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#BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter each and every day. For so long, Black people in the United States and throughout the rest of the world have been the brunt of policies and systems designed to negatively impact us through financial, political, and social means. This is systemic and change has been due, but has not come fast enough. I’m extremely proud of those stepping up and out by protesting, donating their time and money, and organizing within their respective communities. Slowly, but surely, we will make a change!

Credit: Jane Mount

Over the past month, the weight of this movement has weighed heavily on my mind. I’ve been extremely active on social media and within my department working to enact change and speak up about the injustices Black people face throughout our daily lives. For this blog post, I’ve compiled a list of resources both in and out of academia to help you support social movements and educate yourself on the history of structural racism and anti-Blackness in the United States.

Please take the time to go through these resources and visit any of them that may be useful to you!

You can’t play ignorance, justified by feeling uncomfortable, when Black people have been made to feel uncomfortable their entire lives in a white privileged, systematically racist and unfair society that is more than happy to benefit from Black culture, but isn’t so happy in adhering to the ideals of equality and basic human rights.

Jade Thirwall

Cornell Resources

These resources are specific to Cornell, but they may be helpful to all graduate students irrespective of your institution.

Academic Efforts and Resources

Resources for those looking to engage and learn more through an academic context. A big thank you to the #ShutdownAcademia movement for compiling a lot of these resources.

Academic/Professional Organizations and Initiatives

Political and Legal Resources

For those interested in writing to legislators and participating in protesting efforts.

Petitions

Petitions are important ways to make your voice heard and lend support to the creation of policies.

Fundraising Efforts

Funds to support recent victims and protests throughout the country.

Organizations

Learn more about organizations fighting for inequality and support them!

Podcasts

Thanks for reading! You can catch up on my previous posts here. Feel free to share this post and follow me on all social media platforms @CollegeSista! Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? You’re welcome to contact me on LinkedIn or through email!

The Start of a New Journey

Welcome to my blog! For those that don’t know me, I’m Chinasa Okolo: a PhD student, avid traveler, and music aficionado. I’ve been informally blogging for almost 5 years and decided to revamp my blog to focus on my personal and academic life.


I’m dedicated to helping those of us not represented enough in academia, technology, and entrepreneurship succeed within these respective domains. The goal of my blog is to provide insight throughout my journey as a Black woman at the intersection of these fields and hopefully inspire more of us to pursue careers in them.

You’re deserving of all the things in the world. So go get it.

— Janet Mock

Throughout the life of this blog I plan to post about personal finance, higher education, travel, my personal interests, and more! I’m open to taking questions about my journey and can be contacted through my blogging email. I’ve also posted a FAQ page to answer questions I tend to receive more often.

Be sure to subscribe to my blog and newsletter for updates throughout each month and follow me on social media @CollegeSista on all channels.

Thank you for reading and stay tuned!

Book Review: It’s About Damn Time

I had the pleasure of receiving an early copy of It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated Into Your Greatest Advantage, the debut book by Arlan Hamilton. If you don’t know who Arlan Hamilton is, she’s a world renowned venture capitalist and the founder of Backstage Capital, a venture firm that has already invested in over 100 companies dedicated to supporting underrepresented underestimated founders. I’ve been following Arlan’s work for a couple of years now and believe that she is the real deal. Reading and listening to her story of sleeping in SFO to now traveling around the world (before COVID-19 hit, of course) keynoting conferences, leading panels, and raising millions for her fund, has made her a huge inspiration to me and plenty of others!

One thing that stood out to me about It’s About Damn Time was how clearly Arlan’s voice shines through the pages. I’ve watched multiple videos of talks Arlan has given and have listened to nearly all of the podcasts she’s spoken on (check out her podcast, Your First Million). Reading this book felt like I was in those rooms listening to her conversations and at times felt like it was 1-on-1! This is the first time I have ever done a book review and I am eager to discuss the main insights I received from the book and how Arlan’s story resonates beyond the world of venture capital and directly to grad students. Let’s get it started!


Arlan had so many gems throughout her book, so it was a bit tough to choose the most memorable ones! Here are three quotes that stuck out to me the most and have made me reflect more deeply about my journey in academia:

Quote 1

Chase what inspires, invigorates, and refuels you. If you do that, success will find you. It will chase you in return.

