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The Summit Ahead Podcast 

Episode 6 | Student Stories: Being a Graduate Teaching Assistant | ft. Isa Sakaguchi

About the Episode

On our sixth episode, Erin welcomes Isa Sakaguchi, Graduate Student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at West Virginia University, to talk about her WVU experience. Key topics for this episode include: 1) why Isa chose WVU for graduate school, 2) talent VS passion in your career, 3) the benefits of being a Graduate Assistant (professional development, finances, etc.), and 4) the importance of getting involved on campus as a graduate student.
If you are interested in graduate education at West Virginia University, please visit our website at www.graduateadmissions.wvu.edu. Don't forget to subscribe to our blog or download one of our online resource guides for more information about the GRE, specific career industries, tips on how to submit your strongest graduate application and more!

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About the Interviewee

Isa Sakaguchi

Graduate Student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at West Virginia University

Isa Sakaguchi is a second-year graduate student at West Virginia University pursuing an MA in Spanish with a Graduate Certificate in Linguistics. Additionally, she is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the World Languages Department within the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and a Graduate Tour Guide for the West Virginia University Visitors Center on the Morgantown campus.

Erin Fields

About the Host

Erin Fields

Erin Fields works as the Program Director in the West Virginia University Office of Graduate Admissions and Recruitment, where she focuses primarily on student recruitment and marketing. She is a 2019 graduate of Marshall University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Advertising and a 2021 graduate of West Virginia University with a Master of Science degree in Integrated Marketing Communications. She has a passion for helping and guiding students through the graduate school process from initially inquiring to submitting an application. In her spare time outside of her position at the university, you can find her helping out at church, collecting Pokémon cards, or cheering on the Kansas City Chiefs!

Being a Graduate TEaching Assistant at WVU:

Erin Fields: Alright, well hello and happy time zones to those listening, no matter where you may be! 

Welcome to the Summit Ahead, a podcast for future graduate students, brought to you by the West Virginia University Office of Graduate Admissions. 

I am your host, Erin Fields, and I invite you to join me over the course of this show’s season as I chat with higher education professionals at West Virginia University who will be giving their best tips, tricks, and insights on topics important to consider when applying for graduate school.

So hey everyone, we are back for another episode! Today I am bringing on Isa Sakaguchi, a current graduate student and teaching assistant, who will be chatting about WVU and her journey as a graduate student here. Storytelling is one of my favorite things in the world, so I am incredibly hyped to hear Isa’s story today and I hope that you are too! 

So yo, welcome to the show, Isa! It is a joy and honor to have you on the show with me today. So how about we start by you telling us a little bit about yourself, what you’re studying, what you do at the university, maybe where you went to undergrad, any rock climbing adventures, or maybe even about your two cats?


Explore our digital resource page — Your Guide to Understanding Graduate  Assistantships in Graduate School — for tips and advice on securing a graduate  assistantship position!


Isa Sakaguchi: Erin, you know me so well. As you know I am a current MA student here. I am studying Spanish for my master’s and then I’m also getting a graduate certificate in linguistics, which is super cool. I’m doing that all in my two years. 

I am originally from Uniontown Pennsylvania, which is not too far from here, it’s just a quick drive up the interstate. My mom comes to visit me all the time. Here at the university, I am a graduate teaching assistant, which basically means that I get to lead my own class, but I think we’re going to talk about that more in a minute. I also work with the West Virginia University Visitors’ Center part-time, which is a super fun opportunity, I’ve met a lot of great people. 

As for rock climbing, I’m currently training to get my lead certificate, so that I can go down the Seneca rocks and I can do the type of climbing where you clip in as you go, which is super cool, but also means I have to get over my fear of falling. 

Erin Fields: That’s kinda scary!

Isa Sakaguchi: It is kinda scary! I’ve been having my climbing partner drop me more, and I’ve just been taking real falls. 

Erin Fields: I think I just felt my stomach pit. 

Isa Sakaguchi: Yeah, you have to exhale as you fall, or your stomach will pit. It’s very unnerving sometimes. I took a 15-foot drop the other day, just to kind of feel it. I was fine! My partner caught me and everything else, Scott is my best friend and he knows what he’s doing, more than I do for sure! 

Erin Fields: That is a trustworthy friendship. 

Isa Sakaguchi: It is a very trustworthy friendship. But you know what, he is the human form of a golden retriever, so I don’t know how I couldn’t trust him. So we’re just kind of getting me trained up for that and hopefully this summer when the weather is just fantastic, we can do some West Virginia rock climbing adventures, which I’m excited about because we have so much here! Especially Seneca, that’s my top goal right now, and down at Hawk’s Nest. But other than that, my cats are cool! Lucy and Luna are you know, Lucy and Luna. Lucy drools when she purrs and Luna wants to be attached to me at all points in time, but hey that’s what happens when you raise a cat in quarantine. 

