My Diverse Experiences in Graduate School; Challenges and Adjustments

 I enrolled in the master’s program in counselling psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in the fall of 2006.  I did not give any thought about my age at that time, and do not consider this to be a hindering factor. However, age comes with life experiences and expectations of the self. On that level, I was confronted by my ideas of how I would manage my new life of being in graduate school. 

Being an Iranian female, living in Canada, being an immigrant, dealing with nostalgia, and trying to grow have never been easy tasks to handle. Now I was adding a new challenge to my list, believing that my resilient mind would help me in my movements and convictions. As I was working in the counselling field already, I was confident that attending graduate school would put things into perspective, and it did.   My challenges and need for adjustment were multilayered.  I was willing to work hard, yet I was not able to foresee how I would investigate my weaknesses on a more clinical platform.  At one point, like many other students, I was applying every single theory and intervention to myself.  In the early stages, I was passionate about the influence of my graduate work on myself and on my interpersonal relationships. I knew that I was going to apply all the clinical interventions to myself as a way of walking in other people’s shoes.

One concept that made complete sense from beginning was the need for giving and receiving feedback. However, I was unaware of my future struggle about feedback. During my adult life, I had participated in many training programs, courses, workshops, and conferences. However, attending graduate school blanketed my entire educational movements. My life in graduate school became a starting point for embracing years of contemplation about what I wanted to spend time on.  In the final chapters of my work in graduate school, I started to realize the significant meaning of my diverse experiences of being a student at the graduate level.  On one level, this topic may be too broad; however, I would like to point to my struggle as a multicultural student dealing with many issues at once.  My self-actualization was about both completing my graduate school and managing my own evaluation of my performance. On this path, I learned that self-reflection is a dynamic part of my journey, either in or out of graduate school.  Interestingly, I have always found myself to be an open book.  However, being constantly evaluated required a deeper level of self-reflection.  Once you are being judged and evaluated on your skills, you realize that you have to dig deep, an act that requires courage and insight.

Attending graduate school has helped me not only nurture myself but also learn to set healthy limits in all phases of my life.   The clinical skills that I have been practicing have created a perspective in my professional work.  Early on I had a vision. I had some implicit plans for my future and the type of work I wanted to be doing.  My enthusiasm and hope for personal and professional growth would, however, be defeated at times. The reason was not the work that had to be done; the challenge was the language by which I wanted to express myself. 

I could not believe that my sense of belonging in the world would be impacted because of my language skills. The issue is not that simple. I had to analyze my struggle from several angles. Firstly, how did I perceive myself and how did others perceive me? Secondly, how would I be emotionally impacted by how I was perceived by others? And finally, what could I do to overcome my sense of inferiority?

For me, although my work in graduate school was positive, inclusive, and insight-enabling, I still have had many moments of self-doubt and despair. The sense of frustration started when I started to receive feedback about my language skills.

My English Language

In graduate school, almost all of my papers would receive this comment: “This student would benefit from a …..”  It was suggested that I attend writing classes and use editing services.  The suggestion itself made sense.  However, these words were like a hammer on my head.  I was in transition due to several developmental stages. First of all, English was my second and third language, into which I was trying to integrate my personal and academic world all at once.  In addition, I was at a stage in my life where I have attended every single writing class I can.  I was sick and tired of attending any more classes.  Besides, I thought our graduate school was ignoring the multicultural student’s need for editing services that many other students in other institutions received. Finally, I was thinking that I was already pushing my limits and lacking support for the hard work I was doing.

In graduate school, I formed a close friendship with several students whose English was at my level, if not lower. We often discussed how we could be supported more by our grad school.  We all worked hard, and at times we hired editors for our papers. Still I would receive the same comments and the same suggestions. That was annoying, and it did not help my anxiety. What my professors did not know was that I had done all I could and I was working constantly on my writing skills. Writing has been a great part of my life, yet my challenge has been to master new languages all the time.  I have lived on three continents and have always tried to work and study in other languages. 