In grad school, it can be easy to fall into the “trap” of being stuck in a research project or field you’re not passionate about. During my first year, I found myself in a situation where I was content with my research but I wasn’t fully passionate about it. I came to realize that this wasn’t what I wanted to do and took time to find what really inspires me. Since this shift in my research goals, I’ve found myself to be invigorated by all of the possibilities that my research holds for me and definitely feel “refueled”. I’m involved in a variety of research projects that I know will be successful and am eager to expand my domain expertise even further.

Quote 2

I will not shrink myself to make someone else more comfortable. I deserve to be in the room.

This quote reminded me of impostor syndrome, something that many grad students struggle with. Feelings of impostor syndrome are exacerbated even further by other factors such as being from an underrepresented group, experiencing microaggressions, and self-doubt. As the only Black woman or even the only Black person in many spaces I occupy, I do find myself “shrinking” at times. I’ve learned that not only does this make me even more uncomfortable, it heightens my sense of feeling like an “impostor”. It’s a tough journey to navigate, but I find that being in affirming spaces is one way I’ve been able to combat this.

Quote 3

When you expand people’s perception of what is possible, you enable them to think bolder, dream bigger, and achieve more.

I believe that part of my responsibility as a grad student and as a Black, Nigerian-American woman pursuing a PhD is to inspire the next generation of underrepresented students in computing and related fields. I know that my presence and the space I take up enables younger students to do exactly what Arlan said: “think bolder, dream bigger, and achieve more”. I spend a lot of my time mentoring students and have benefited from mentors and older graduate students who took the time to do the same for me. It’s only right that I pass it on!


I hope this review was helpful to you and maybe even persuaded you to learn more about Arlan Hamilton and her amazing journey! You can buy It’s About Damn Time directly from Penguin Random House or through other retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thanks for reading! You can catch up on my previous posts here. Feel free to share this post and follow me on all social media platforms @CollegeSista! Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? You’re welcome to contact me on LinkedIn or through email!

Note: Quarantine Check-in

Hey everyone! April is almost over and May (one of my favorite months of the year) is creeping up on us. With the school year winding down, course projects winding up, and still trying to be productive in the midst of a pandemic, things are somewhat hectic for me. I’ve been doing my best to manage my academic, personal, and extracurricular commitments in this new environment but a lot of it is just overwhelming. On the average day, I have around three Zoom/Hangout/Meet/Skype calls and sometimes have had up to five! Yesterday, I was on two Zoom meetings at the same time :O

Everyone is “hustling” or “taking advantage” of the time they gained from now staying at home, but this hasn’t been the same for everyone, especially us grad students. There’s so much diversity within the grad student population from age, to marital status, to being parents and it can be hard to imagine how the “average” grad student is coping. I’m fortunate that I can get my work done from anywhere in the world as long as I have a secure Internet connection. I definitely feel for those who have been cut off from their labwork and have now been forced to figure out a way to advance their research from home. One of my good friends is an Animal Science PhD student and her calf trials have been suspended for the time being, which I’m sure is extremely frustrating!

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.

Sun Tsu

I saw this quote floating around and found it to be extremely insightful. When thinking further about it, I realized that the emphasis was not on the opportunity for you to produce but on the opportunity to focus within and work on yourself.

Overall, I’m proud of Cornell’s response to the sudden shutdown and how they have allocated resources to students all across campus. I acknowledge that not many universities have the resources that Cornell does and I am forever grateful to be supported by an institution like this! Many grad students are worried about the new timeline shift of their academic milestones and I’m definitely in this boat as well. I was planning to do field research in India this summer, but now it’s unknown if I can even go. I’m fortunate to have supportive advisors and a department that is receptive to their student needs, so my worries about this have been somewhat quelled. I would love to know what new activities you’ve partook in since quarantine started and how your institution has supported you during this time. Feel free to comment below and share your experiences!

Many universities have posted resource websites for their graduate students. If you’re looking for more tips to stay motivated during this time, check out Cornell Graduate School’s website! Be sure to take care of yourself and remember that we’ll get through this with time (and with an effective government response)!


Thanks for reading! You can catch up on my previous posts here. Feel free to share this post and follow me on all social media platforms @CollegeSista! Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? You’re welcome to contact me on LinkedIn or through email!

Blog Update: Let’s catch up!