Erin Fields: Cat mom! 

Isa Sakaguchi: For sure, #catmom!

Choosing WVU for graduate school:

Erin Fields: So you’ve done a lot in your years here at WVU. What got you interested in studying world languages? 

Isa Sakaguchi: World Languages have kind of been my entire life. I grew up in a multicultural household. My dad is Japanese and my mom has a lot of European and also Native American in her family. So I grew up learning a lot about a lot of things. In elementary school, my parent decided to homeschool us for a few years. It was a really cool opportunity because I got to explore so many different things that I wouldn’t necessarily get to in a school system. 

With that being said, I started learning languages in the second grade. So in second grade, we were doing what my mom liked to call “culture studies”, and I got to study Colombia and Spain and I fell in love. From there, I started doing Rosetta Stone, started doing some other different things. When I went to high school it just solidified my love for it. 

Going to undergrad, studying Spanish along with my other things at Fairmont, it just made so much sense for me to do that. And then when I was deciding on what I wanted to study in grad school, everything just kind of fell together. It was like puzzle pieces. I’ve always been in love with Spanish, so it just made sense to make my career out of it. 

Erin Fields: So since you didn’t pursue your undergraduate studies here at WVU, tell me why you decided to move here. Was there something that stood out, or was there something about it on your radar? How did you come here?

Isa Sakaguchi: I’m going to have to go with the puzzle pieces, that analogy because that’s really how things worked. I went to Fairmont State University for my undergrad. There, I studied national security, political science, and Spanish. 

Erin Fields: Just down the road, right?

Isa Sakaguchi: Yeah, I think maybe thirty minutes down the road? Which, definitely go to the dairy cream corner by there when they open up, it is almost springtime! But when I was there, I had an instructor, because I was super indecisive on what I wanted to do after my undergrad. 

I knew I was not ready to jump fully into intelligence because I knew what I wanted to particularly would land me at a desk. So I started working at a hospital, and just a few other things, just trying to feel my way through. And I remember one of my professors gave me the advice, “Work for a year in the career field that you think you want to be in and then make your decision.” And I learned very quickly that I did not want to work in law enforcement, that was not for me. 

There’s a difference between being good at something and being passionate about something. So Spanish becoming a master’s for me just made sense. I knew it was something that I wanted, whether it was to still pursue a career in government, or if I wanted to pursue a career in higher education, things like that. 

And I’m now getting to my “Why WVU?” story. When I was applying for grad schools, I’m not going to lie to you, WVU was not my first choice. I was looking for Spanish programs in highly Spanish-speaking areas, so maybe down in Florida, New Mexico, California, pretty much all over. So that was the Fall of  2019, and I hate to pull the COVID card, but COVID definitely affected my decision. When I got my acceptance letters, it was the second week of March 2020. Guess what also happened in March of 2020? 


️ Download WVU's Graduate School Application Guide!


Erin Fields: Oof. 

Isa Sakaguchi: Yeah, the “global panorama”. Yeah, so the global pandemic definitely influenced my decision, but I would say what definitely solidified my decision to come to WVU was my first day here. I got lost, and you’re going to laugh at me, I got lost walking from Chitwood to Whitehall. 

Erin Fields: What? That’s like a straight shot!

Isa Sakaguchi: I know! I wasn’t too familiar with the campus yet, like I said it was my first day, I knew a general idea of where I was going, but I didn’t spend a lot of time over the summer on campus so it just kind of happened. But there were these two sophomores, and I’ll never forget them, but they came up to me. And I guess they could read on my face that I was super lost. And they looked at me and they were like, “Hey, do you need some help finding where you’re going?” and I was like, “Yeah, I’m trying to find this classroom.” and then they proceed to walk with me all the way to my classroom, which by the way, was on the other side of campus from where they were going. 

So they walked with me, they talked with me, they got to know me, I got to know them. I still have them on Snapchat, it was a really great experience and it’s just been so welcoming here by literally everybody, and that just solidified my decision to be here, because it just felt like home. And I know that’s cheesy, but it is what it is. 

Erin Fields: I feel very similar, because I also did not do my undergrad here at WVU and I remember the second that I stepped on campus, it kind of had that homey feeling and now I have a million pictures in from of Woodburn, and I lived happily ever after. 

Isa Sakaguchi: As you should though. That is my number one rule is that you have to have your picture taken in front of Woodburn at the very beginning, and at a minimum at the end. So when everyone has their confetti and stuff at Woodburn, you have to! 

Erin Fields: I want to back up a second to what you said about how there’s a difference between being good at something and being passionate about something, because I feel like so many people may think, “Oh I’m good at this, that must mean I’m passionate about it!” But we get into this weird mindset where yes, you are good at something, but then when you find out that’s not what your passion is, you’re stuck in this rut. And I think that’s a lot of the reason people go to grad school because they get out of undergrad and think, “I’m talented at this, but this isn’t what I want to do.” 

Isa Sakaguchi: Yeah, I was super good at the job I was doing. I was working with the security department at WVU medicine, I was the highest ranked female, and I was the only female carrying a firearm at the facility, so I was really good at what I was doing, but at the end of the day I was so exhausted, I was not feeling fulfilled, it was just not for me. 

I know a lot of the guys there, I’m still friends with a lot of the guys there, and they love what they do, but it just wasn’t for me. I loved training, I loved doing all the things, I loved the calls I would get because I was a bilingual speaker, so any of the translation things I had to do, I loved that stuff, so for me, it just made sense for me to follow something I was passionate about and figure out how to make a career out of it from there. 

What does a graduate teaching assistant do?

Erin Fields: So what's a typical day like for you on campus? That probably looks different Monday through Friday, so just pick your favorite day and go with it. 

Isa Sakaguchi: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are probably the days I spend the most on campus. My Tuesdays are pretty much a free day. I smart-scheduled my way into getting myself an extra day throughout the week, but any other weekdays I spend on campus. 

Wednesdays are pretty set for me schedule-wise so I'll choose those. So I’ll get up, I’ll come to the downtown campus, swing into The Grind, and get myself a coffee because I have to, I am not a morning person as much as I aspire to be. Then I head on down to Hodges and the TA workrooms that we have. I’ll go into my computer and look at the student hours, what we call our office hours in the language department. I’ll work on my grading, some other homework assignments, and whatever there may be as I wait for students to pop on the zoom link, or if they want to swing by the office, either way. 

And then I hope on the PRT and head over to Evansdale and I’m teaching for two hours before 3’oclock. And then at 3’oclock, I hop onto a zoom call with you and we do graduate work! But that’s pretty much a typical day though. I mean I pack my lunch for the most part now. Last semester, I went to Tzatziki’s probably too much, but now I pack my lunch so it’s not too bad. 

Erin Fields: Tzatziki’s is good though! 

Isa Sakaguchi: It is, the pesto basil gyro, that is so good. 

Do graduate assistants make money?

Erin Fields: Well, thanks for taking us through a day in your life. I know I get a lot of questions about what a day looks like for a grad student at WVU, and that’s different for everybody, but we try to give an idea of what different students do here at WVU. 

How has being a graduate teaching assistant helped you in grad school? Has there been professional development opportunities, potential financial savings, or any other benefits in regard to that? You also help at the visitors’ center here, as you said, are you introducing yourself?

Isa Sakaguchi: First of all, I applied to be a graduate teaching assistant when I submitted my application for grad school. I actually interviewed for my position before I even set foot on campus. And to be completely honest, I think it gave me such a great foundation, but also a level of connectivity within my department that I don’t know if I would have been as successful without it. I’ve made so many friends and definitely developed professionally from it. It gives me a schedule to work myself around, and I’m a person who needs that, otherwise everything will get lost. 

Otherwise, professional development opportunities: like I mentioned before, I lead a class by myself. I am given the syllabi and the textbook that I need, and the goals to meet, and I have a teaching mentorship with Dr. Morgan and he's super great and super communicative with me about those different things that I need, and he checks with me every semester, and sometimes twice a semester, just to see if there's a particular goal that he really wanted me to meet in the semester. So I've been teaching actual classes completely in Spanish, from 101 to 204 now, so it’s been really great and I’ve fallen in love with teaching and with higher academia and I can't imagine being anywhere else. 

Financially, it’s definitely helped me a lot being a graduate teaching assistant. Doing that and working for the university means that I have a tuition waiver. And as you know, I’m the second oldest of eleven kids, so my parents can’t quite help me as much as they would love to, and I totally don’t expect them to. I worked through my undergrad, so of course, I knew I was going to work through grad school. So it definitely has helped me out, knowing that my tuition is definitely covered. I also get a stipend on top of that, so every academic year I get a set amount, which means I get a biweekly paycheck on top of it, which definitely helps bills. I also bought a car last year, so just to help me out with spending and saving and all that, I decided to get another job. 

And as a graduate teaching assistant, a lot of times they have something called the 100-hour rule, which means I am only permitted to work 100 hours in another job on campus unless I have permission from my program coordinator. I’m sure Dr. Morgan would let me, but I'm studying for exams right now, so working 100 hours in the semester would probably not be good. But what that means is that I can work in the West Virginia University visitors’ center, as long as it’s less than 100 hours a semester. 

