Being a Tennessee Tech Graduate Student: Amanda Ellis

What’s it like to be a graduate student at Tennessee Tech?  We’re exploring that from the student perspective.  We hope you enjoy this and the forthcoming series of posts on “Being a Tennessee Tech Graduate Student.”

Tell us a little about yourself… Who are you?

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My name is Amanda Rae Ellis, and I am a full-time employee at TTU’s iCube and a full-time student in the Exceptional Learning Ph.D. program. I’m a virtual reality producer, writer, gamer, singer, reader, and overall nerd.

What was your process for deciding to apply for graduate school? Talk about any anxiety, issues you had, etc.

I believe there was a plan in place since my junior year of college to get me into graduate school, driven by my mentor Dr. Julie Baker. She planted the original “why don’t you get a graduate degree” seed in my head, and after I graduated and left campus, she was the one to help me get a job back here. When I did start working for Tech, I was worried about starting classes, that it would cut into my free time since I would still be working full time. After a couple of semesters, I applied to the program. I realized I could improve my current job by continuing my education in a related field, so that is what is motivating me to graduate!

To how many schools did you apply?

Tech was the only school I applied to.

How was the GRE? Did you use preparatory services?

Since I hadn’t had math in quite a long while, I was nervous about passing it. I studied with a friend taking it at the same time, which helped because it made me feel like we were in it together. We marked problematic questions and asked another friend to talk us through the problems. It was a team effort, highly supported by friends, and after the exam we both had passing grades to get into our programs. It was a huge relief.

Tell us about the program you selected. Why did you select your program?  What are your career aspirations?

I selected the Ph.D. in Exceptional Learning with a concentration in literacy because I want to use this opportunity to research virtual reality as a new way of communicating, especially as it can be applied to the classroom. At iCube, we’re making simulations mainly for education, and as someone who is involved in most of those projects, I wanted to make sure we were making something usable and effective. In the future, I would love to continue working at iCube as a “virtual reality producer” while potentially teaching a class at Tech for pre-service teachers on how to utilize videogames in the classroom.

What bits of advice would you give to someone thinking about graduate school?

Do it! It’s a little overwhelming at first, but it’s expected. Everyone is overwhelmed, no one really knows 100% what they’re doing at the beginning, but you have peers further along in the program to help you through it and, hopefully, amazing advisors like those in the College of Education. Your mentors want to see you succeed, so don’t let the fear of failing stop you from trying. Every semester you get through gives you an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, and I can only imagine graduating will be one of the highlights of our lives.

What are your classes like? How hard are they really?

My first few classes were potentially a little more difficult than what the average doctorate student experiences because I did not start the program with a Master’s degree. Research, literature reviews, and conflicting opinions were relatively new to me. After a couple of courses I felt more comfortable with the first two, but I still struggle with the third, almost in a good way. It’s exciting to be challenged on what you think, but it’s also slightly terrifying if you’re not used to it. I found it difficult to speak in class sometimes because I was second guessing myself in what I thought and didn’t want to be questioned about what I shared. After a while you realize the freedom in having an opinion and still be respected by your peers, because literally everyone has conflicting thoughts. No two people will believe the exact same thing, meaning that everyone is always “right” and always “wrong” in a way. The faster you figure that out, the easier the courses will be.

One hears a lot about Tennessee Tech’s caring and supportive community. What’s your experience?

I hope every other college on campus has the same support I receive in the College of Education. I would have dropped out a thousand times already (and I’m just now finishing up my first year) if it wasn’t for the encouraging, “you can do it” feedback I received every time I felt overwhelmed. They make sure I have everything I need, make sure I’m signing up for what I need to take, and spend, literally, hours helping me with a problem if I need it. My iCube office is also supportive of my educational pursuits, encouraging me to keep going through the program for my own personal benefit and the future implications it could mean for the office having someone with my background work on our virtual reality projects. I would say I have more caring people in my life than I ever had before joining the program, or at least more actively and outwardly caring people. That’s something they don’t tell you you’ll get, but I don’t see how anyone would make it through grad school if it wasn’t true.