Chiara is a first-year IEDP student from Northern California, United States. She is interested in inclusive education and early childhood development

This photo was taken of me a few days after I received my acceptance to IEDP. Located in Lake Tahoe, CA, where I was living and working.

In February 2021, I received an email with this subject heading: “Congratulations on Being Accepted to Penn GSE – International Educational Development Program (IEDP)!

I was sitting in my living room and, if I’m being completely honest, I was checking my email every 10 to 15 minutes waiting to see if I had received any offers. My anxiety was through the roof, so when I was accepted to Penn, I jumped! In shock, the tea in my lap flew everywhere concluding with me *excitedly* proclaiming a few profanities.

It was my first acceptance! It was my first validation. 

I am a first-generation college student and now a graduate student with learning disabilities. Covid gave me the opportunity to forego the GRE requirements and pursue my dream of a masters degree. The GRE had been my main impediment. While I knew that the GRE had accommodations for students with registered disabilities, I also knew it wasn’t enough and I wouldn’t receive the marks I needed to apply to the prestigious and academically rigorous schools I was interested in. Because of the pandemic, many of those schools waived their testing requirements for admission, so I used the opportunity to apply. Even without the GRE requirement, I was anxious and was suffering from major imposter syndrome about my graduate school decision.

Reading the words congratulations on being accepted brought tears to my eyes. 

Shortly after my acceptance to Penn, other universities followed suit. I was celebrating every single acceptance and even the rejections. After years of shut doors—bosses and teachers telling me that I would amount to nothing due to my disabilities—each acceptance validated my years of hard work, resilience, and passion.

Soon I had  4 out of 5 acceptances from the universities I applied to. Each felt that I was a good fit for their program. But, how was I going to determine which one was actually the best fit for me? I knew then that my decision-making process was going to be extremely tough. At first, I talked to friends, family, and my mentors. Everyone had a different suggestion and different ideas for the university they felt would be the best choice for me. 

My family was obsessed with me going to the University of Cambridge. My mom said that it was “my real life Hogwarts.”

My friends cheered on Columbia saying “I would be crazy to not want to live and experience New York City in my 20s!”

These comments only made me more confused. I trusted and loved them, and their arguments pulled on my emotions and different lifestyle dreams. It took me longer than it should have but I realized I needed to stop asking others what was the best fit for me. I needed to search for the answer myself.

So I built my own personal criteria using a spreadsheet. Cheesy, I know. But it helped me keep track of my needs and desires. I ensured each university had resources I needed such as a disability center to provide accommodations and graduate student organizations such as a lgbtq+ community and outdoors program. If it didn’t, I marked my spreadsheet.

I researched the professors I would be taking classes with and tried to see if our interests aligned. I attended Virtual Preview Days to listen to current students and imagine myself in their stories. I also used Youtube and Instagram to continue listening to “day in the life” experiences such as Domonique Cynthia’s interview 73 Questions With A UPenn GRADUATE Student.

Lastly, I researched recent alumni, university career centers, and opportunities each program could provide. I wanted my graduate program to not only provide me with more knowledge but with professional development. It came down to the University of Cambridge and the University of Pennsylvania.

My personal criteria helped me narrow down my thought process, but ultimately financial resources made my decision. The University of Pennsylvania and IEDP admissions team made me feel like a real person, not just an application number.

This became clearer when I sent emails about seeking additional financial resources, scholarship access, or applications for graduate assistantships. As a first-generation student, I was clueless and loan debt haunted my nightmares. The IEDP admission team was transparent with open communication and offered me a generous financial aid package, so mixed with personal criteria that led me to accept IEDP. 

Today, my IEDP community has become my academic family. I have experienced many highs and lows throughout my first 6 months, but my cohort and peers have made this program for me.  Although my decision process wasn’t perfect, it was unique to me and it worked.

So whether you decide that Penn GSE’s International Educational Development Program is for you or not, it’s okay. As long as the decision is your own. I encourage you to follow your own gut and logic.

 And hopefully, I will become a part of your alumni network!