I’ve been AWOL for the past few months, so thank you to everyone who has continued to follow and share my content! With the COVID 19 crisis occurring and personal life taking over, I haven’t been as active on my blog as I’ve wanted to be. Being in grad school and navigating its complexities can be a slippery slope, so I’ve been doing my best to stay strong and take care of my emotional and physical health during this time.

I’m sure you all want an update, so here are some things I’ve been up to since the beginning of the year:

  • I traveled to Nigeria and Ghana for some personal travel and to give back through service learning trips! I’m planning on writing more about my trip soon.
  • Got more in-depth with my research plans and started some new collaborations!
  • I joined Cornell Healthcare Review as a writer!
  • Spoke at a roundtable session and presented a talk virtually!
  • Getting back to reading! I’ve read almost 15 books since the start of this year and haven’t been slowing down. I even finished 3 books in one week!
  • Got accepted to the blackcomputeHER Fellows program and received an Honorable Mention from two prestigious fellowships.
  • I updated my academic website!
Had a terrifying (but awesome) time on a ropes course in Accra with other Cornell students and my professor!

I have a lot of content prepared to post, but want to be sensitive to your needs at this time. What kind of content are you looking to see?

Some things I have in mind are staying consistent through personal and global crises, completing your work virtually, and managing your finances as a grad student. With tax season already here, I was planning on focusing on budgeting, saving, and tax topics but I definitely want to hear your thoughts!

Many schools have posted resource websites for their graduate students. If you’re looking for more tips to stay motivated during this time, check out Cornell Graduate School’s website! Be sure to take care of yourself!

Thanks for reading! You can catch up on my previous posts here. Feel free to share this post and follow me on all social media platforms @CollegeSista! Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? You’re welcome to contact me on LinkedIn or through email!

Organizing Your Fellowship Applications

It’s now December and fellowship application season is picking up pretty quickly! I have a couple of deadlines within the next month and wanted to share my process for applying to fellowships. In my previous post, I detailed why you should apply to fellowships and provided some resources that you can use to apply to some. In this post, I’ll be talking about how I organize my applications and how I prepare my research and personal statements.

For those who need a quick refresher, here is a short list of the main things you need to apply to fellowships:

  • List of fellowships you are applying to
  • Personal and research statements
  • List of potential recommenders

Consistency across your applications is very important! I realized that I was forgetting a lot of the awards and honors I received during undergrad and this may have impacted my previous applications in ways I don’t even know. Now, to keep on top of everything, anytime I get a new job, award, or volunteer experience, I add it to one of my various lists to ensure that I won’t forget it! Not only does this help with consistency, but I am able to keep my LinkedIn and CV updated more often. This also helps when recommenders ask for more information to provide in their respective letters!

Here are examples of some of the documents names I use to organize all of my work and internship experiences, presentations, research, volunteering, and awards/honors:

  • Application Plan
    • This document is basically a summary of an article I read on ProFellow. I just tailored the timeline to match my own schedule and voila!
  • Impact of Research + Keywords
    • A lot of fellowships will ask what impact your research has and ask for you to provide keywords relevant to your research. I thought it would be great to write this out in its own separate document so I could explain everything more clearly.
  • Research Summary
    • Sometimes different fellowships require varying word counts, so I have 500, 750, and 1000-word versions of my research summary in this document.
  • List of Awards
    • Very simple! I keep track of all my past awards (undergrad and up) and write down present ones as they come in.
  • Teaching Experience
    • This document hosts all of my Teaching Assistant experiences plus other experiences where I led workshops or collaborative learning sessions.
  • Research Experiences + Presentations/Publications
    • In this document, l keep track of my undergraduate and graduate research experiences plus poster/oral presentations and publications (coming soon!).
  • Volunteer Experiences & Science Outreach
    • Again, a pretty simple document! I keep track of volunteering I do such as speaking on panels, organizing workshops, etc. I also keep track of executive board positions I have in student organizations.
How I organize everything in my “Application Preparation” folder in Google Drive

In addition to these files, I also keep track of the fellowship names and application/recommendation deadlines. I also use Google Tasks to send me reminders, which is extremely helpful because it integrates with Google Calendar. I hope this article was helpful and I am sure that implementing some of these tips will definitely help you craft the best fellowship applications! If you have any questions about how I format these respective documents, feel free to leave any suggestions or comments and I’ll incorporate them in future blog posts. Thank you for reading and good luck on your fellowship applications — you got this!

