Dreams In-Progress: Apollo Rydzik on finding your rhythm as a first gen. student

It’s been so great to interview college seniors for Dreams In-Progress blog interview series to get to know how they’re processing their college experiences and envisioning their post-graduate plans. There are so many post-grad decisions to make that unfold with time and perspective: When do you start looking for jobs? Do you take some time to travel? Apply to grad school? It’s a lot to figure out–especially if you’re a first-generation, transfer Student of Color. I am so thrilled to have gotten the opportunity to interview Apollo Rydzik and learn more about his pathway. Collaborating with him on this piece was an awesome time!

Be sure to check out Apollo’s helpful grad school application spreadsheet template in the Resources section at the end of the interview. Thanks so much to @Gong_and_a_bell, @Eoaudreys, and @Ferheen11 for submitting Instagram Story Viewer Questions that are featured in teal!

PC: Annabel Gong

Name: Apollo Rydzik
Pronouns: he/him
From: Berkeley, CA
Institution: Stanford University,
spring ’20
Area of Study: Sociology
Intended Career Path: Ph.D. in Sociology & Professorship


Q: Tell me about yourself! What are you passionate about?

A: I’m a senior at Stanford University majoring in Sociology. Before going to Stanford, I was at Foothill Community College for 2 years and majored in Sociology and got my A.A. [Associate’s degree]. I’m really interested in the intersections of race, policing and the broader criminal justice system, which is what my honors thesis is on, and I hope to continue studying that in grad school. Outside of academics, I enjoy reading, watching movies, and making art, especially watercolor!

Q: Take me back to when you were applying to college. What were some of the things you were thinking about? What were you interested in studying?

A: In high school I was interested in Political Science and International Relations; that was a really big thing for me. At that time, I became passionate about social justice, and I was like, “Well, what better way to do it than to run for a political office and directly enact change that way?” So, I had this really grandeur vision of being a senator someday, even though I was, and still am, pretty introverted, aha. Even though I’m a first-generation student, all throughout my public school career, I knew I wanted to go to college. My dad was always really supportive about my education, so I felt motivated to work really hard and get good grades.

There were a lot of challenges, though. Like, I didn’t really know what the SAT was until late in [the fall of] senior year, oops. I still somehow managed to apply and it felt momentus, but then for me, the issue was the financial cost. It was so weird; it was one of those things where people would tell me, “Oh, that’s a good financial aid package that you got.” But then I thought about how I’d be $60,000 in debt–how is that good? It was hard to tell people that I couldn’t do it, because $60k of debt is so much money, and people didn’t get it. And on top of that, I had worked so hard throughout all of my academic career only to be blocked by something completely out of my control. So it was really hard for me to decline offers and go to community college.

Q: What was your experience like at Foothill? What were you experiencing at community college?

A: I came into community college with a lot of resentment, to be honest. Essentially, community college is a fresh start in a lot of ways. Nobody is going to ask you about your high school grades or SAT score for the most part. Which is great for a lot of folks, but for me, it was crushing because I felt like all of my hard work was meaningless now. But despite all of that, I never gave up. I don’t know what it is, but there’s this part of me that is super stubborn and determined to see my goals through, even if they seem lofty. So, sooner rather than later, I got over myself and focused on excelling at Foothill. 

I think one thing that’s really different about community college is the working aspect. I had to pay for my own tuition and car and stuff like that, and there were multiple months where I was both working and going to school full-time. In some ways it sucked, because I was doing crappy retail jobs, but it also gave me so much insight into managing finances, my schedule, and just how much I valued my academics. Like, after being treated like sh*t for 6 hours by my manager and customers, I really couldn’t wait to go to class, learn about something I was passionate about, eventually transfer out, and (hopefully) leave retail work behind me for good. 

I had that dream of studying Political Science or International Relations throughout high school, and then, when I got to community college, I took Intro. to International Relations (it was an honors course), and it was so soul-crushingly hard. It was my first quarter at Foothill, and my professor was one of those people who was like, “This class is like a class you’d take at Harvard or Princeton, so I’m going to make it ridiculously hard for no reason.” And it was an Intro. Class at a community college.
SA: Those are supposed to suck you into the major and get you excited. 
AR: Yeah, and he wouldn’t lecture or anything; he just had us read, like, 200 pages a week and have the students lead sections and have their own discussions. We had to write a 30 page paper at the end of the quarter, and I was like, “I don’t know anything about research or even how to manage that much reading,” so I dropped that class, like, the second week [of the quarter]. After that, I didn’t know what to do, because that was the only section for International Relations and you had to take it if that’s what you wanted to major in. 

