Archive for ‘DC’

August 30, 2015

First Day of School, Ready or Not

by Tabitha Kidwell

Tomorrow, I begin my second year of doctoral studies. As usually is the case on the last official day of summer vacation, I have a mix of emotions.

For one, I’m nervous – I’ll be teaching an undergrad class for the first time at UMD. I taught undergraduate English education majors in Indonesia, but I was able to capitalize on the fact that I was the foreign teacher, which meant that people were more likely to trust me (thanks to my status as a representative of the U.S. education system) and also forgive any mistakes I made (thanks to my status as a sometimes-clueless outsider). Now, I’m teaching undergraduates who are paying a lot of tuition for a good education. During most of the time I spent planning last week, I felt like I was about to puke. That is okay, though, because that’s is how I usually feel when preparing for a year of teaching. Most years, I can’t sleep the night before the first day of school, and that will probably be the case again tonight.

I’m also really excited – I haven’t actually taught for the past two years. 2013 was the first year that I hadn’t gone back to school – as either a teacher or a student – since I was 4 years old, and it was so hard to watch everyone else go back while I had nothing to do but shop for ugly Chirstmas sweaters. In 2014 I did go back to school, as a student, but I was so overwhelmed by the start of graduate school that I didn’t have a moment to lament the fact that I wasn’t teaching. This year, I am so glad to be back in the classroom, planning instruction, building relationships with students, and generally being of use to society. I’m teaching a class called “Teaching English Language Learners Reading and Writing in the Secondary Content Areas,” a course name I pretty much have to look up every time because the powers-that-be at UMD are trying to fit so many buzzwords into one course title. The course’s goal is to help future teachers teach reading and writing more effectively to their English language learning students, but it’s an elective class. Some students are secondary education majors (math ed, science ed, etc.) who know they will have students learning English in their future classrooms, and some are TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) minors who will go on to get an M.Ed. in our program and teach at local schools. But a lot are just taking it as an elective to fulfill their diversity requirement. My guess is that some of those students think they might go abroad and teach English for a year or two after graduation, but most of them just think a class in the college of education will be easy. Which is probably true.

Overall, though, my main emotion is relief. I am so glad that the first year of grad school is over and I have a freaking clue what is going on this year. Last year was really hard, but I grew a lot as a scholar and as a person. It is so great to look at the syllabi for the two classes I am taking and have a basic background and understanding of what we’ll be studying. For my third class, I’m doing an independent study with my advisor, working on developing a literature review I wrote last year into a publishable paper; part of my graduate assistantship is also being her research assistant on some other projects. It’s wonderful to have that good relationship and to be working together on topics I really care about. I also have a healthy amount of extra-curricular involvement, thanks to my ongoing inability to say no: I’m the student rep on the faculty department assembly (which is basically like getting invited into the teacher’s lounge – exciting in principle, but ultimately really mundane), I’m the co-chair of the department graduate student association (which mostly involves planning happy hours), and I’m the graduate student interest section co-chair for Maryland TESOL (which is really exciting because we are hosting the international conference in Baltimore this year). Also, personally, I am so grateful to feel at ease in the city, to have a good network of friends, and to know where I can buy good donuts.

Overall, I think this year will be easier than last, or at least I’m better equipped to deal with the challenges that come up (e.g., impossible reading load, compulsive need to nap). I only have to go out to campus for class Mondays and Wednesdays, and I have a better idea of how to manage my time and workload on the other days. Teaching will be a lot of work, but I think I’ll really enjoy it. It’s amazing what a big difference a few months can make – by the end of spring semester, I felt like I couldn’t do even one more thing for school. Now, I feel ready for a whole new year – or at least I will if I can get through teaching my first class without puking!

August 1, 2015


by Tabitha Kidwell

A year ago today, I moved into my house in DC. It was on the dodgier end of Columbia Heights, I had two roommates, and the place was a total disaster. I spent most of the month of August cleaning and organizing, and by the time my semester started, the place looked great! Though sharing a bathroom with two (initially) total strangers wasn’t ideal, we all got used to each other, and I came to love living there – especially my sunny bedroom and the peaceful front porch. As I was nearing the end of spring semester, however, my sister bought a new house in Colorado. After looking at her house on Redfin, a real estate listing webpage, I did a few searches to just see what was listed in DC. I searched for places in the district under $175,000 – which cut down the results real fast – and I was surprised to see that there actually were places within my then entirely hypothetical price range. I kept coming back to one listing, a little studio in a co-op in Adams Morgan, just to see if there were any status changes. After a week or so, I thought, “I’ll just go see it.” My realtor was super smooth and somehow convinced me to put in an offer – “no strings attached, you’re just holding your place” – and, almost without trying, I was under contract!