Be sure to catch up on my Grad School Series by reading my previous posts here. Feel free to share this post and follow me on all social media platforms @CollegeSista! Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? Feel free to contact me on LinkedIn or through email!

Funding Your Graduate Studies

So now that you’ve finished preparing your grad school applications, how are you going to fund your studies? One popular way of doing this is through fellowships! Fellowships are alternate funding sources sponsored by organizations and agencies that allow students to pursue their research and graduate studies.

Looking for fellowships to apply to? Here’s a list of some on my GitHub and fellowship portals from UCLA and ProFellow.

Maybe you’re tired from all of your graduate school applications and may not think that fellowships would be a great thing to pursue at this time. Why apply for fellowships? Fellowships allow you to focus solely on your research without the additional commitment of being a Teaching Assistant which can take around 15 hours a week (sometimes more). Some of them even come with equipment and professional development funding, which is helpful if you need to upgrade your computer from undergrad or travel to conferences!

Fortunately, many of the same resources that you used to prepare your graduate school applications can now be used to prepare your fellowship applications. Here are some things you need to apply to fellowships:

  • List of fellowships you are applying to
  • Personal and research statements
  • List of potential recommenders

I’ve been fortunate to win a couple of fellowships and scholarships over the past few years and they have helped me immensely! One thing I benefited from when applying for fellowships is by being extremely organized. I contacted all of my recommenders a couple of months before with a chart detailing the names and deadlines of the fellowships I was applying to. I also sent my recommenders personal statements, research proposal drafts, and my CV to give them more context and to help them prepare the best recommendation letters they could write for me. Implementing some of these tips will definitely help you craft the best fellowship applications!

Be sure to catch up on my Grad School Series by reading my previous posts here. I would love for you to share this post and follow me on all social media platforms @CollegeSista! Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? Feel free to contact me on LinkedIn or through email!

How to Apply to Grad School

Throughout my last few posts, I have discussed why I went to grad school and how to determine if you should apply to grad school. Next up in this series, I’ll discuss what you need when applying to grad school!

Some things you need to apply to grad school:

  1. Money! (Let’s be real, application fees and entrance examinations are expensive)
  2. List of schools you are applying to
  3. Personal statement
  4. Research statement
  5. List of potential recommenders

Fortunately, I was able to receive fee waivers for every grad school I applied to and even a partial waiver for the GRE! I was adamant that I would spend the lowest amount of money I possibly could throughout this process and achieved my goal. I will admit that the GRE score reports were a bit expensive after adding everything up. I would suggest asking the respective schools you apply to if you could send unofficial score reports and only pay for the official ones once you have been accepted and plan to enroll.

As I’ve said in a previous post, I only chose to apply to schools I would go to if they were the only ones I got into. From this, I was able to choose a mix of top 10 universities in computer science and universities not in the top 10 or top 20 that had professors I was interested in conducting research with. Research fit is extremely important and it’s essential to not let the prestige of schools you may be interested in cloud your judgement. Being stuck in a research area you’re not passionate about may prevent you from progressing throughout your graduate studies and leave you with an unsatisfactory experience.

In my opinion, your personal statement and research statements are the most important parts of your application. These statements should demonstrate your interest in research and passion for the respective field you want to conduct research in. It is also important to convey why you are the best fit for each program you apply to and you can do this by tailoring your statement to the respective university. Another essential part is your letters of recommendation. While you have less say in what your recommenders write in their letters, you do have a say in who you pick to write them. Always make sure that any person who writes a letter for you will write a positive one!

I’m still debating if I want to make another series detailing how to craft statements for graduate school and fellowship applications but here is a great Twitter thread about common pitfalls to avoid when writing your research statements. Let me know in the comments if you would like a more detailed guide or links to more resources and I’ll get started on a post! Also, Dartmouth’s Computer Science department has a great webpage detailing the process of applying to, selecting, and enrolling in MS or PhD programs in computer science. Definitely take a look if you are interested in going that route!

Feel free to share this post and follow me on all social media platforms @CollegeSista! Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? Feel free to contact me on LinkedIn or through email!

Should You Go to Grad School?

I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks and I’m super happy to get back to posting! In my last post I started off my graduate school series by discussing why I went to grad school. Next up in this series, I’ll discuss how you should make a decision to go to grad school!