I work over the summer and I did things like that. And working with the visitor’s center, we’ve been developing a bilingual tour, which is what I got hired for, I think, so we’ve been really trying to embrace the multiple cultures that we have within West Virginia University because we don't just have students from all fifty-five counties in West Virginia. We still have them from all the states and from 110 different countries, so having this Spanish tour available is super exciting. And I’ve loved working with Anna and some of the other translators that we have down at the visitors center, and it’s just been super fun. I’ve definitely had a lot of different opportunities at WVU and I’ve made a family from it. 

Erin Fields: That tour is brand new and for everyone listening, that’s such a huge milestone for WVU, that we’re incorporating a tour like that to help students that have those different kinds of backgrounds. That’s so exciting and I’m so glad you get to be a part of that! 

Isa Sakaguchi: It’s kind of my baby before I leave this semester. 

Advice for choosing WVU for grad school:

Erin Fields: That’s awesome. So to wrap up our academic questions here, what advice would you have for someone interested in wanting to pursue a graduate program here at WVU? 

Isa Sakaguchi: My advice is to take advantage of WVU. I never would have imagined when first came on the campus being involved in the student organizations and all the different things that I’m involved in. Being a graduate student, I can still join student organizations. 

Erin Fields: The Olive Garden Breadstick Club!

Isa Sakaguchi: Yes! And for anyone listening, we are currently taking applications. We do have a competitor, which is the Red Lobster Cheddar Biscuit Club, but we all know who the real winner is here. 

Erin Fields: For sure. 

Isa Sakaguchi: In my time at WVU, I’ve tried to take advantage of all the opportunities here. That’s how I started rock climbing. I didn’t start rock climbing until I was a student here. Just take advantage of all the different things here, and go to the seminars and TedTalks. It’s been such a wild ride, but I don’t think I would have been as successful if I hadn’t taken advantage of all the opportunities, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Even as a graduate student, there’s still a lot that you can learn in two years. 

Erin Fields: You heard it here first, folks, take advantage of WVU and all it has to offer! So Isa, now that we’ve got the big questions out of the way, here are the bigger questions. I like to end our episodes here with a few speed-round questions. Are you ready? How do you drink your coffee? 

Isa Sakaguchi: I like a nice oat milk latte with brown sugar on top.

Erin Fields: Ooh, that’s interesting, oat milk. 

Isa Sakaguchi: Yeah, I can’t do the real milk. As much as I yell at myself to just tolerate it, I can’t. 

Erin Fields: What is your go-to karaoke song? 

Isa Sakaguchi: Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Erin Fields: Oh, good choice! Queen!

Isa Sakaguchi: Yeah you know, we love some Queen. It’s a classic, you can’t beat it, and the entire karaoke place will start singing with you, it doesn’t matter what country you’re in. 

Erin Fields: Everyone knows that song. I watch videos online of people in other countries singing “Country Roads”, and I’m like, “Hey!”

Isa Sakaguchi: Yeah if you go to any other country, and say, “I’m from West Virginia”, they start singing John Denver! 

Erin Fields: Side note, do you know how many people think West Virginia is just the Western part of Virginia? 

Isa Sakaguchi: Every time I’ve been on a plane and said I’m from West Virginia, people say, “Oh, I’ve been to Richmond before.” 

Erin Fields: Excuse me, there are fifty states, not forty-nine! Last one: what is your Hogwarts house? 

Isa Sakaguchi: I used to think I was a Ravenclaw, but as it turns out, I am indeed a Slytherin. 

Erin Fields: Alright! Let’s go! Me too! How did you go from a Ravenclaw to a Slytherin? 

Isa Sakaguchi: I was a triple major for my undergraduate, I studies all three degrees and got all three of them in three and a half years. Shoutout to my advisors for helping me through that! But I have such a thirst for knowledge, I want to know everything I can, and I guess my thirst for knowledge is just underneath the level of ambition that I have. Because I am 100% a go-getter. If there is something that I want, I am going to figure out a plan and I am going to get it. 

So, it’s like the enneagram, I’m a Slytherin with a Ravenclaw wing. But what was really funny is I thought my Patronus would be like a dog or something. Nope. I got a Black Mumba, a snake. 

Erin Fields: Just to confirm that it’s Slytherin. 

Isa Sakaguchi: It’s confirmed, I am 100% a Slytherin. 

Erin Fields: Well thank you so much, Isa, for sharing your insights and knowledge with us on the show, telling us your WVU story, and putting up with my crazy speed-round questions to keep you on your toes! 

Today’s episode was brought to you by the West Virginia University office of graduate admissions. For more information on graduate education at West Virginia University, please visit our website at www.graduateadmissions.wvu.edu. If you enjoyed or found value in anything you heard today, we recommend you leave a review on your favorite listening platform, follow us on social media, and subscribe to be notified of our new episodes coming out once a month. 

You can also start your online application if you're ready to jumpstart your graduate school journey at West Virginia University!

Thanks for listening, and until next time, let’s go Mountaineers! 



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