All the comments about my language and writing skills impacted my sense of belonging in the world.  For me, these comments had multiple meanings. I was mindful that the ability to write in a clear and comprehensive way was my greatest desire.  However, I was now frightened because my self-perception and reality did not match.  I was in a profession where clarity of language was both ethical and critical.

Besides, writing has always been a tool for me to embrace fact gathering, information processing, and interaction with the material.  Now looking back, I see how privileged I was as a child.  I was lucky to attend a private school where English was taught to us from grade one. For this reason, I had quite a background in comprehending basic English, while living in an English speaking country would help me to practice my knowledge.  

As a young child, I always liked to write, whether it was my school homework or taking notes about everything.  This habit was encouraged in my family because neat writing is a skill that the Iranian culture values highly.  I remember that for all my school work, right up to my high school years, I always received positive feedback and encouragement for my written work.  I could write essays in no time, when my peers always struggled to scribble one paragraph about the same subject.  In that social context, I came to believe that I was skilled and I was able to verbalize my thoughts. My interest in reading novels and history came to be an additional tool to feed my hunger for understanding the world outside.  A combination of multiple factors had made me believe that I could write. What I did not know then was that my apperception would be challenged later in life due to new circumstances beyond my control.
Moreover, writing for me has always been a visual way to learn, to comprehend, to process, to understand with my brain, my heart, and all my senses.   I take notes, write down concepts, work with them, rephrase them, paraphrase them, put them into meanings, and use them in my own terminology to make them omnipresent in my vocabulary.  Writing for me is a way to incorporate my learning into my everyday life, to nail the theories into my brain, and to organize them into various files, where I would forever have access to a large amount of quality information, reliable sources of theories, and useful concepts.
 For me, integrating with my environment relies on my ability to communicate with people. This is a human factor and I am not an exception.  However, receiving comments about my language skills and written work in graduate school was a bit challenging for me.  I had no chance to improve the situation due to the amount of work and the pressure on me to perform within a given time.  I was unable to say that I was working hard on my weaknesses, and I needed some understanding from the graduate school.  Part of the stressful situation I had found myself in was the notion of my neurotic responses. I was saying “yes….but.”  I was hurt because I had always thought of myself as a good writer. I had always been given positive feedback for my writing skills (In Farsi), and now my world was turning upside down. For me, the meaning of being able to communicate goes back to my childhood dream: to become a writer and an educator.

What my professors did not seem to appreciate was that it was hard to be non-English-speaking and working at this level.  I was aware that it was not my school’s fault that I was bilingual, nor was it their problem that I needed extra time and effort to do the same amount of work as someone else. I was already challenging myself to a level they could not imagine.  I could not disagree with the fact that I live in an English-speaking country and I was attending graduate school in that language.  I was aware of the need for transparency and comprehension of the material for the sake of the work we were about to do. However, the complexity of language and the need for editing my work were beyond a simple explanation. I was suffering and I had to find ways to alleviate my pain.  In part, I started to become angry at the comments and ignore them.  For me, the comment that I needed an English course was discouraging.  This comment made me feel inferior and weak. This remark, although valid, still reminded me of the layers of pain due to migration, dislocation, and loss of roots.  Although I could understand the comments logically, it brought back to me the fact that I wished I could live in my home country, speaking and writing the language I was raised with.

What my professors did not know was that the notion of adjustment had become part of my existence.  I had been committed for the past 20 years to being involved in scholarly work yet in two different languages.

Still I was aware of my own needs. Certainly, one’s work will always benefit from help with editing in any language.  My challenge was how and with what resources to find that service.  The reality that by this time I had tried to read and write in three languages did not begin to explain my hard work in overcoming the challenge.  It was not about having chosen to integrate the languages of Farsi, Swedish, and now English.  It was about living as an immigrant in a new social environment that required a huge amount of adjustment on many levels.  I was thinking that I was a champion for moving to new cultures and trying to become an academic in those languages.  For most people, coming to a new country and learning to speak the everyday language is hard enough. For me, it has never been about everyday conversations. I have valued communication on a higher level because I value scholarly work.

Before coming to Canada, I lived for 12 years in Sweden.  I had the chance to study and work in Swedish, and I had reached a point of fluency both verbally and professionally.  Once I was feeling stable and adjusted, another wave of migration shook my life. Somehow immigration has become part of my life, a concept that I try to comprehend. 

I moved to Vancouver in 1988.  With immigration comes modification, whether it is learning a new language, a culture, or a lifestyle.  My life in graduate school was not only dependent on managing my practice-based skills.  It was about reframing my own mindset. It was about personal growth. 

I appreciated the fact that I was receiving feedback about my language skills and need for improvement.  However, it was not the language that was my main concern.  Rather, it was the notion of finding my comfort zone and sense of safety that would come with time. I was rushing to do my graduate work in English, while it was my second and even third spoken language.   I did expect too much of myself, yet I was at a place in my life where I wanted to accomplish the most.  At age 46, you want to finish your life as a student, and I had reached the maximum level of tolerance for my struggles.  

Based upon the assessment of my hard work in graduate school, I sensed that my humble personality would help me survive the crisis. I understood and accepted the requirements. Still I was struggling to produce comprehensive work.  For some reason I was emotional, which resulted in my not being able to concentrate on details.  There was a gap between my reality and my need for improvement. Basically, I was not transparent in my writing because I was muddled at my own cognitive level. I had lived a life in which I was constantly threatened. My sense of safety and belonging had given way to a level of self pity and a sense of powerlessness. I was pressured mentally because I could not differentiate between the painful story of migration and all the factors leading up to it.  

Now I was learning to specify my need to focus on one task at the time.  I came to think of my mind as strong, yet it was crammed with too many ideas at once. I came to realize how incongruent I had been emotionally, cognitively, and behaviourally. For me, fluency in language was not the problem.  The struggle was fluency to master my own thoughts.  I came to realize that my reaction of feeling offended affected the awareness of my own needs.  I could now recognize that I needed to stay focused and to prioritize.  I had been willing to tell about the world’s problems in one essay, and every time we had a paper due, I could sit down and edit my writing with critical eyes.  However, I was not clear because I was unable to put my experiences into the context of my paper.

Cognitively I had always been aware of the concept of clarity in communication.  However, my emotional investment in areas significant to me caused me to react to events.  My reactions would create a sense of being misunderstood, which would lead to stagnation.  Somehow I was misrepresenting myself all the time.  Once I learned that I have to stay focused on one topic at a time, I could be transparent in my work.  Now I could let go of self-pity.  I was tired of being confused about something whose key was in my hands. I knew by experience that through training and practice my professional work would emerge.  At the same time, I started to adjust the lens through which I was seeing the world.  I could think of numerous instances of positive feedback which I have always had from my peers and coworkers.  I had forgotten about this feedback, which gave me courage to work and write in languages that were not native to me.   I had missed the whole point and stumbled upon my emotions for failing to be true to myself.   The point of clarity in my written work reappeared, as the sunshine would reappear after many foggy days.

At this point, I could see myself as the risk-taker and ambitious person that I am. I came to the realization that my strong sense of who I am has made it possible for me not to be ashamed of my weaknesses. On the contrary, my strong belief in myself was now helping me to realize my need to pay attention to details.  I came to think of my suffering as never having been about the language in which I wanted to communicate and integrate with the world outside. My struggle all along has been about the clarity of my own mind, about the peace of mind that I never had, about a sense of belonging to a world where I wanted to be counted and valued. Now I could see my confused writings in a wider perspective.  I have to focus on one topic at a time and be part of what I want to present. Attending graduate school in the study of professional psychology has come to be a reliable reference point whenever I think of my own personal growth and establishment as a professional.  I am glad this has become clear, at least for myself.