Before you think about applying to and enrolling in graduate school, here are some things I think you should consider:

  1. Can I afford to go to grad school?
  2. Am I willing to stay in school for 1-2 more years (Master’s) or 4-7 more years (PhD)?
  3. Do I like taking classes and conducting research?
  4. Am I comfortable moving far from home?
  5. Do I want to become a professor?

Fortunately, if you are enrolled in a reputable PhD program you don’t have to worry about paying for tuition and you get a stipend! With my stipend, I’m able to afford everything I need to live comfortably in Ithaca and save for retirement (series coming soon!). I moved halfway across the country for undergrad (Missouri to California) and then all the way across the country (California to New York) for grad school, so I’ve become used to long distance moves. When I applied to grad school, I was set on becoming a professor so I knew that there were few other options for me to pursue post-grad.

There are way more things to consider such as if you have significant student loans. If you enroll in a professional program (MBA, MPA, MD, JD, etc.) and you don’t have any outside income, you need to account for living expenses and tuition. They may be deferred during your time in grad school but if you take out more loans during this time, you may be expecting serious payments once you graduate. I was fortunate not to have any loans during undergrad, so I am not super familiar with this process but there are lots of resources online!

Feel free to share this post and follow me on all social media platforms @CollegeSista! Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? Feel free to contact me on LinkedIn or through email !

Why I Chose to Attend Grad School

Graduate school application season is here, so I’ll be starting off my blog with a graduate school series! First up, I’ll be talking about why I chose to apply and attend my respective institution.


I’m currently a PhD student in Computer Science at Cornell University studying Computer Vision and Information & Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD). As a young adult, I always loved the idea of attending graduate school but it took me a while to figure out the exact path I wanted to take. Fortunately, I had the privilege of participating in summer research experiences, mentoring groups, and preparatory programs that supported my journey to graduate school and I’m here to share this with you all!

How did you choose where to apply?

My mantra for applying to grad school is that I would only apply to a specific university I would attend if it happened to be the only place I was accepted to. I also wanted to attend a top program in computer science, so making my choices based on these two main criteria simplified my options pretty easily. In grad school, it is important to find professors in a specific field that you are interested in working with, so you can’t choose a school based solely on its name or reputation. I used a handy website (http://csrankings.org) to factor out university rankings based on specific areas within computer science and then found professors in those disciplines that I would want to work with. Also, I was not picky about location or climate (even though I would have preferred to stay on the west coast), but that is a major factor for many prospective students to consider.

Why did you choose to attend Cornell?

During the second semester of my senior year after a receiving acceptances from graduate schools across the country, it was time to make some visits! Due to my hectic schedule and having to finish up my senior project, I was unable to visit every school but I did make it to my top choices. During my spring break, I flew over 2500 miles across the country to visit Cornell and Princeton and knew that I would have a tough choice ahead. I knew that I would be happy with either choice, but these institutions are so different culturally and academically that it was important for me to take everything into consideration.

Collage of buildings at Cornell and Princeton
Fortunately, my decisions weren’t based on weather because there was snow in March at both places! (top: Princeton, bottom: Cornell)
Princeton Computer Science Visit Day

I’m not sure much how this factored into my decision, but I visited Cornell first and it really set the tone for my subsequent visits. When leaving, I felt a twinge of sadness and knew that I wanted to come back. Even though I had never heard of Ithaca, NY a day in my life, my visit to the Computer Science department left me fulfilled and reinforced the idea that I could survive as a Black woman in a department where I would be one of few who look like me. I loved visiting Princeton as well, but I only saw one other underrepresented student at my visit (who I coincidentally met at a conference 7 months later!) and didn’t get to interact with current students as much as I would’ve liked. Most importantly, the faculty in the research areas I was interested in pursuing were a bit more established at Cornell and I knew it would be easier to switch or add research interests (which I ended up doing!).

Are you happy with your choice?

I can say that I’m extremely content with my choice to attend Cornell for graduate school! The graduate school here is unmatched in terms of support and opportunities and I couldn’t have chosen a better institution for this journey. I’ve had my struggles along the way, but the supportive communities I’ve cultivated across campus and within my department keep me motivated!


Have questions about applying to grad school, life as a graduate student, or Cornell in particular? Feel free to contact me on LinkedIn or through email!