'm about to do.

The third thing is to check information from your school often and try and turn in all required documents as soon as you can so that it's the last thing you worry about during the beginning of the school year.

You will most likely have reading to do prior to class starting so my final recommendation is to read what you are required to read early on with enough time to spare so that you can come in on your first day as ready as possible.

In addition to deciding to go back to school, you decided to move to New York, which is a completely new place for you. What was the scariest thing about moving? What are some things that helped you adjust to the change?

I think the scariest/hardest thing was being away from my family and friends that live in Texas. I was fortunate to have an amazing boyfriend who came with me to New York and we were able to adjust to a new life in a new state together. He has been a huge reason for my feelings of stability and comfort. We made sure we enjoyed each other’s company and spent time exploring our new neighborhood.

However, there were still times when I felt very overwhelmed by change. A good friend of mine reminded me that I had to let myself accept the change and to not rush the process. It’s ok to let yourself be emotional or be alone because it’s all a part of coping. Soon you’ll get the hang of things because eventually, the unknown becomes routine.

I also made sure I was communicating frequently with my family and friends which helped us not feel like we were far from each other. I will always love my hometown but I really adjusted to being in a place very unfamiliar to me and I really love it.

Now, one of my favorite things to do is to look for places I've never been to be able to manage myself in an unknown space. A good rule of thumb for life!


In what way do you think you have grown the most since moving and starting grad school?

I think the way I have grown the most is in the way I carry myself and the way I speak. I am much more confident in myself because I think about what I've accomplished and that I really have the ability to always be better.

I have also spent this time thinking about what I want, what I deserve, being more comfortable with saying no and trying to reduce how often I apologize when I don’t need to. I think it comes with my deeper knowledge of feminism and turning 30. I think being far away from what I was familiar with gave me a space to say, "Hey you are here for you, don't do things you don't want to. Your time and your space is important as well!"

I visited Texas a few months ago and people could feel this positive change in me. It's very true when they say that you're a greater service to the world around you if you take care of yourself first. I have also become much more punctual because A. I rely on public transportation and B. I realize that time is valuable, mine and other people's, so it needs to be respected.

I also feel I've become more aware of the world around me. Being in one of the most culturally diverse places in the US opens my eyes to many different people and ideas. I am learning so much in school about ideas, theories, and events that I never knew before. The biggest lesson has been that the more I learn, the more I realize how much I didn't know. This results in me being more open to new ideas and to be a more knowledgeable person who can defend what I believe in based on what I have learned academically and socially.

Something we have talked about before is how in school, professors and peers are always having to critique your work. It can be challenging to accept feedback (I know I struggle with it). What are ways to take feedback without getting offended?

Very challenging and emotional! The classes I took were very difficult and we would have one-on-one meetings with professors who would talk us through our research and explain to us what we needed to do to be better students. I put it in my mind before I came to grad school that I would be a sponge. I would be open to criticism and ready to hear what could be done to make me stronger and better.

However, it wasn't always easy.

There would be times where I would get emotional after a meeting because I felt like there was too much I didn't know and that I was too behind everyone else but I always came out of those moments remembering that no one is criticizing me because they want me to feel bad. It's not a personal attack. It's a way to make me improve so that I can be even more ready for the next assignment or reading.

I had a professor tell me that criticism is a way to push you so that you are better. If you were never told how to be better, you would be left behind and that it’s important that women aren’t left behind because their work and their voices are needed in academia. That really made me see a much bigger picture.

The best advice I would give, especially after a particularly hard criticism about your work or your ability or your weaknesses, is to remember that to be told what you need to do to fix something means you have the capability of fixing it. It will result in a stronger, smarter, better version of yourself that you know you achieved because you did everything in your power to improve. Your professors are great resources and want to help you succeed so talk to them if you're feeling overwhelmed or if you need any additional help. I thought of my professors as personal trainers, tough but compassionate and always there to help me with my goals.

How do you cope with self-doubt? What are your tactics for getting through it?

Coping with self-doubt has been a continuous process with me.

One thing I will be very vocal about is how easy it is to fall into imposter syndrome. You'll read how you should be wary of it and just try your best not to let it consume you, but it comes to you in many different forms.

For me, it included feeling that one day I would be kicked out of school, that the professors were all talking about how terrible I was, that I was so behind everyone else, that I didn't look like a person who was getting a master's degree...but those were all imposter syndrome lies!

As cheesy as it may seem, I like to go read those Instagram pages with quotes to get me fired up. Or I'll read about a woman who accomplished what she wanted and I get inspired to fight against my negative thoughts. I also feel really empowered when I talk to my parents, my boyfriend, my sister or my friends who always remind me how proud they are of me and it makes me realize that the way I talk to myself I would never do with all these people that I love, so why should I do it to myself?

It's a hard habit to get out of but I feel I accomplish more when I am nicer to myself. Remember that you would never say the mean things you say to yourself to anyone you love so there is no need for you to do it to yourself.

When are you most proud of yourself?

When I give a successful presentation from a very thoughtful preparation. I have accepted that my preparation for certain situations may take longer and require a lot of "just in case" tips (getting to a location super early, making extra note cards and post its, timing myself while practicing at home) but it helps me accomplish something.

A lot of times I am told faster ways to finish something, but I find comfort in taking my time and doing whatever is needed for myself to provide a successful result. I also love when people tell me something I said to them that helped them with a problem or helped them feel better about themselves.

I have always been proud of my ability to be comfortable talking to different people in any social setting. That sense of comfort is a positive attribute that I feel has helped guide me through my life. I'm also proud of my ability to ask questions. I don't risk worrying about how I look when I ask a question because, in the end, I get an answer that makes me more knowledgeable and sure of what I'm doing.

Anything else you would like to add?

I would like to end by saying, try not to be concerned with age. A professor told me that she wishes she could help her students disregard what their age means to help them get ahead in life. We put such emphasis on what specific ages are supposed to have accomplished that we may sometimes miss opportunities or feel insecure for doing or not doing something.

Lately, I've been asking adults older than myself what their favorite age was and their answers always vary. This tells me so much and comforts me in knowing that we are all so different and that there isn’t one right way to do things.

Accomplishments happen often and sometimes your best times come much later than you think. No one has an identical past or path so don't stress out about where you SHOULD be. If you're starting graduate school at 21, 30 or 55 that's an incredible thing. Be proud to be going for it. People do things at different times in their life. Don't feel discouraged if you aren't in your early 20's with the perfect career. It's all a journey with highs and lows. Just keep going! You’re amazing!

Along the WayRebekah Epstein