So, I just kind of played around with Social Science in general–I really liked History and things like that in high school. I ended up taking Intro. to Sociology with Dr. John Fox (@FoxSociology) at Foothill College, and he’s a really amazing person. I could tell from day one that he was super passionate not only about Sociology, but about his students and social justice in general. It felt like he was really pushing us to think about sociological concepts, like how we prescribe “deviance” and the social construction of race not just in abstract ways, but ways that they were relevant to the contemporary world around us. It was really cool and inspiring, and we ended up doing an independent study together, so I was able to finally try my hand at research. 
SA: What kinds of things did you do during your independent study?
AR: Yeah, so, I did a paper that measured thematic shifts in 21st century hip-hop to see how much modern hip-hop has diverged from hip-hop’s origins as a source of activism for the Black community and how commercialization has changed that. My methodology was pretty bad, haha. But it got my feet a little wet and made me feel like I had the capacity to contribute something to the conversation. Ever since then, I’ve been a diehard Sociology major. 

Apollo & their Dad at Graduation | Foothill C.C.


Q: What was the process like to apply and transfer to a 4-year university? 

A: For me, the transfer process was pretty smooth. Not only does California do a really good job of making sure community college students can get into UC’s [University of California schools] and CSU’s [California State University schools], but I had already applied for 4-year’s before so it was a piece of cake to do it again. At the time, I assumed I would just end up going to UC Berkeley, because my family was moving there anyway. I also thought about UCLA, to give myself the option to leave if I wanted to. In high school, I really wanted to go to the East Coast for school and have that kind of independence. But then, my dad encouraged me to apply to Stanford, because they have a really good financial aid policy; if your parents make under a certain amount of money, they fully pay for your tuition and, in some cases, 100% of your cost of attendance. But, for transfers, there’s less than a 1% chance of getting into Stanford.
SA: Wow, I didn’t know that!
AR: Yeah, there are only, like, 24 or so transfer students that are admitted every year. And I was like, “I am not going to spend so much time and money on this application just to get a ‘no.’” But then my dad was like, “If you have even a small chance of getting that kind of financial aid, it’s worth it just to apply. And it ended up working out!

I remember when I first found out that I got in, I was about to do my workout at the YMCA and had a couple of minutes to kill, so I sat in the parking lot and quickly checked my email and saw one from Stanford that said my application status had been updated. The funny thing was, it was in my spam! But when I logged in and saw that I got in, I immediately called my dad, and when he answered, I was crying so hard I could barely speak. He later told me that he thought I had gotten into a car accident or something. 

Q: Take me back to when you first moved in at Stanford. What was that like? 

A: It’s so, so different. It was instantly overwhelming but also really exciting. I just remember moving in and how happy I felt that my family was with me while I was moving in and how proud I felt. It’s interesting the way they do new student orientation; for freshmen they mingle with all the freshmen, but when you’re a transfer, they just socialize you within the transfer community. It’s your year and the year above you–so, it’s like 48 people or so. It’s a really diverse group; some of the transfers have kids and most have really interesting stories. You instantly get the sense that everyone in that group is super brilliant and passionate, and I felt genuinely honored to be affiliated with the transfer community. It was nice, too, because there are other people who share your anxiety. Like I said before, at this point I was really eager to focus most of my time on academics, but part of me was also questioning whether or not I would be able to meet the challenges that Stanford might throw my way. 

Q: Walk me through some of your experiences at Stanford, like being a first-gen. student at an elite school. How did that shape your first year there? 