At that point, I had to start putting in some effort, because next came weeks of jumping through hoops – reviewing the co-op documents, doing the inspection, and digging up endless financial documents for my loan officer. Anyone who has bought a house knows the gauntlet you have to go through. It’s a pain in the neck, but then it’s just over. And the hustle and bustle distracts from the fact that you are preparing for the largest financial transaction of your life so far. I kept thinking I should feel stressed out or anxious, but the truth is, I felt very little emotion about the whole thing – neither positive nor negative. It just seemed like the right thing to do – a pragmatic financial decision. In the final calculation, the amount I needed for closing and the down payment was almost exactly what I had saved, my monthly mortgage payment was precisely the amount my measly graduate student stipend let me qualify for, and my HOA fees and mortgage total about $10 less than what I paid in rent. I’m not especially superstitious, but I do love synchronicity, and the fact that everything added up so nicely was comforting.

So now, I live in a nicer place, in a nicer area, with no roommates, for less than I was paying before. Seems too good to be true, but it’s helped by the fact that I used to live in a pretty crummy place in a bit of a rough area. My new neighborhood is Adams Morgan, which is full of bars and restaurants, between the green/yellow and red lines, and steps from the trails in Rock Creek Park. It’s actually only 1.3 miles from Park View, where I used to live – I basically moved the other side of Columbia Heights, and still take the metro out to campus from the same stop. It’s a 400 square feet studio, which isn’t huge, but it’s big enough for me, my books, and my bikes – in fact, I need to buy more furniture! The best part is that I have a kitchen and bathroom all to myself! I hadn’t realized how much I hated sharing a fridge and shower with two roommates until I didn’t have to any longer. My first night, I just kept looking inside my semi-empty refrigerator. I have never owned a refrigerator before! Or a stove, ceiling fan, or sink, for that matter. And certainly not a charming old clawfoot tub. But now I do. I’m a homeowner! Once I’m more settled, I’ll post pictures, but I have already learned that lots of home improvement projects come along with home ownership. That should fill the month of August again this year!

June 10, 2015

Summer of Fun 2015

by Tabitha Kidwell

Since I was 17, I haven’t spent the spring, summer, and fall in the same place – I was always coming back from living abroad, or getting ready to leave in the fall, or jetting off somewhere for the summer. I considered lots of options for the summer – going back to Deep Griha in India, visiting friends in East Africa, or popping down to South America. Ultimately, though, none of those plans sounded as exciting as just staying in DC. I didn’t really feel like doing anything. Now, I know myself well enough to know I couldn’t just do nothing. The flexibility of grad school didn’t agree with my type-A nature, so I learned how important it is to have a routine to follow. I had big plans – I had even typed up a weekly “Summer of Fun” checklist – to limit myself to doing three productive things a day before moving on to mandated relaxation. One of those three things needed to be doing a 4-hour scoring session online for the TOEIC and TOEFL speaking exams so that I could pay my rent, but the other two things could be things like working on the research I’m doing with my advisor, going for a run, cleaning the bathroom, paying my bills, etc. Once I’d done my 3 things, I was going to turn off my computer, shut off from work, and relax on the porch or at the pool. It was going to be glorious. I even had a hashtag: #summeroffun2015

And then I accidently got a job. It just fell in my lap, and it was so perfect I couldn’t turn it down. The English Language Fellow program, which is the program that sent me to Indonesia, is administered by an office at Georgetown, and they sent an e-mail out to the alumni network about a temporary position assisting with the interview and placement process. The person needed be local to DC (check), available for the summer only (check), and be able to navigate the state department’s acronym alphabet soup (CCDC – check check double check). Also, they were paying a ton of money. So that was all pretty perfect for me! The only problem was, they wanted someone fulltime, and I already had commitments on campus 1-2 days a week most weeks. I e-mailed the director and said I’d be interested, but could only commit to 3 days a week. She did some checking, maybe waited in vain for other impoverished graduate students in the DC area to send their resumés, and e-mailed back to say that would be fine.

