From Working Student to Ph.D.

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PHD Students
Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography

A look back at what horses have in common with academia.

BY Miguel Wilson

From the magazine

Shoveling manure and writing literature reviews have a lot more in common than you might think.

Long ago, at 14 years old, I moved away from home to ride horses. At the time, it felt like such a natural and inconsequential decision. Now, it has proven to be anything but that.

I have no clue who I would be if I had not packed my bags and thrown caution to the wind, but I shudder to imagine how different my life would be. My time as a working student taught me how to be an advocate and what it takes to work on a team. My love for horses took me to places all over the country and pushed me to be more than I had ever imagined. The prerequisites for being a working student—grit, determination, and fearlessness—are the same attributes that have made traveling the globe and tackling my doctorate degree in organizational science a cakewalk.

I began my time as a working student after spending a few years away from horses. I stopped riding after being frustrated with my lack of progress as someone who could only afford weekly riding lessons. It was easier to quit at the time, though I wish I had thought to be a touch more resourceful earlier on. Perhaps it was the perspective I gained, leaving something that meant so much to me, that ignited the passion that was so necessary once I left the comforts of home and the only life I had known up to that point.

After scouring ads online and cold-calling bemused trainers, Phoebe Loughrey took achance on me. It takes a great deal of blind faith to put yourself out there and say,“please invest in me.” Of course, at the time, it was so much more simple. I just wanted to ride. From there, I was connected to Matt Cyphert, Will Roberts, and Katie Cooper, allof whom were integral to my journey and growth as horseperson and human.

Moving away, the walls of my high school essentially became the four corners of my computer screen. My high school experience was spent doing school online in the early morning hours, and running barns of 30+ horses during the day. I had no tutors, my teachers were miles and miles away, and my “work” required me to live and breathe life on the farm. Thrust into such an intense, chaotic workplace, I was astounded by my level headedness. Plenty of obstacles and fires, both real and imagined, became mere speedbumps in my journey. I was beyond lucky to have adults surrounding me that trusted and supported me.

Their trust and support enabled me to speak freely and learn to advocate for myself and others. The saying is true—closed mouths do not get fed. Speaking up for myself and setting boundaries are lifelong pursuits, but let’s just say the training wheels came off immediately while I was a working student! I think it helps to have incredible role models in your corner who can set an example for you, and I am grateful to have had countless role models. In a funny way, academia is just as messy as the horse world. I am thankful—and certain that it is not by coincidence—that drama in both worlds has stayed far, far away from me. I think this is in part because of my intentions and my ultimate goal of doing right by others.

These are lessons that horses teach us. As our partners, we have to do everything in our power to do right by them. We have to speak up for the voiceless. Often times that requires a lot of listening, observing, and thinking. As researchers, we rely on the same tools. It requires a great deal of patience, and, yes, getting it wrong sometimes.

I learned to swallow my pride a long, long time ago. In Colorado at a horse show, I was warned before that a particular horse was a “spinner,” and he did just that. I found myself in the dirt, my horse was already halfway back to the barn, and my trainer just looked at me and said, “Go get that horse!”

As someone who continues to be surprised by life’s opportunities for growth, I have noticed that there are various ways I contribute to the teams that I am a part of. Working with horses and my coworkers showed me how important it is to organize my time and respect the time of others as well. First hand, I have learned what it means to mediate conflict, conceptualize foolproof plans, and inevitably pivot when something unexpected throws a wrench in said plans.

To this day, with each project I am involved in, I bring my energy and creativity. After working in such a unique environment, those attributes present themselves in plenty of funny ways. Anecdotal tales, like blown tires on cross-country journeys hauling horse trailers, and rescuing an orphaned calf (named Norma), have granted me an invaluable perspective on what it means to step up and pitch in when the going gets tough. The stakes are arguably much different in academia. If I forget to do my part, lives are not necessarily at stake. Yet I think of how important it was to wake up on time and feed and water the horses. I did not realize that through all of those years working on farms, I was learning the value of showing up and communicating when problems arise. Any successful team relies on these pieces of the puzzle, and I think horses gave me a greater appreciation for why it all matters.

There are days I miss my previous life dearly. Though yes, I do appreciate that I typically do not need to be up before 6 a.m. for grad school! Still, I would not trade any of the hours I spent cleaning tack or trailering horses across the country. (Actually, maybe I would swap out those daylong stretches through the Midwest.) Truth be told, I have not sat on a horse since 2019 (pre-COVID), which is saying something since there was a time I rode at least 10 every day.

The reality is that horses were truly the first passion of my life. I see how I devote myself to my studies today and I see the same me that spent hours at the barn. They were also my first teachers of what it means to be a part of something larger than myself. The horse world was the first community that I truly saw myself in. We all speak the same language, you know? As I have grown more into my body and discovered my queer identity, it feels the same. It feels like I finally have the right words. I think we can truly feel when we are where we need to be, surrounded by people that see even the parts of ourselves that we are yet to understand. That is a kind of love I had not known until I discovered horses, and I have only just scratched the surface of how to explain it all.

My time in the horse world was arguably unique. It is likely very few would take on the kinds of responsibilities I had. Nor would many offer such chances to most teenagers today. I am beyond grateful and indebted to the people that saw something in me. My horse community is the very reason I am here today. They got me all the way to Medal Finals, which is no easy feat for a kid who had never even owned a horse. As I faced aging out, they all pushed me to apply to college, reminding me that horses would always be there—and they were right.

My mentors, like Sarah Rice Goodnough and Piper Klemm, wrote my reference letters and were sounding boards for my applications to over 30 schools. I landed in Washington, D.C., at American University on a scholarship. My organizational skills and level headedness were put to great use! Junior year, after being awarded a Gilman Scholarship, I lived and studied in Seoul, Korea, and Berlin, Germany. Upon return, I discovered that graduate school was not some abstract, unattainable concept, but a reality that I now inhabit. I will admit, I am currently a bit more removed from horses than 18-year-old me probably thought I would be. That said, I am right where I need to be, and I can look back and say I did everything I set my mind to.

Life, like horses, owes me nothing.

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