Anyone else feel like the pandemic has had different book chapters? Chapter One: Binge-watch “Tiger King” and debate who the real villain is (spoiler- all of them). Chapter Two- consume so many TikTok tutorials and dance videos that you question your age while simultaneously wishing for the simplicity of Myspace. Chapter Three- Attempt that DIY project you put off for years since you have run out of things to do while on lockdown. All joking aside, the pandemic has led to an underlying sense of uncertainty and confusion for all of us, even as we watched Tiger King or watched TikTok videos these past several months. And this underlying uncertainty and confusion has trickled over into my own story of beginning a Ph.D. program in the midst of a pandemic. Concerns of how I was going to build community, relocate during a crisis, and battle the creeping feeling of imposter syndrome began to fill the pages of my own story.
Chapter One: Connecting Over Zoom?
When initially researching doctoral programs, a cohort was important to me. There is something comforting about having community with a group of people who are going through the same experience as you. Learning that my first semester of my doctoral program would be fully online was disappointing. Not because of academics, I had faith that the faculty would adjust and provide us with solid instruction, but because I would be losing those initial interactions with my classmates (working on assignments at a local coffee shop, celebrating the end of the first week at happy hour). How do I connect in a substantial and meaningful way when we are limited to only virtual spaces?
Lesson: Time and Effort.
Community building looks different, but it exists with time and effort. Some could argue that millennials and Gen Z have an advantage since we have been connecting virtually since the mid-2000s. Although I have mixed feelings on that argument, I can say that a few things have helped me in forming and building my own community in school during a pandemic.
Virtual orientations: Ice breaker anyone? As a former student affairs professional who worked in orientation I have an appreciation for these spaces. As a new student who did not know a single student at the institution while applying, these virtual spaces became a stepping stone to figuring out instruction via zoom and where to start building connections. This leads me to my next point.
Graduate student organizations: Utilizing graduate student organizations has helped me to connect to current students at the university who have assisted me with the typical transition pieces (where to submit immunization records, how to get a student ID card, etc.). Universities generally offer these types of organizations through the graduate school or even have program-specific organizations to help you connect with students studying similar content areas. Building your network is important professionally, but beyond that, having a community who understands the rigors of academia and the institution-specific issues is essential.
Faculty and Staff: Reach out to them, seriously. As I navigated radio silence to the overwhelming amount of communication from the university- they helped clarify new procedures and expectations. And despite juggling a new landscape of higher education themselves, they were always happy to help.
GroupMe: Technology wins are important! This platform has been a helpful space of clarifying assignments with my cohort, checking in to see how people are doing personally, and providing a space that is instantly accessible to connect no matter where we each are geographically. Replace GroupMe with Slack or a group text or a Facebook group (do people still use those?) and you have a similar space.
I am not sponsored by Zoom or GroupMe, but at this point, I should be.
Chapter Two: Relocating in a pandemic.
Relocating for a job, school, or even a fresh start is not an easy process. It takes time, labor, and often significant finances to make the move happen. Now relocating, across the country in my case, during a pandemic for school that is now fully online made things a little more confusing.
Lesson: Support Systems during Uncertainty.
Deciding to relocate or not to relocate for school during a pandemic is a personal decision impacted by a multitude of factors. For me, it ultimately came down to evaluating finances and proximity to my support system during an “unprecedented time” (as every email mentions these days).
Support system: Graduate school is taxing on your mental health and having friends and family as a positive support system can be that extra push you need to keep ongoing. No seriously, a good support system can help with stress and ultimately degree completion. Which is exactly why I made the decision to stay local while taking classes online (which was not an easy decision, just ask my family who heard me debate logistics and pros and cons for at least a month).
Finances: Now the above combined with some math showed me how much money I would save by staying in my current state versus moving to a bigger and more expensive city. It sealed the deal. There is financial uncertainty for countless people during this time and being able to be more secure in mine by delaying a move did not seem like a bad idea.
Chapter Three: Imposter Syndrome.
Imposter syndrome, the “thing” that many of us experience but do not always have the words to define it in the moment. We doubt our abilities and think others will eventually find out we are “frauds”. Pandemic or no pandemic- imposter syndrome tends to find a way to creep up. The added stressors of working on class and research from home and feeling a loss of control can contribute to this feeling.
Lesson: Space and Grace.
Space: This seems simple, but creating separate spaces to dedicate to school has been important for me. I found myself being overwhelmed as I juggled zoom classes in my small room in a house with three roommates and a barking dog. Separating where I did school, slept, and ate made a difference immediately (and somehow is training my dog to know the difference of the spaces too).
Grace: Be kind to yourself. You were accepted into a school and a program; this is the world showing you that someone believes in your abilities and you should too. Also remember that others are navigating this new “norm” with as much uncertainty, awkwardness, and uneasiness as you are. It is okay to not get every day perfect, it is a marathon not a race.
My life currently feels like a book chapter that combines High School Musical “We’re All in this Together” and Jack and Rose trying to stay afloat in icy water in Titanic. To simply put it- things are complicated.
Add the largest social justice movement happening on top of starting school in a pandemic? That is a blog for another day.