A: I mean, I don’t think it’s a big secret. Stanford touts that they’re very diverse and have a lot of first-gen. students and such, but there’s not enough support for those types of students and in a lot of ways, I was able to navigate through community college easier than Stanford. So, my very first quarter at Stanford, I took Intro. to Computer Science–I don’t know why I did that, aha. Everyone had said that this is the class to take at Stanford, which I don’t think is true at all, but that’s an argument for another day. Anyway, I’d never done any programming before. Most Stanford classes don’t have enrollment caps, so the lecture had over 200 students–which is pretty big for Stanford. In comparison, the next largest class I’ve taken at Stanford was like 50 people, and at that point, they break you up into smaller discussion sections. The computer science class was so big that they would have an overflow room so if you didn’t get a seat in the main room, you could watch the professor lecture on the screen. Ultimately, I think what made it so difficult, in part, was that there were a lot of students in that class who shouldn’t have been in that class, because they had way more programming experience. I mean, the class was targeted specifically at people with zero programming experience, and it’s even in the course description, but it quickly became clear that you, in fact, needed some experience.

I would be in lecture, and I would understand the concepts and then I’d do the homework, and I had no idea what the f*ck I was doing. They were really strict about not letting you work with other students on your code, too, so you had to go to a specific tutor, but the tutoring center would always be super busy. I would literally wait like 2 hours for a tutor, and they would sit down and answer my question for only 10 minutes. Then I’d run into another problem and would have to wait 2 hours for help again, but then the tutoring center would close before they got to me again. I remember that class being super difficult and that defining my early experiences at Stanford.

I wish I had taken something else–maybe something I was actually passionate or curious about. I was questioning whether or not I actually belonged and could succeed at Stanford by like my third week there. That insecurity coupled with my pre-existing anxiety, difficulty making friends, and general challenges that come with being in a new setting made everything feel overwhelming. I remember also how difficult it is to make friends at that time point in your academic career. At that point, you’re about to leave, especially from community college, you’re so oriented on just academics and not much else. 
SA: Right? I wonder what it would mean to find community in that context. 
AR: Yeah, it was really difficult. Coming in with that mindset was difficult, because Stanford is, I think, a really extroverted school, and it’s really built around people who want to do a bunch of different things and network and things like that. So, it was that sense of awkwardness within myself, like, “Oh god, this is such a huge school and I want to do really well in my academics, but I also want to make friends, but I’m also really shy.” So, Stanford quickly became pretty isolating for me. I felt extremely incompetent and I hated being there. That’s a difficult feeling to confront and speak up about–especially when Stanford is a dream school for so many people.

Q: How did you overcome some of that feeling? What kinds of support systems did you lean on? 

A: My dad was, and still is, someone I really rely on for support. Of course, he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on, but just knowing that he’s already so proud of me and believes that I can make it through anything and do what I want with my life is huge. I remember one time my dad told me, “Look, you already did the work and got into Stanford. You don’t need to kill or prove yourself any further. It’s not like they’re going to kick you out or anything, right? Just try to enjoy it and appreciate where you are as much as you can.” And then after telling me all of that, we’d get chocolate ice cream (my favorite) and watch a dumb movie or something, haha. 

Also all of my friends from high school and other off-campus homies. It’s super valuable to have those off-campus connections that can give you that reality check that there’s more to life than Stanford. Getting more ingrained in the Sociology department at Stanford was also really valuable for me. There are so many amazing Faculty of Color, and they’re all so nice and want to support you as much as they can! So, getting that support from them and them reminding me that I am a competent person, that I’m here for a reason, and that I can produce really great work was also really helpful. 

@Gong_and_a_bell asks: How do you feel about going to a prestigious school? What do you tell people who ask you what it’s like to go to a prestigious school?

A: Honestly, going to Stanford has become pretty normalized for me. I still go to lecture, procrastinate, and eat the same mediocre dining hall food like anyone at any other college. So, yeah, Stanford is just like any other university but with a lot more money, and therefore more access to the best professors, a greater ability to provide more resources to its students, etc. 

I also think, though, that there’s an aspect of me constantly raising the standards for myself in that I’m like, “Yeah, great, I’m at Stanford, but now I need to achieve something even bigger and more impressive than that.” It’s something I’m continually working on–learning to be satisfied with where I am and what I’ve managed to accomplish and not burn myself out trying to meet lofty standards. So sometimes I do try to sit back and remember that despite a lot of adversity, I’ve managed to make my way to a place like Stanford. Also, my dad takes a lot of pride in telling people I go to Stanford, haha.


Q: How did Sociology further shape your pathway from community college to Stanford? What kinds of classes did you take? 