My Social Interest

With inspiration from the Adlerian theory of individual psychology, I managed to start working on my own social interests.  As long as I can remember, I have been keen on writing with the intention of putting into words my observations and personal experiences of social injustice.  I wanted to put into words a culture that I consider to be mute. One thing I consciously started to work on was to take some baby steps in integrating individual psychology with my native culture.  My initial thoughts were that my Iranian culture lacks a clear understanding of psychology as a science and as a practice.

I have always liked to break the cycle of indifference surrounding the turbulent life that we Iranians have been forced into.  Now, studying individual psychology, I realized that in order for myself to live a healthy life, I needed to act congruently with my private logic. I could no longer be confused about how to say all that had to be said. I was tired of being scared of what would happen if I started to talk, not that I was the most important person in the world. However, considering the prohibitions against Iranian woman, I am not supposed to have a voice. I am not supposed to talk, because I will be labelled with one or the other “ism.” This is how extremists in my home country silenced a big nation.  With this spirit and sense of encouragement derived from my widening horizons, I started to design a website. This was in 2007, a time when I had survived my first year of grad school. For some reason the time felt right, although a bright- minded person would not have taken on so many projects at the same time.  For me, doing one project without the other did not make sense.

Slowly but steadily I worked on this website. I enjoyed creating this forum, in which I could write about things that mattered to me and was confident would benefit others. My website soon came to be a place where I could elaborate on my ideas about interpersonal and personal relationships within the framework of my community.  

I remember finding a short comment in one of our texts where the writer suggested that multicultural communities should work on their own version of psychology.  I got excited about this and took that idea very seriously.  This was what I had always believed in, yet I had no framework for it.  Now, being in graduate school, I was not only learning new skills to deal with mental health issues, but also I could become an educator.   My original idea was confirmed now; I wanted to create a special forum in which I could present psychology within the context of my culture, our culture, and our perception of the world around us.

For me, the notion of health and dysfunction is culturally intertwined.   I started to write about our cultural belief that is inviting mental health issues on an unconscious level.  I was aware of the huge amount of work I had to do and I wanted to do it.   I could run a website with only a few articles and no one would expect me to do more.  This was on my own time and based on free choice, something that really mattered to me.  For all these reasons, being in graduate school became a double and triple workload.

I liked to take time to study and comprehend material, but at the same time I had many ideas about pieces of work for my website.  In both cases, I appreciated that I was working towards a social interest in helping others.  I was creating something to benefit others and myself further down the road. For me, helping had many meanings.  I liked to help people to help themselves, to encourage and to challenge our mindset about our lifestyle.

Now my website and graduate work were two areas I was investing in heavily. One without the other would not satisfy me.  With ideas from my graduate work, I could put my thoughts into words in the framework of a website.  Soon I started to receive feedback from the community about my website.  I was aware that many readers would forgive my imperfect use of a language that was new to me, at least new to the extent I had lived in Canada.  In an article, I mentioned that English was my second language when I was attending school in Iran. Soon I was receiving calls and being invited to various workshops and seminars in my community.  My website was being seen by people who were interested in the same line of work I was doing. Slowly but gradually I started to organize psycho-educational workshops for my community, and in this way I could build an alliance with individuals who had the same interests.

What had started out as a hobby to help me with graduate school work was now my website.  I was writing only about my own Iranian culture, but I liked to include others as well.  I believed that we Iranians have blended with many cultures across many borders.   For this reason, if I were exploring the Iranian understanding of the world, then I could help many other cultures to conceptualize us in a broader context.

I took my time to do research.  I could not find enough work that illustrated our daily life as immigrants, how we handle our daily challenges of adjustment and integration.  My website was becoming a place where I was covering a wide range of topics, although at this point I had no idea to what extent I wanted to spend time on it.    I could envision how my website would become something unique, a glimpse into our Iranian culture and of being Iranian.  

The most important aspect of my work was to promote and model an ethical, professional, and collaborative practice of psychology among Iranian mental health workers. In addition, I wanted to help increase public awareness and expectations of the professional practice of individual psychology. 

