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Yale Doctoral Candidate & Author Crystal Harrell

| “It’s important for us to be aware of things that are natural to us, things we’re passionate about. Because these are the things that open doors for you. The opportunities come when you’re following something that speaks only to you.”

Crystal grew up the 7th of 10 children in public housing. She didn't dream of attending a top-tier college until she was older, because she didn't think it was possible.

Listen to Crystal’s incredible story and how she overcame the odds to get into a highly competitive PhD program at her dream university, Yale.


  • The amazing first moments at Yale University
  • Biggest benefits and favorite parts of studying at Yale
  • How Crystal got admitted after failing to succeed the first time
  • Powerful advice to help you get into your dream college
  • Why getting an advanced degree might not make you happy

     And so much more.


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Hello, everyone. We are so excited today because I have Crystal Harell with us. She is pursuing her doctorate degree right now at Yale University and has such an exciting message to share. She's a bestselling author. She's got a youtube channel that I want you all to check out because she is someone who empowers students to just be better students in lots of different ways from the inside out, from tactics to strategies to philosophies and theories.

And so I'm really excited to talk to crystal today, crystal. Thank you so much for joining us.

Hi, steve; thank you so much for having me. So fun.

Tell us, like, let's get right into it, tell us about yale. How do you enjoy studying? How do you enjoy living on this amazing, iconic, historic campus?

Like, it's amazing because when I walk outside of my apartment and I'm just walking to class and I look at all the pseudo-gothic, gothic buildings. And I'm like, I really go to this universe. Like I am a student here. I kind of like my first year here; I would like just look at my best just to make sure that this was actually my reality because it was a long shot from where I started.

But it feels really good because I've been to three different universities, and out of all of them. This has honestly been just one of the best universities for the number of resources that they have.

And I think that's what really makes or breaks the experiences. What type of resources can you tap into? And Yale just exceeds them? Honestly, they support their students beyond what I expected。

I have never studied there. But I understand the caliber of the university and you are just blown away by the resources, by the networks, by the quality and caliber of people, and how friendly those people are. Right? These people are totally untouchable. If you're not on campus, because they're so busy, they're too busy to meet all the needs of the whole world that are reaching out to them. But if you knock on their door during office hours, their attention is fully on you. It's amazing. Of course, not everyone, but most of them, I love it. What is your favorite part about studying at yale?

It's really difficult besides the things that I mentioned previously about the resources in the buildings. That's hard. I would just have to say, just like you said, the quality is like last year, I had a course named Theology and Medicine.

My research is in I do religious in spiritual-based research as relates to health outcomes and minority communities. And this course was mostly like a seminar, but the discussions that we held were so powerful. And it really is just like added, and it ate it my learning experience because I realized that these are the type of conversations that I always long for.

As a student, the ones that you would look at on television and say, what is the meaning of life? Like obviously not that deep, but it was just like those quality types of conversations or discussions as a student between students and professors. And it just really like made the whole experience that much more enjoyable.

That's beautiful. There are many other things if you think of things as we discuss as we talk advantages that you found just from attending this university; feel free to bring those out. A lot of my listeners might not be surprised by you, but a lot of my listeners have Yale as number one on their wish list, their absolute dream school. So I can appreciate it's a great school, but you're not a traditional, kinda of typical, stereotypical yale student, at least not as most people understand it.

Yale is tremendously diverse, much more diverse than it gets credit for. Tell us a little bit about your background, what makes it so surprising for your friends and family back home, that you've kind of that you've made it there, and that this is your life, as you say, you kind of want to pinch yourself.

Yeah, so that's a great question. And I guess it's exciting to me, and it's unbelievable sometimes because I grew up and rural Alabama and in public housing apartments with nine other siblings. When I was 11 years old, I lost my father to cancer. He died from leukemia. It was obviously the most devastating point in my childhood, and that eventually led to different difficulties that I faced as a teen and young adult.