A: In community college, I was introduced to C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination,” which is thinking about how one’s individual experiences are the result of larger social and historical structures. While that sounds pretty basic, it really encouraged me to think about the things I took for granted, like being a first-generation student and being one of the few Black students in high school and how I could understand them as part of broader social processes. Once I got to Stanford, I realized that there are so many specialties within Sociology, and I got the opportunity to work with different professors and graduate students. Last quarter, I got to take 3 Sociology classes and I’m doing it again this quarter, and it’s just been really fun! Last quarter, I took an “Immigration and Race” course with Dr. Asad L. Asad (@asasad) and it was really amazing; he’s a super cool person. That class was interesting because immigration is such a hot topic in the news and social media right now, but a lot of these issues have existed for decades and are a substantial part of the U.S.’s history and culture. We got to see how much contemporary immigration law is based on overtly racist language and laws from the early 20th century, which was pretty crazy. 

Right now, I’m working with Dr. Forrest Stuart (@ForrestDStuart), who is my honors thesis advisor, and he does a lot of amazing work about policing practices and how they impact the communities they police. Working with him has been amazing, because he has always been down to help me with whatever stage of my own research that I’m at, or any general goals that I have. His mentorship has definitely helped me feel more confident about the contributions I can make to sociological discussions about the criminal justice system, especially through my honors thesis. I hope to make half the impact that he has made on the field someday. 

Q: You mentioned your honors thesis, so tell me about some of the ideas you were thinking about and how you approached your thesis. 

A: It’s really difficult for transfers; you’re supposed to start your thesis the winter of your junior year, so that’s literally the second quarter that you’re there if you plan on graduating in two years, aha. I remember fall quarter, I was browsing the Sociology page, and I saw the honors thesis tab, and I was like, “Oh, that sounds cool.” I was thinking about doing something on policing, which has been a really big part of my experience growing up. While we were in high school, Michael Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson and the Black Lives Matter movement was starting to protest and push for reform, so that was a huge topic that was in the back of my mind for a long time. When I told my major advisor that that was what I was interested in, he was like, “Oh perfect. We just hired someone who specializes in policing, and he starts in January, so I recommend you email him a few days after he gets here to ask if you can meet.” 
SA: I love that timeline, lol, that’s so academic. 
AR: YEAH! It’s funny because at Stanford, people gun for the same professors for honors theses, since professors are so busy, and students quickly figure out who will say yes. But then there’s me–just this first-gen. kid who has no idea what they’re doing and decided to do an honors thesis, because they saw a little blurb about it and thought it looked “cool,” haha. 
SA: That must have been wild to figure out right after starting at Stanford. 
AR: Right? And I had, like, no email etiquette so, I was like, “Hello, my major advisor said to talk to you about my thesis, can we meet?” Haha. But Dr. Stuart was super cool, and he was like, “Tell me about yourself, tell me about your interests.” And he told me about some of his work. He has a dope book called Down, Out, and Under Arrest; he did some ethnographic work in Skid Row with the homeless population there and the police and researched how they affect each other. He was really open to the ideas I had, so I ended up narrowing down my interests to how the media reports on police killings and how those reports vary based on the race of the victims.

Apollo Presenting Thesis | SURPS, Stanford University

How to Get Away with Murder | The Dehumanization of Black Victims and Protection of Officers in Police Homicide Reporting

AR: During winter quarter, I took a class that helps you refine your topic and also write a grant proposal. Stanford actually provides grants for honors thesis students, so you can work full-time over the summer on your project. 
SA: And that happened!
AR: Yeah, I got a really big grant to work on it over the summer, which was really exciting! I basically read through more than 500 articles and hand-coded them for specific crime news themes and language, and then I quantified and analyzed that data. It actually ended up becoming my writing sample for grad school applications, too. It all happened really quickly, but it was really exciting because it was something I was so passionate about and even when I felt exhausted from doing so much work, I would literally have trouble going to sleep sometimes, because I was so eager to keep thinking about my research.
SA: You presented about it, right?
AR: I did a poster session on it in October at Stanford’s Symposia of Undergraduate Research and Public Service (SURPS), which was really fun. That was the first time I really got to showcase what I was working on to someone besides Dr. Stuart, which was exciting. It was extra special, too, because my dad got to come down and look at my poster and hear my little spiel after seeing me work so feverishly. I’ll also be presenting in May at the Law and Society Association Conference in Denver, CO, and it’ll be a more complete presentation on my thesis. 
SA: Congrats, Apollo, that’s super cool!