In the beginning stages, I had a list in my mind of what I wanted to write about: parenting, relationships, depression, anxiety, stress, marriage, cultural dualism, separation, loss, isolation, fear, jealousy, competition, work- and school-related issues. I do believe that our Iranian community needed to talk about many topics.  I wanted to contextualize mental health issues pertinent to the concept of victimization and trauma that in the past thirty years has become an undeniable part of the Iranian lifestyle.   Why victimization?  Iranian people have embodied the experience of humiliation on individual, community, and social levels.  The oppression, gender segregation, and discrimination in my home country have numbed people on many levels.  The mental health issues that make individuals, families, and communities suffer are all due to the perpetuated notion of victimization.  One thing the Iranian government has been successful in is to victimize its nation.  In each case, there are plenty of factors and circumstances present, and each one of us has dealt with it alone, without any social support or acknowledgment from the outside world.  For all of these reasons, I saw it as my duty to write as much as possible and put things into perspective, in a more culturally sensitive manner.

Moreover, victimization is a concept we do not know much about, although all of us have been victims of crime, trauma, sexism, oppression, gender apartheid, racism, and violence.  We have carried the whole burden of these crimes ourselves. Now after two years of hard work, on both my clinical understanding of the world and my multilayered community work, I am proud to say that I have achieved quite a lot. Yet, I have a long road ahead to connect and create further understanding of mental health issues.  Still, I believe I have gone beyond the limits of imagination as to what I can do for a community that has lost its vision.

My website is now a forum for everyone to talk about their ethnical identity as Iranian-Canadians or others.  This is a place to discuss race, gender, ethnicity, class, social problems, mental health issues, family relationship concerns, youth support programs, and much more.   The goal of this website is to create a place to talk and learn to educate ourselves and others about how it is to be Iranian and Canadian, how it is to belong where we are.   Do we really belong somewhere, or are we lost in the midst of all the trauma and tragedy that is a part of everyday life in Iran? What is going on with us?   Who are we?   What culture do we talk about when we brag about our 2500 culture? What is passed down to us and what do we pass on to our children? How would our next generations define their “being-in-the-world?”
These are all important questions that have never been spoken about before, at least not in the light of a healthy conversation.
I consider my website as a space for encouragement, hope, and change. I compare mental health with the notion of peace.  In a way, I believe we mental health practitioners are messengers of peace in a more subtle way.

With my website, I promote peacekeeping as a basic tool that we need in building stronger relationships within our communities.  As a counsellor, I tried to start with myself. I believe we can learn to leave our comfort zones and work for the benefit of others. This needs the effort of sacrifice, hard work, critical eyes, and multicultural work.  From the Adler school, to my website, to my clarity of mind, I have reached a milestone.

For all my hard work on this website, I received acknowledgment that meant the whole world to me.  Now I could see that my efforts in writing, although imperfect in terms of the use of English, were valued.  I had sent one article to the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology (NASAP) to introduce my website and tell them how I was inspired by Adlerian psychology (Poregbal, 2008).  To my surprise, the article was published on the front page of their newsletter.

In addition, I have started to send articles to Ezine-Articles.  To date, I have 36 live articles which have a readership of about 3500. I write about a variety of issues that are pertinent to my community. The latest article I wrote was about the Barack Obama phenomenon (Poregbal, 2009).  I am very excited, and realize that with time and through practice I am becoming clearer in my writings, and therefore in my desire to serve my community.

Note: This article was written for my MAQE (as part of my Master Qualification Examination work in Jan 2009).

Poran Poregbal, RSW, RCC

Feb 12, 2010


Poregbal, P. (2008). New Iranian Website. The NASAP Newsletter.  Volume 41, Number 3, May/June 2008 Retrieved from January 23,2009:

Poregbal, P. (2009, January 19). Inauguration Day and Barack Obama Phenomenon. Retrieved January 24, 2009.  Retrieved from

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