And thankfully, I've been able to work through a lot of that and just really use my pain and turn that into purpose, which is why I got into academic success coaching because I realized that a lot of students who went through a similar situation like me from their background, not having that traditional background, they were really struggling and hire academia.

And I realized that, and I was able to secure over $670,000 in scholarship funding, mostly from the bill of the Melinda gates foundation. But the money aspect of it was a one piece. Whenever I was a freshman, and I thought I was a freshman or sophomore undergrad, I actually failed a course. And even though I didn't have to stress about finances which most students do, and I'm very grateful that I was able to receive that money because my family could not afford to send me a school that scholarship was the only way I was able to pursue my dreams of becoming a student.

And when I filled out a course, I realized that there was a lot more to being a successful student. And that's what I wanted to help other students realize.

Yeah, absolutely. So your freshman year or sophomore year, you failed. You felt so privileged and so lucky to be able to study. You didn't want to continue making the kinds of mistakes that led to that failure. And so you started figuring out, or you started really being reflective around how to be successful as a student. And then you started teaching other students that, am I getting that correct?

I wanna unpack that a little bit. First, I'm just really curious. I'm really curious. You say have nine siblings, or you're one of nine kids? I wanna pain. So I have nice. I didn't realize that I'm one of eight. Yes. So you understand someone who has as many siblings, which order are you? What order do you have? Number seven of ten, holy cows. I'm four of eight. And I know what it's like to have. Older siblings pick on you as you're growing up, and younger siblings that you're responsible for are once a year old enough to pick on them. And so I completely get that. All right. Let's go back to it, and I think I understand better than most what you that was like. Okay, so let's get back to helping students because I love this. So you figured out a thing or two just by being reflective and just trying to figure out why you failed and what you can do differently.

From all the things that you figured out for yourself and that you've been teaching, mostly college undergrads. What advice do you have? Most of my listeners are high school students and middle school students. However, I find that the advice that's valid for college students, graduate students, and adults is often way more valid than we give credit to these teams. So what do you teach your undergrad students about success as a college student?

So that's a good point because I have worked with a few high school students in the past, and I graduated high school eight years ago, so I feel like it's relatively close. I remember it mostly because I understand that feeling of not knowing what to expect.

As you embark on this new adventure that is higher education. I realize that I'm sure most of your students listening are very intelligent because they're listening to a podcast like this. Like, of course, course they're very ambitious. They have big goals. I identify with that I resonate without on these deep spiritual levels. I understand. So they are probably already doing very well academically. They probably are high-performing students. They probably haven't really developed the proper study habits because it's easy for them to just go to school and make good grades and graduate at the top of their class, at least. That was my own story.

So I never really developed those proper steady habits that were to help me as I went into undergrad. One thing that I realized was that I was actually not in a major. I wasn't studying something that actually amplified my academic strengths.

I talk more about this in my book, but academic shrimps are very important for you to have that awareness because you kind of, like, I kind of follow that once I started following my strengths, and once, I started to just become more aware of them. I use that to my advantage. And that is what led me to where I am not at you. One piece of advice that I gave is that like I said earlier, you don't know what you don't know.

So if there's something that you do not understand as a student, you have to have the wherewithal to be able to ask a question. And your professors are a lot more chill and down-to-earth than you would think. And they actually appreciate students coming to them, like, obviously, you do it in a respectful way. And because you recognize their time is very valuable. And so there's a way that you approach people and. There's a way that you asked. I'm like, hey, I don't understand this. Is there any way you could help me? And a lot of the times they have office hours, use that take advantage of that time? That's what I did. I started asking professors, how do I do this? I got mentors. I reached out to people who had already been where I wanted to go. I just ask questions. I just literally just ask how, and they told me.

I love that advice. That's so good.

At Harvard, they're called teaching fellows. I don't know at Yale or Albert; if you had teaching assistance, or if you had students that were kinda designated to support other students, would you say also that's an outstanding resource for a student that's kind of trying to figure out what to do?

Yes, very much. So because at auburn, they had teaching assistance, and I ended up becoming a teaching assistant while I was getting my first master's.

I'm now at yale; I'm a teaching fellow. And so I do have students reach out to me that I for the classes at it, and I actually just try to give them the same advice. I would give the students that I work with as an academic success coach. So, yes, they are also another resource for you. The only reason, I guess like, why undergrad I was more inclined to reach out to professors was because classes were so tiny. It was only like 25, 20 to 25 people.

So it was the right experience. Okay.

Right. So it was easier to just go to the professors and say, hey, like, I have a question about this. And they went whole office hours, so it was just easier to reach out to them that way. That's why I use that resource and undergrad. But as I begin to like having the larger classes, I would talk to the teaching assistants.

Yeah, I love it.

So don't be afraid to ask. And then you said it's really important to develop your strengths. So I ii think a little bit about the ivy league challenge; we've had opportunities to chat before. We really emphasize that you don't become memorable until you've gone further than other people in something that you're interested in. Right? You've developed your curiosity, yes, to the point that you have almost become an expert; at least, you have become the teenage version of an expert. And you're telling me that part of the keys to success, once you're in college, is to understand your academic strengths. And then, would you say to really pursue those strengths? Or would you say to just understand them so that you make decisions with that understanding in place? In other words, would you recommend that people kind of try fill in the gaps and take classes that fill those gaps? Or would you recommend that people pursue their strengths at all costs? Or would you just recommend that people understand what their strengths are? So that? They make choices with awareness. And intentionality, instead of just based on what fits their schedule and doesn't force them to wake up too early.

Yeah. So I think that's a great question.

And I think it's mostly a combination of both。 An example that I gave is that I when I started undergrad, I was a chemistry major because I was really good at chemistry in high school. When I got into college, I realized I was not so great at chemistry in college because of the testing style; it just wasn't a strength for me. Like I realized that I'm not a good test taker. The act will prove that I'm not a good test taker, but something that I'm really good at it is doing well over a period of time. So my GPA has always been my strength. I've always had a 4 . 0. I've always done really well when it came to riding projects or projects that I had the time to synthesize.

I realized that my strengths, like the classes that I was excelling in, were psychology and sociology, like classes that I could like write about classes that I could discuss. So I was doing well in those classes, but in the classes like chemistry and some of my heart sciences I wasn't doing as well. And because their testing methods weren't a part of my academic strength. So I realized that early on, and it was my freshman year. It was the first semester of my freshman year that I filled my first class as someone who tied their self-worth to their academic endeavors, to the academic success, that was a heart hit. It wasn't until later on.

Then I realized that I'm not my degree, I'm much greater than that, and my degree isn't gonna make me happy. The fulfillment part comes within. The process is not the ingo. So, yeah, it was just like realizing having the awareness to know that I have to follow something that I'm passionate about. Because passion gets you in the door, people can't deny passion because passion gets results. That's the biggest thing. So if you're studying something that you're not passionate about and it's literally sucking the life out of you, it's gonna be very difficult for you too; I'm not saying that it's impossible because I don't believe in that word at all. But I believe that it's important for us to be aware of things that come naturally to us, things that strengthen those things that we're very passionate about because they lead you, they open doors for you. I believe that the doors open the opportunities that you get to express everything that you are because that's what we're all really seeking.

Anyway. Those opportunities come when you're following something that speaks to you.

I could not agree more to follow the things that speak to you and then be aware of opportunities and jump on them. I love it. What is brilliant advice so good? All right, tell us about your book. You've written a book, it's a bestselling book, and you've got a youtube channel. I'm sure by now that many of my listeners are curious and want to learn more, tell us about your book; where do we get it? And just. Yeah. Go, tell us about you, and I think Instagram as well. But how do my listeners get a hold of you? Or how do they listen in or hear more of your advice?

Yeah, so my book is available on amazon. I'm working on getting it into bookstores as well, but the name of my book is crystal clear, a journey of self-discovery. The subtitle is from public housing to ivy league. So if you just type in crystal clear and type in my full name Crystal Harell Amazon, it should be it's actually the second book that comes up because the first book is a book about crystals, but you'll see it.