Q: For people who may not know much about Sociology, what kinds of methodology did you use for your project? What were some things that went into your thesis?

A: In terms of methodology, I used a content analysis primarily. First, I used The Washington Post’s 2018 database of police killings to randomly sample 120 police homicides. From there, I used a news archive database to pull out every article written about these incidents that I could find. I used some previous studies and theories to create a list of specific types of language, grammar, and themes that reflected the way the media can sometimes reinforce the normalization of officer use of lethal force. For example, using loaded terms like “violent” or “chaotic,” explicitly mentioning the race of the victim, or removing the officer’s name from an article. I then read through each article and highlighted when and where these themes came up, paying special attention to how the use of these themes varied by the race of the victim. I party quantified these results by using a binary coding system, so I would mark 1 for “present” or 0 for “not present” for each theme by article. This all went into a massive excel sheet and I analyzed it to see the variance of the probability of those themes occurring based on the race of the victim.

Working on a thesis is a really iterative process; in an academic article you generally have the abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, and conclusion more or less in that order. But you don’t work on it in that order; for example, the purpose of the literature review is to take previous literature and build a case as to why your study is relevant and how it fits into previous discussions of the topic. But how can you know where your research fits in with previous discussions unless you do your study and create your thesis first? So, I started with the data and the methods; and then went back and wrote the literature review. And even then, I ended up deleting and rewriting sections a bunch of times throughout all of summer and fall quarter. 
SA: How many pages was your thesis?
AR: Haha, so, initially it was 50 pages single space with 11-point font, but since I was submitting it for grad applications, they often have a limit of, like, 20 or so pages. I got a lot of advice to just submit it even if it was over the limit, because they’ll just read up to page 20 or whatever else they need and just stop. But even then a lot of people told me, I still needed to shorten it because it’s super long, aha. I got it down to 30 pages when I submitted my application, which was painstaking. 

@Eoaudreys asks: What’s your fave part about research? 

A: So many things! It’s so exciting when you come up with a new question and get to read a lot of great and insightful research that helps you refine your question over time. And then the fun of collecting all of your data and playing with it and seeing the different kinds of results you managed to dig up. Probably my favorite thing, though, is thinking about what a privilege it is to get to critically think about pertinent social issues in this way. Even when I get to a stressful point in my research, I like to reflect on how lucky I am to pursue something I’m so passionate about and that may contribute to very real social change someday.


Q: When did you realize you wanted to go to grad school? What was the process like to apply?

A: I think grad school has always been something I wanted to do. I was more uncertain about it throughout community college and my first quarter at Stanford, because I didn’t really know what it actually was–I just knew you get a really nice degree at the end of it, aha. But overtime as I did things like tutoring and research, I realized I really enjoyed teaching and writing, and I could see myself doing it as a career. Initially, though, I was like, “Maybe I’ll just do a Masters degree and see if I want to do a PhD after.” But then, I found out that a Masters is not funded a lot of the time, which is so weird, because even at Stanford, they have like a co-terminal thing where you stay an extra year to get your Masters degree after undergrad but even that doesn’t give financial aid. Plus, I knew that I’d want to get a PhD anyway, because I love school and Sociology, so I was like, “Well, I might as well just try applying now [in my senior year].”

So one day, I just dropped into my advisor’s office and told him, “I’m interested in graduate school~ I don’t know much about it or what to even do.” He was immediately like, “You should find faculty that you really like to work with.” He recommended me some different faculty at a few different schools to look into. One thing I really recommend doing, which may seem kinda weird at first, is looking up professors on Twitter. It seems like academia is really shifting onto Twitter, so a lot of professors talk about their research and general day-to-day experiences in academia on Twitter, which is helpful when you’re trying to figure out if you’d be able to work well with someone. 

Q: Was there anything interesting that you saw when looking at professors’ pages on Twitter? 