So, just like that, I have started my first ever 9-5 office job. I was worried that it would be really stressful to have to work all day long when I had been looking forward to a summer of relaxation. What I didn’t realize, having basically only ever worked full-time as a teacher, is what it actually is like to work a 9-5 office job. IT IS THE EASIEST THING I HAVE EVER DONE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. Okay, that may not be true, but it just doesn’t compare to the minute-to-minute stress level of a teacher. Even if you’re not an especially stressed-out teacher, you’re on from the minute you walk through the door in the morning until the moment you leave (probably later than you’d like to) in the afternoon. At a desk job, you can take a break, get more coffee, or go to the bathroom whenever you want. You can fully digest your lunch before getting back to business. When you tell your computer to do something, it does it without talking back or rolling its eyes. You don’t even have to plan a carefully calibrated combination of competition and coercion to get it to do it’s work! It’s amazing! Of course, I am essentially working an entry-level job – I spend all day doing interviews and application reviews. It’s a series of time-consuming but fairly simple tasks. If I were 23, I would probably say something like “this just isn’t challenging me.” But I don’t want to be challenged! I just want to complete cognitively undemanding tasks and have someone give me money in return. As far as I can tell, that is the deal I have signed up for, and so far it’s going great.

So summer of fun 2015 is a little different than originally planned, but I think it is probably for the best. For one thing, I am making more money reviewing all these applications than I would have scoring speaking tests. And I leave work with a sense of accomplishment and the clear understanding that, after 8 hours in front of a computer, I do not need to do any more work, which is good for an overachiever like myself. And it turns out, there are a lot of hours outside of 9-5! So get ready – #summeroffun2015 is just getting started!

May 21, 2015

Recap: First year of grad school

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I last wrote, 7 months ago, I talked about how difficult it was to transition to living in DC and being a full-time grad student. It may come as no surprise, given my long delay in writing, that it continued to be really hard. When I went home at Christmas, after five months in DC, I was frustrated to still not have a strong community or feel at home in DC, even though I had been meeting people and trying to make connections all fall. I was so depressed that I was convinced I would finish out the year at Maryland, then try to transfer to OSU or get a K-12 teaching job back home. It was so tempting to slip back to comfortable, familiar Columbus, Ohio.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that five months is not all that long, and all the efforts I had made to make friends and connections hadn’t yet come to fruition. Friendship isn’t instant, and the acquaintances I had met for drinks in October and November gradually became the friends I called to commiserate after a bad date, or to help me clean up after a crazy party. The classmates I exchanged pleasantries with grew to become the people I asked to edit my papers, then went to celebrate with after those papers got turned in. The roommates who had started out as strangers came to be the friends I walked to church with on Sunday mornings. This spring, I have come to really value my community – I even sometimes wished I didn’t have so many happy hours, barbecues, and bocce ball tournaments filling my schedule.

School got easier, too. Well, actually, school got harder, but I got better at dealing with it. I got into a good daily routine, and found a little bit more balance between life and schoolwork. Sometimes I even stopped working at 6 or 7 PM! I had enough base knowledge that not everything I read was brand new, all the time. I supervised and mentored four great student teachers in Prince George’s County schools. I organized the Maryland TESOL grad student conference in February, presented at the TESOL international convention in Toronto in March, and attended the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in April. I started to build a network and feel like a professional (if junior) member of the teacher education community. And I started to have ideas about what my future might look like with a PhD. (Spoiler alert: It looks good.)

Most importantly, I came to love living in DC. I learned the city well enough to be able to walk, bike, and drive without always using google maps. I settled into familiar running and biking routes. I found a hairdresser, yoga studio, and a bar with a $6 beer/shot/hot dog happy hour special. At some point over the winter it stopped being the place I had moved to, and it became the place I lived. It became home. When I had been thinking about different grad schools, I went to San Francisco to visit Stanford and Berkeley, but felt out of place in California. People were too laid back and the food was too vegan. DC, however, feels like the perfect city for me – perfectionist, competitive, and driven, but also friendly, welcoming, and open. My family lived in the district in the 80s, and I am one of the rare DC residents to actually have been born here, at Providence Hospital in northeast. Like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn, I have returned to my birthplace. I wonder how much the influence of those early years has to do with my integration now. My mom and step-dad came to visit in early May, and we went on a driving tour of all the places I lived when I was young. I was surprised to see that the apartment I lived at when I was an infant is right off of New Hampshire Ave – within 100 yards of the route I take when I drive to campus! I think it’s interesting that, of all the universities I could have gotten my PhD, I chose the place that was within a mile of the first place I ever lived.

I’m not going to say it wasn’t a hard year. It was, and I’m glad it’s over. But I’m also glad it happened, and I’m happy to be right where I am now. As long as year two of grad school doesn’t come too soon.