And it's my cover. It's a blue cover, and I'm on the front of it. I wrote that book last year after speaking with my hero, Lest Brown because I joined one of his coaching programs. And he asked me the first thing that he asked me after I told her my story was, do you have a book? And I was like, no, I don't have a book, but he planted that seat inside of me. And so it came about, and it was something my mom kind of told me about before then because when I was getting my first master's, I was struggling very badly. And I kept telling myself that I'll be happy once I got my degree. And then, I got my first master's degree, and I was more miserable and thinner than I was before. That's when I realized that I was facing the wrong direction. I needed to turn around, and I needed to actually do the work to be happy as I progressed on this journey.

And so that's kind of the reason why the book kind of got started. And that's why I say a journey of stuff discovery. Because in order to, I believe self-discovery is the way it's impossible to know where you're going. If you don't know who you are. I don't believe there's a right; sorry, I think the sooner, the better. So your listeners have an advantage because they are very early in the game. They're still in middle school or high school. They can really take the time to read books like thinking grow rich, the power of your subconscious mind by doctor murphy, and the power of positive thinking. Those types of books really get you closer to mastering yourself, mastering who you are to become. It's okay if you don't know because most people don't know, it's a journey, and the journey never ends, but that's the exciting part.

And so I started my youtube channel crystal clear in order to kind of supplement my book to basically provide videos on how to get into competitive graduate school programs, advice, or things that I wish I knew. Whenever I was an undergrad, I advised undergrads from a career student because I've been in school for like 8.5 years. I kind of went all the way through. So, yeah, I just kind of did that in on. By Chris, my Instagram is crystal. Harold underscores. I try to provide more content there because it's a lot easier to make a video on Instagram than it is to edit a video on youtube sometimes.

So ii just try to be more vocal or more engaged on my Instagram channel or my Instagram page because I realized that's where most of the people who reach out to me come from Instagram and social media.

I love that you make yourself accessible and that you give such great advice. Let's close on some of that advice. If you could kind of project yourself back to, say, a 14-year-old girl listening in, I know there are many 14-year-old girls listening in right now. What advice do you have to, let's say, an aspiring scientist at about 14? What advice would you give to my listeners?

Yeah, so it's gonna sound very cliche, but the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to follow your heart. And I know like we hear that as children, we hear that in our Disney movies, but this is advice that's gonna carry you, because of the way, but if you're not listening to yourself, if you're not listening to your intuition, and following your passions, and it's gonna be very difficult.

And so the sooner or, the quicker that I realized that I needed to follow my heart and I needed to follow my passions. That's when I started to become successful. That's when things started to work out in my life. If I could tell my 14-year-old self something, or if I could tell a 14-year-old girl something, it would be to just follow your heart. And don't let the circumstances define who you are because your circumstances are temporary. But who you are into is eternal. And I think that's something that self-discovery really helps me realize.

How do I know if I'm following my heart? What if I think I'm following my heart? But I'm not sure.

That's a good question. So you have to assess your feelings. Your feelings are a conscious awareness of what your thought pattern is.

So if you're following something that's not for you or, if you're not following your heart, then you're constantly every day like a day in and day out, you're gonna be surrounded by these negative fillings as they're constantly trying to. They're like warning signs in the get, like if you're driving a car and your gas light comes on, and it's blinking. Or just like like I hear you, that's what your body is telling you.

So if you're not feeling good, if this is something that's not giving you joy, obviously, higher education is a journey, but there's a difference between struggling and working hard. And you really have to understand that, and you have to follow your feelings because your feelings are an indication of what's going on internally.

I honestly wish I could tell you which is the right way to go. But that's something that you have to realize. And the journey of figuring that out it's beautiful. But your feelings are a good indicator of whether or. Not you're following your heart.