A: I think seeing their different commentary on current events has been really interesting. Academia is super slow in terms of publishing research and things like that, so it’s a constant struggle for the discipline to catch up to things that are happening right now. But with Twitter, professors can instantly comment on things and their hot-takes are always really insightful. I also enjoy seeing what they say about grad school and general sentiments about academia. There’s a lot more discourse on things related to academia on Twitter recently. 
SA: Yeah, there’s a lot more transparency on mental health in academia now. #AcademicChatter is a good thing to search on Twitter to find academia-related posts.
AR: Exactly; I remember seeing this one professor I was interested in working with, and she said that she always has tissues in her office, so that if a student ended up crying in her office, she was able to console them in some way. I think these are the kinds of insights you can’t get from things like faculty web pages. 
But yeah, after I found some faculty I wanted to work with, I essentially made a huge Excel sheet of schools I was applying to and what they required and when things were due. It’s not like the Common App where there’s one application that you can apply to a bunch of schools through. Each school has an individual website, with individual requirements, so it can be really overwhelming to keep track of–I applied to 12 different schools because I was able to get a good amount of fee waivers.
SA: Wow, which schools are your top favorites?
AR: I’d really like to go to Stanford again, because the faculty is really great. I love, love the faculty! And in grad school, it’s important to have multiple faculty you can go to, and I think Stanford has that for me. I would say UC Berkeley is another one I’m interested in and University of Washington, as well, because I love Seattle. 
And then for grad school, you have to write the all important academic/personal statement, which is where you talk about what you’re interested in researching and the faculty you want to work with and why, what you see yourself doing with the degree, etc. 

Q: What was it like to have to think and write about how you connect with these grad programs? 

A: It was really difficult and took a long time to write. By then, I was applying to so many colleges, and it was getting tiring, aha. It’s a really different application than undergrad; for that, they’re more interested in things like your personality and interests outside of academia, but for grad school, it’s more like, “What do you want to research, what do you want to do with it, and what previous research have you done?” Even when you write the diversity statement where you write about the personal diversity you bring to the school, you have to also connect that back to your research interests. Given that I had only learned what grad school really was just a few months ago, it was especially hard. I had to write that thing so many times, and it was so exhausting, because I also had to worry about class and my part-time jobs and my honors thesis. That’s where having amazing faculty members who knew that I was a first-gen. student, really helped me. 

@Ferheen11 asks: How were you able to balance grad school apps with all the other things you have to do as a student and person?

A: Yeah, it was really stressful. One thing that helped me finish was that I started relatively early. I started working on my personal statement and a draft of my honors thesis even before the summer began. I think if you’re even entertaining the idea of applying to grad school in the upcoming fall, it’s really helpful to start as early as possible because even if you end up not applying, you can use the materials for the next application cycle. 

Another thing that drove me forward was just knowing that this was what I was genuinely passionate about and wanted to do. I had done retail and office jobs and worked for big Silicon Valley companies before, and I just never enjoyed it as much as I did working with students or doing research. I didn’t want to do anything else, so I just had that motivation to keep going. Again, my faculty mentors were super supportive and encouraging.
SA: What kinds of resources helped to keep you on track this past fall?
AR: Google Calendar is super helpful to see everything laid out and being able to look ahead a couple of weeks to see what you should start thinking about working on. It helped my anxiety by allowing me to focus on only a day or a week at a time if I needed to. There’s also this really great application called Bear that’s like Apple’s Notes application, but is really calming to look at and a lot more versatile in terms of organization. I keep my to-do lists, lecture notes from class, and even parts of my honors thesis in Bear. I also think the Excel sheet I made with all the grad schools was super helpful, because then I could lay out and see everything I needed to do rather than going to each application website and risk being surprised by something I don’t have. 

Note from SA: Check out the Resources section at the end of the blog post for Apollo’s Google spreadsheet template for organizing grad school applications!

Q: As a first-gen. student, what was it like for you to ask for help from professors? I know that can be daunting. 

A: I think taking that Computer Science course helped me, because I had to ask for help. There was just no way of getting around it. When you do programming, you just get to a point where it’s almost impossible for you to progress on your own or it’s taking way too much time to figure out individually. So that course really taught me to swallow my pride and ask for help when I needed it. And I think that’s a really important skill to learn, especially in regard to things like research and graduate school applications, because you’re investing so much time and energy in them, and it’s just a fact that faculty members are going to be significantly more knowledgeable about these things than you. Why not let them help you out? And I think for first-gen. students, it’s even more essential to learn how to ask for help, because we already come into academia with a unique set of struggles. Even though it can definitely be intimidating, it’s almost always worth it and a lot of professors were once in your position not so long ago too!

Q: What are some of your thoughts or reflections on academia? 

A: Yeah, I think something good about it is that you’re with a group of people who have good intentions usually, want to contribute things to society, want to call-out problems and find solutions to those problems. There are people who do rigorous work on specific topics, which I really admire. At the same time, I think it can be really intimidating, because I just have this basic honors thesis I spent like a year or two on and there are people who’ve been studying topics for over 10 years. But it’s a process of putting something out there that you worked really hard on, getting feedback on it, and ultimately seeing it used as a foundation for someone else’s work. One thing I’m continually working on is processing feedback. Learning to separate yourself from your research is really important. Especially me; I have huge perfectionism tendencies, and given that research can never be perfect and is constantly evolving, I had to quickly learn how to praise myself and let go of unrealistic standards. Connecting with scholars with the same background is really important. For me, connecting with Scholars of Color has been so great; if I hadn’t have met those people I don’t think I would’ve decided to pursue academia. Again, going back to grad school, it’s finding people that you really want to work with. 

“For first-gen. students, it’s even more essential to learn how to ask for help, because we already come into academia with a unique set of struggles.”



Q: You have two more quarters at Stanford, what are you planning to do during that time? What are you looking forward to? What are you envisioning for post-grad?

A: Right now my biggest goal is to try and get my thesis published or at least ready for potential publication. I took all of winter break off, because I was so burnt out from grad applications and having to rewrite my thesis a million times, but I’m ready to jump back in now. I’m also looking forward to graduating and finishing undergrad finally. I always tell people that I feel like I’ve aged 40 years and they laugh, but it’s kinda true, haha. You can’t tell me that me looking forward to getting home on a Friday night, pouring a glass of red wine, and watching a mediocre sitcom until you fall asleep at 10 pm is not something that people much older than me also look forward to, haha. In general, though, I’m looking forward to seeing all my friends come back this summer, for all of us to be done and graduated, and have that sense of relief we can all share. 

Q: What kinds of media or forms of storytelling do you gravitate toward that have helped to keep you afloat as an individual and a creative? 

A: I think part of it is investing myself in Black media, so media made for and by Black people. Whether that’s books, or TV shows, or movies, things like that have really nourished my soul. They’re great reminders of how beautiful, creative, funny, powerful, and amazing Black people are, which is incredibly inspiring. People like James Baldwin, N.K. Jemisin, and Marlon James easily come to mind. In terms of creating, I love to paint with watercolors. They just look really beautiful and delicate and are really fun to play with in terms of mixing colors and creating new effects. I really want to get more practice painting landscapes this year!

Q: One last question! What advice do you have for Millennials or Gen Z-ers, especially for first-gen. students? 

A: My dad always, always tells me this whenever I’m having a rough time: “Be yourself, love yourself, and do your best.” At the end of the day, those are the only things you have control over and if you can do those things even in the face of adversity, then you’re probably strong enough to make it through most things that life throws at you! 


Apollo’s Spreadsheet Template for Grad School Application: this Google spreadsheet lists important things to consider and take note of (i.e. application requirements, fee waivers, etc.), as well as an example, to keep you organized and on track
Ford Foundation Fellowship: for both pre- and current doctoral students of color
Knight Hennessy Fellowship: need to apply to & be accepted at Stanford for graduate school
National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship: for Social Science and STEM folks
Tip: If you’re applying to graduate school, look to see if any of the schools you’re applying to have application fee waivers! Even if you think you don’t qualify, I highly recommend looking into it because each application is typically upwards of $80 and there is usually no formal/strict cut-off in terms of income 


Apollo puts the POP! in soda pop | PC: Amaris Woo

1. The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Muhammad 
2. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin 
3. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
4. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
5. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

1. V for Vendetta
2. Jurassic Park
3. Train to Busan
4. Get Out
5. Knives Out


Instagram: @atl_iens
Twitter: @ARydzik

“Even though I’m a first-gen. student, all throughout my public school career, I knew I wanted to go to college.”


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