Friday, October 16, 2020

Going to Graduate School During a Pandemic

Spring 2020 is the first time I took an online class, but I didn’t sign up for one. We had to move online due to a now global pandemic.

I am currently in my third of three years of graduate school at San Diego State. I had initially planned on jumping into employment once I graduate, but our current situation has made me rethink that idea. I am now planning on returning to graduate school to pursue a master’s in library and information sciences. This has always been a dream of mine, but the pandemic pushed me to return to school for yet another time. Even though school has been changing and evolving, it has nonetheless been my stability point.

I started hearing about Covid-19 around February or March, although the first case of COVID-19 in San Diego was reported in January of 2020.

I sat in my Aesthetics of Children’s Literature class, listening to students:

“It’s called Covid.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“It’ll be over in a couple weeks.”

March 12th, 2020 was the last day I was on San Diego State campus. I never knew it might have been the last time I’d be on campus, nor did I know to say early goodbyes to some friends getting ready to graduate and move.

A mandatory statewide stay-at-home order was issued March 19th, 2020 for California.

It’s been seven months since our school went online. It feels like it’s been forever, but also just a month or so.

For me, and many other students and professors alike, this is a very new experience. The closest experience I have had was Swine Flu from my elementary school days where we still went to school and just washed our hands more. I also heard of the SARS epidemic of the early 2000’s, but being so young and in America I had no firsthand experience.

The events this year all felt like I was watching a movie, a scary one at that. 

Professors had a week off to adapt the next month and a half of their brick and mortar classes into an online modality while some students scrambled for new living situations, or those living at home had to readjust to an overall new school experience.

At the start of the pandemic, I took one typical graduate class which met weekly, and an independent study class that met roughly once a month, so my experience may have been a bit atypical in comparison to other students. Both classes were in-person instruction.

My weekly graduate class became an asynchronous class. An asynchronous class means we do not all meet in a scheduled online meeting. We follow the same syllabus, but all our work was online, and we would share ideas and thoughts via Blackboard discussion posts.

My independent study started to meet through zoom as I tried to collect myself emotionally while trying to kick out a twenty-page paper.

It was a very emotional time for me. Between my new adjustment to working from home and trying to process all the news of Covid I felt pretty overwhelmed. I was scared for my family’s health and simply what changes would be coming in the future.

Fall semester, we had a little more time to adjust to going to school during a pandemic, and professors had a bit more time to revamp their classes over the summer to be online.

I currently have one class meeting synchronously, and one which typically meets asynchronously.

For my asynchronous class it probably can be inferred we don’t meet on Zoom. We have various readings and we post weekly reflections and responses to Blackboard prompts and our fellow classmates.

These Blackboard posts from class simulate for me real conversations I would have in class, and it is incredibly helpful for me as a student to read, respond to, and get responses from my fellow classmates. I have recently discovered I love having most our conversations written where we can go back and continue to reflect on what others have said since it’s all typed out on Blackboard.

For my synchronous class we meet once a week on zoom, similar to an in-person class, but maybe a little bit more awkward at first. There’s a lot of people mistakenly talking over each other or for me or being too anxious to talk simply because it is such a new experience. I definitely was initially very overwhelmed. I see a dozen or so faces staring from my screen, and I feel like they’re all staring at me. I’ve grown used to it, but it’s a bit unsettling sometimes.

Recently in my asynchronous class we met with a scholar on our topic (over zoom) and it felt nice to put a face to all these names I have been responding to for weeks. I felt happy to see some friends and classmates I have dearly missed and also have the opportunity to connect to so many new people. I missed seeing my professor, and as we all laughed and discussed nonsense literature it felt a little bit like I was in a classroom again.

I have social anxiety which especially comes out when I talk in class. I have gotten more comfortable speaking up, but on Zoom I almost felt set back at first. I had to relearn how to speak up. I even take notes slightly differently with my class on one side of my screen and my notes on the other side. In class I feel like there are dozens of eyes when I look up because, well, there are. In some classes, our every word is recorded, which although very beneficial, is terrifying for me to think of when it’s already hard enough to talk in a standard class.

Something interesting about doing online school is the change in social queues. In person, I can pick up more moods in the class or when someone is about to talk, but online these social queues, like a small tilt of the head or other minute expressions, are muddled and confusing. I can’t pick up a minute gesture as easily, and it can be easy to misinterpret what someone is saying without being able to see body language.

Another difficult part of doing school online is staying motivated. Staying at a desk and not leaving my house for days on end can be difficult. I try my best to take breaks and change up my environment a little by not staying at my desk or taking a quick drive to run an errand, but I can really only do so much during a pandemic.

I get distracted by duties at home and new noises I didn’t hear at school like a garbage truck or one of the ten barking dogs I live by (or my own dog). The most distracting part though, is the quiet.

At my campus office, I hear the shuffling of feet, students laughing, cars driving by. I hear professors stopping by to say hello. Visitors asking for directions are a thing of my past.

It’s quiet now at home. We don’t live by a major intersection. I can open my windows and hear nothing. The quiet can be distracting, even overwhelming.

It can be lonely doing online school. Some days I can sit for hours on end at my home desk doing homework. I do homework, log on to my online class in the afternoon, log off, and then continue homework until I go to bed. When I wake up, it’s the same cycle all over again.

It definitely is difficult to be so self-motivated when we can’t easily interact with fellow peers. We aren’t used to doing work asynchronously, and it definitely is an adjustment to motivate yourself even more than usual in graduate school. Without talking to classmates about their process, and simply being physically surrounded by people from the same program, at times I tend to feel a bit alone and thrown into the deep end.

I think it should be kept in mind that this is an unknown scenario, even months into online school.

Students and teachers alike are worried about not only staying on top of schoolwork, but some have to worry about employment, a new schoolwork environment, childcare for children or siblings, on top of the health of ourselves and our loved ones. Some members of SDSU lost loved ones and had to still write a paper or teach a class. Some students were displaced from their campus housing and had to move home, or find a new place to live.

Although I have not had to deal with these scary realities I mention, through these months, I think mental health has become a real priority for me, and I think it should for my fellow graduate students who are staying at home for such long periods of time. Like many other graduate students I know, I can work for hours on end with no breaks, forgetting to eat, drink water, or even get up and stretch. Not needing to leave to go to school definitely exacerbates this habit.

Although this is common behavior to discuss in school, this is not healthy.

Last semester, after we started distance learning, I would work for hours on end to complete a paper. I barely remembered to eat sometimes, and this hyper-focus was detrimental to my mental health. I cried, I felt lonely, I felt anxious. I learned the hard way that this is not how I personally should be doing school. I had to learn how to do school at home, including the most basic things like when to get up and go outside or just take a walk around the house for a break from my schoolwork.  

We’re adapting to a new way of doing school, but it’s still incredibly difficult. I’m overwhelmed by the news when I already have school to focus on. I’m clearly learning a new normal.

However, I’m not alone. I’m not the only student in a pandemic.

I need to remember to (virtually) reach out to my friends and those I work with, and I encourage other students to do that as well, and it’s important to remember to simply be kind to yourself in such a strange time.

It’s a hard semester, but I have learned a lot about myself and about school and how we can change and adapt in the face of a difficult situation.

I’m not completely sure what will happen in the Spring semester. I think that if the pandemic requires us to be online in future semesters, it will slowly get easier with time. I know Spring semester will be online, and I hope and expect I can get a little more used to online classes. I truly feel like I will become better adjusted given time. 

I graduate in seven months, and I think graduation will be odd. If online, which I expect will happen, we won’t have that space to say goodbye to one another. There’s an inherent positive, buzzing energy during in-person graduation ceremonies within the students, but I don’t know if this will be the case when I graduate. I am curious if it will even feel like I graduated if it’s all through a video. Will I get that rush I physically felt when I was handed my undergraduate diploma? I don’t know if it will even hit me that I graduated without my classmates around me. 

It’s all pretty uncertain. I’m grateful I can go to a school that allows us to do classes safely from our own homes, but it’s scary to be unsure about what is coming next. 


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