I think that if I'm working out, for example, I'm strengthening my body. In order for my muscles to grow, at some ., there must be resistance. Right? My muscles will not grow. If I don't exercise them and exercise means I'm pushing against resistance. Oftentimes, I'm tearing muscles in order. I not all the way through, but micro tears. And then, through recovery, my muscles get stronger. Even when we're pursuing our dreams and our passions and following our hearts, we're going to face resistance because we're not an expert at 14 years old. And so you have a lot to learn, a lot to figure out. And sometimes it feels like that process of pursuing your passion or your interests, your curiosities, that process of developing your strengths can feel like a whole lot of resistance.

Do you have any kind of anything that you look for to tell the difference between that resistance that's on the path of getting exactly where you want to be versus the frustration of being on the wrong path? Do you have anything that kind of you use to help differentiate between those two different kinds of emotions that sometimes might feel similar?

This is really good for you because a lot of these are things I've kind of known intuitively, but I never really processed or really spoke about.

And so it's a really good question because I find myself honestly in that situation right now. Because whenever like I said, whenever I was trying to get my first master's, and I was experiencing such like extreme resistance, it was so bad to where I literally would just like wake up in the middle of the night, and I would just wake up from just being sad like I was always really really sad.

Part of that was because I was still processing a lot of childhood trauma, and I eventually got counseling, and it helped a lot. And that's the awesome thing about undergrad or university or college is they provide counseling services for soon as usual for free.

So take advantage of that as well. But a lot of the times, whenever I felt that extreme resistance was because I was trying to go against something that was, so I really wasn't allowing myself to be; I was always focusing on getting the next degree or achieving the next thing or proving that I was better than the next person. As I said, I'm one of ten. So my whole life, I've been competing. And so when I got into a university that didn't go away, I was still competing. Now that I'm back in my old environment. I see that coming up again. So the resistance it's me trying to put myself ahead or put myself ahead of everyone or just trying to achieve the next thing. That type of resistance, as I said, it feels wrong; you feel like this is not something that I'm supposed to be doing. It wasn't until later that I realized that you don't have to compete; you just have to create. And that is the biggest source of inspiration.

And so it's sometimes it's a good question because those two feelings of resisting something that isn't for you and resisting something that is for you. Sometimes that difference is so subtle. But that's why I say self-discovery and self-awareness are the way because you have to know who you are in order to distinguish between those two emotions because that's the only way  I can say that.

And the more I began to learn about who I was myself, and I started the process of studying my genealogy, just like doing the work to really know who I was and what I wanted out of life. The more I was able to, the easier it was for me to distinguish between what was for me and what was not for me. So that's why I say you really have to work on yourself, but it's a beautiful process because you begin to discover so many amazing opportunities when who you are and what you want.

It is a beautiful process. Thank you so much.  I think that you have come to discover that the resistance along the path towards greatness kind of feels like this, and it kinda hurts, but that you're gonna feel better.

Once you recover versus the resistance of just kind of pushing, but not feeling like you're getting where you want to be, and so the self-awareness that comes through experience, it sounds like for you, you had to try both types of resistance. And now you can intuitively understand when even though it's difficult, you're on the right path versus this is not the right kind of difficulty. And so I'm gonna let this go from my life.

You said that very well. That's exactly it.

Crystal, thank you so much for joining us today. I think your experience has been so profoundly just inspiring for so many listeners, especially those who are listening in and who have these great ambitions but perhaps don't test as well. That don't aren't excited about sharing their act or SAT scores when they apply.

And here you are with age and an act that you aren't excited about. But you are still your doctorate degree is still gonna be from a lot of my listeners, dream school, Yale University. You've obviously put in a tremendous amount of effort along the road here. You felt that resistance, and you had overcome it. You're an example. I would just say an inspiration to so many. And so, thank you for joining us today and sharing your story.

Thank you so much, Steve. For having me, this has honestly been like a beautiful space. And if those are good to kind of reach back in share my story, maybe someone can learn from my mistakes or learn from my successes, whatever your learning style is. It's okay. Just talk about your goals with the people and the positions that may be able to help you. Thank you so much.