We’re all on unsure footing here. We weren’t sure what this week and the return to classes — albeit in an entirely different format — would look like, and we weren’t sure what The Ratty would look like in the wake of the changes to the Brown community. Rather than pushing forward, pretending everything was functioning as normal, we wanted to address what this situation feels like to grad students. And because we are primarily a blog, we wrote about it. The rest of this article features our editors discussing how they’re dealing with digital learning, sheltering-in-place, and the world in the wake of the pandemic. I wasn’t sure how I was going to introduce such a peculiar, composite article, so to prepare you I thought I would provide a list of various titles this piece has been known by:
- Ratty Editors Vent About Being A Grad Student During COVID-19
- Ratty Editors in Isolation
- Grad Students in Isolation
- I Have the Drive to Create but Am Paralyzed by Anxiety, What Should I Do?
- What If We All Just Vented Our Feelings into a Google Doc?
Professionally, I thought social distancing would be a cinch. I’m a computational chemist – no wet lab, no on-site instrumentation, no live specimens, and thus, no physical location required! Yet the strain to perform my work has… well… soared in intensity, weighing heavier each day, as the mental and emotional burdens grow.
I’m an avid climber and aikido practitioner – two physical, social activities that I thrived on. My drive to research was fueled by these outlets, and I called on them regularly to reset for each new day. Then, I was told to stop. To refrain from my restorative lifelines, in order to prevent the worst. Even though I understood, I felt wounded and afraid as my lifelines suddenly vanished.
I’m afraid to feel loneliness and despair. I’m anxious, uncertain of each step forward. I’m angry — regrettably, at myself — when I struggle to accept these emotional pains as “reasonable” explanations for delays. I yearn to return to our earlier status, to break free of this physical confinement and emotional turbulence. I continue to hope that this situation will evaporate. Yet, I accept that this may be the norm for quite some time.
So, I’ve begun improving how I carry this new burden. I’ve found time to self-reflect. I might be climbing my door frames. My friends and I, near and far, have embraced remote connectivity. For as long as this may last, I aim to be kind to myself, to create new outlets, and to brace for the rest of the ride.
Honestly, the week off before spring break came as a relief to me. I’m studying for my comprehensive exams, and I was being handed extra time to focus on my reading lists instead of class preparations. So I holed up in my apartment, surrounded by antiquated computer hardware and piles of what material I was able to grab from the library before it closed.
And I’ve been able to accomplish so little.
Comps are an inherently stressful time, no matter how often your advisors repeat the fact that they shouldn’t be. And I was already scared — afraid that I wouldn’t be a good enough student, that I would be deemed unworthy to continue my education here. But now, in addition to the fear that I won’t pass, that I don’t belong, there’s the fear of the Academia I will enter into even if I succeed. Job positions have been put on hold, hiring frozen, and some schools have even closed permanently. The world on the other side of these exams is unimaginable; right now, it’s hard to conceive that I can make it there, and that I’ll recognize the landscape if I do.
And then there’s the guilt. I’ve watched my friends lose jobs and close their businesses in an effort to flatten the curve with no assurance that they’ll ever reopen. Others post about taking their family members to the hospital, sick with the virus, and being unable to visit them, to be with them as they convalesce (or don’t). I’ve been so fixated on my uncertain future that I’ve lost sight of what others have sacrificed, and while I know I have the right to my anxiety, I still feel guilty about being upset over *so* much less. So I’ve tried to donate what I can, especially to circus studios that I have counted as a second home, but now it’s near the end of the month and the declined payments and overdraft notices are coming in.
And then I’m angry — at the people online who tell me it’s okay for this semester to be bad, that our energy should be spent not on ensuring “A”s in classes but on supporting our fellow humans. But it’s not okay for me to phone in my comps. And how dare all these talented artists and community establishments make their work available online, when I can’t spend my time accessing it because I have to study? And the nerve of my friends to want to check in on me and reach out over Zoom and Discord, when I’m staring blankly into space trying to muster the energy to do the work that I have to do?
I will take breaks in the middle of reading chapters to sob, and then, drained, try to find where I left off on the page. But it’s never what I remember reading.
Uncertainty makes me uncomfortable and always has. I am an obsessive planner; keeping my life scheduled and in order does a lot to keep any anxieties at bay. This time of crisis is the clear opposite of planned and scheduled, which has left me feeling anxious in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. In perhaps a strange twist, I was able to get a lot of work done in the week off we were given before Spring Break. I dove back into projects with gusto, projects that had long been left on the back-burner of my to-do list. After all, I am in the humanities – if I am able to get my hands on reading material, I can do my job. Then communications from professors started to come in.
I am very lucky to have some truly compassionate professors this semester. It is no coincidence that their classes were the ones in which I always felt time moved too quickly, where I wanted nothing more than to talk through these ideas for another hour. Emails from them have been kind, clear, and gentle. Reading them eased more anxiety than I could have guessed. However, these professors are contingent faculty, on the job market when most institutions have hiring freezes. I wish their compassion and understanding in this time when their tenured counterparts are not always doing the same could be rewarded with some kind of support. Of course, it won’t be.
I tell myself that I am angry about how unfair all of this is. Unfair to those students who look to their schools as a safe haven from their difficult backgrounds. Unfair to those contingent faculty doing the most they can for their students while struggling with their own precarity. Unfair to those grad students who have been desperately seeking feedback from advisers and knowing there is no way they will get it now. But I think I’m mostly angry about the loss of the things that kept me sane throughout grad school that I no longer have access to, the things that my professors probably didn’t realize I needed to keep going with my work.
I miss my weekly climbing gym dates where E.L. and I would challenge our bodies and let off steam about the latest week as a grad student. I miss my early morning long runs where I got my head on straight before sitting down in my office. I miss my LGBTQ running group and the wisdom of people who had dealt with the same problems and always had ample advice. I miss my bookshelf. I miss riding my bike to campus. I miss a lot. For now, I try to schedule Zoom meetings with friends to get some or any of these back in any form possible. As classes start back up virtually this week, I guess I am waiting to see how successful these replacements will come to be.
I find myself in the fortunate position where I am able to continue my research unabated in Providence, while my family in Canada and India are also largely unaffected by the ongoing crises. Admittedly, there are minor inconveniences and a few challenges: using a slow VPN connection to transfer files back and forth from storage servers at Brown, finding new ways to exercise from a cramped apartment, and assisting bewildered technophobic professors with the transition to online classes.
However, I cannot complain too much considering the nightmare many of my international student colleagues are grappling with: the sheer frustration from their research coming to a grinding halt, made worse by the feeling of helplessness as the number of cases continues to dramatically increase back home for their family and friends. I can only empathize and offer words of encouragement. Know that we are all in this together, that our community is strong, and “this, too, shall pass”.
We don’t have any answers. Everyone wears isolation and pandemic differently. We suggest that starting from a place of kindness and compassion is probably good, but we’re not sure what the next steps are. Brown Counseling and Psychological Services remain open — a good resource if you aren’t sure where to start. And in the meantime: