How to survive graduate school… 25 years later

Lina AbiRafeh
5 min readApr 7, 2023


I just came back from my 25-year graduate school reunion. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then.

In 1998, I received my MA in International Economics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). It’s a pretty prestigious place with some high profile people who have graduated and taught there — leaders and diplomats and politicians and business professionals and all sorts of public figures.

And me. Even adding myself to this list feels like an anomaly.

You see, I didn’t want to go to SAIS. I was 21, undercooked and ill-prepared. I had zero life experience. And hardly any work experience, other than a few internships — focused on women’s rights, of course. Oh yeah and that awesome high school job in the one-hour photo booth — back in the old days when photos were printed!

But I was also the girl who was geeky and obsessed with just-one-thing.

Freshman year, while watching my college roommate hang pictures of friends, family, the dog, on her wall, I taped 3 pages on the brick wall next to my bed, just above my pillow. Those 3 pages were a print-out of the CV of the head of a UN agency — the first thing I saw every morning, the last thing I saw every night. I wanted to commit that career trajectory to memory, follow it to the letter. And if I did that, maybe my CV would someday hang on some young girl’s wall. Such ambition.

When the SAIS acceptance letter came, I was stunned. I had been counting on not getting in, in fact. The rejection would be my liberation.

I wanted to go to the field.

“Over my dead body!” my dad said. “An undergrad degree is not enough!” my mom said. “Both of us have graduate degrees!” my dad said. “We came to this country for your education!” my mom said. “You’ll never succeed — or even survive! — on an undergrad degree!” my dad said. I was immigrant-guilt-cornered.

Maybe some of you know the feeling. It’s the idea that we’re forced to conform — and ideally, excel — because of the fear of failure that all immigrants share. Success means survival.

I really, really, really wanted to be in the field. I had been screaming about women’s rights since I was 14. I wanted to put that anger to use. I wanted to see if this calling, this obsession, was what I was really supposed to do. And how would I know if I didn’t go out and do it?!

“Get a graduate degree and then go as far away as you want!” they said. At least I would no longer have to kill anyone to get to the field. At least that was progress.

And so I went to SAIS. How did they even let me in?! I often wondered. I was without a doubt the least experienced — and probably the least intelligent — creature in the room. I slipped through the cracks, I’d often joke. It wasn’t a joke to me, I was sure of it.

Maybe SAIS saw something in me that I didn’t yet see.

At SAIS, I wanted to focus on international development but wasn’t allowed into the program because I had no field experience. That was a roadblock I probably could have predicted. Could I audit the classes? I asked. Nope.

I was the kid who spent her entire high school and undergrad life asking “What about women?” and then making sure I wrote about women. In every subject. At SAIS, when I asked “What about women?” I was told that this is a serious school for serious stuff. Like, economics and stuff. Courses on women in an international studies program?! Nope.

Well, I nagged the administration so much that they suggested I design the course and pitch it to the academic committee. In other words, please shut up and go away.

I went away, alright, and designed my own-damn-course and came back. Had I designed a course before? No. Did I know what an academic course was supposed to look like? No. Was it rigorous? Probably no. Was I deterred? Hell no. I did not care. I submitted my course to the committee. In return, I received a 5-page single-spaced rejection letter telling me all the reasons why such a course would NEVER be at SAIS. It was soul-crushing.

But the stuff that squishes you eventually pisses you off. And the stuff that pisses you off eventually drives you forward.

So I did what every obsessed one-trick pony would do — I overlaid a feminist framework onto every single thing I studied at SAIS. I asked “What about women?!” in every class. I wrote every paper on women’s issues. Why? Because women are relevant everywhere. Yes, even in serious academic programs. Especially there.

I still have that rejection letter. Sometimes it stings a little, but most of the time it makes me smile.

“Get the degree and go dig latrines in the field if that’s what you want!” the parents said. And when one of my early jobs was working on hygiene and sanitation focused on women and girls, their prophecy came to pass.

“Get the degree and you will always have it — no one can take it away from you,” they said. I couldn’t disagree there.

I was elected to the student government, serving as part of an all-female student government, because, y’know, “What about women?!”

I probably — definitely — had to work a lot harder to keep up with all the incredible overachievers in the room. I think I repeated macroeconomics at least twice. And I’m still not sure I get it. But I passed. All of it. Even those arduous oral exams. And a decade later, when I defended my doctoral thesis, I remember thinking Is that all?! SAIS truly kicked my ass — but I survived it.

The minute I got my diploma, I went into the field, and never looked back. 25 years, over 20 countries, a PhD, 3 books, and I am still at it. And I forgot all about SAIS. Until last weekend.

In going back, I saw more women-focused courses, events, lectures. A women’s network. A women alumni network. The stuff that, 25 years ago, was “impossible” was now right there in front of me. I’m incredibly happy to see it. And maybe a tiny bit jealous!

In those moments, I saw more clearly what I got out of my time at SAIS — clarity, conviction, courage. And the company of some of the most extraordinary classmates.

I made it to the field eventually, even if I had to take the long road to get there.

Some of the extraordinary humans of SAIS



Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: