From Across the Graduate Enterprise, Bidding Farewell to a Rocky Year -- While Recognizing the Good Moments, Too

Submitted on December 1, 2020

By Elizabeth Labiner

When the UArizona chose first to extend Spring Break and then make the move to remote learning in March 2020, many of us hoped and expected that the Fall semester would mark a return to the teaching, learning, and working models with which we were familiar. Instead, it has proved to be a semester of continued social distancing, new challenges, and constant adaptation to changing circumstances. 

In spite of the frustrations and difficulties, though, there have been a number of successes and even triumphs as the graduate community worked together to continue both taking and teaching classes, achieve progress on research and writing, and work toward their academic and career goals in extracurricular programs. 

Sedona Heidinger, a graduate student in Art History, moved to Tucson and began her program in January, so when campus closed down in mid-March, she felt she was only just starting to get her bearings. Since then, though, she’s found her work-from-home stride: “Even though all of my academic and professional work now takes place from home (which is in itself an extraordinary privilege), it's been helpful for me to establish a routine with firm boundaries between each task.” One of Heidinger’s high points during the pandemic is winning the Kornhaber Art History Scholarship, which supports in-depth research on artworks in the collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Another positive outcome has been the way she and her friends have strengthened their bond across the country. She explains, “Every week, I look forward to the Saturday evening Zoom with my close friends from high school. We're scattered across the country now, and used to see each other only during the holidays, but this unexpected reconnection has been a truly significant silver lining.” 

Graduate student in Rhetoric, Composition, & the Teaching of English Berte Reyes was a self-professed homebody before the pandemic, so switching to working online didn’t feel like much a of a stretch to them initially. However, not being able to change writing locations on a whim grates on them. While little things, such as missing coffee shops, is hard on them, it’s also been the little things that give them a boost. Reyes says, “An article I wrote a few years ago got promoted as a ‘Throwback Thursday’ on the publication’s social media, and that was kind of a thrill.” In addition, they explain, they’ve learned to be more forgiving with their breaks, and that has actually turned into more substantive work: “I thought trying to squeeze the productivity out of my time being locked inside would be helpful, but it's been better to focus on taking some time off and being deliberate about that time off.”

PhD Career Counselor Joel Muraco focuses on similar elements of the ebb and flow of work, as well as self-care. He says, “I allow myself natural breaks, as would occur if I was in the office, and I reframe from being overly critical if I'm not as productive one day as I had hoped. I also close my laptop at lunch to disconnect and reset a little. Lastly, I've also found it extremely helpful to still take time away from work. For example, just recently I took a week of vacation which was a much needed break and something I wouldn't have thought twice about pre-COVID. Just because we're working from home doesn't mean we shouldn’t still afford ourselves the same self-care practices.” Muraco’s biggest win since March, he reflects, has been his ability to remotely continue what he considers the most important aspect of his job: meeting with students one-on-one for career advising. He explains, “I was concerned at first with the transition to Zoom and phone appointments as these one-on-one appointments are the most important service I offer. Happily, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars have still been able to find and meet with me in even greater numbers than before COVID shifted everything online.” 

Dalia Ebeid, a graduate student in Literature, also finds the monotony of working from home difficult, particularly because she prefers the pre-pandemic work style that allowed for variety in work spaces and the option of heading to the library or cafes. “I feel a bit stifled by the sameness of my workspace,” she admits, “but I’ve tried to maintain the pace of studying and working. I allow myself breaks and focusing on other things besides working or studying.” Her work has certainly paid off, as she won a dissertation fellowship for her final year! 

Nursing student Elizabeth Johnson gave birth during the pandemic, and struggled to manage her time as a working parent, a full-time PhD student, and a TA -- particularly, she says, when employers and professors alike maintain the same expectations for performance and output as in pre-pandemic conditions. In spite of the challenges of her multiple roles, she passed doctoral written and oral comprehensive exams and feels she has even improved her work-life balance, noting, “I'm not as easily distracted as I was pre-pandemic, since my working hours must be as productive as possible. I also now don’t check emails first thing in the morning. I’m present with my children and then switch gears to be present at work, but do not attempt to mix the two.” 

Dr. Maggie Pitts, Associate Dean of the Graduate College and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, also felt challenged when the pandemic limited her range of workspaces, collapsing her whole life into one small room. “I prefer to keep my circles separate - family circle, work circle, friend circle - but now they are all happening in one room, which is overwhelmed with work,” she says. One small way she combats this: a new set-up featuring a desk that can convert between sitting and standing heights. “I now try to stand during all my ZOOM meetings. I miss everyday activities like walking across campus, so this helps me to put some energy back into my physical body, so that I can put energy into my work!” Though she misses working on campus, Dr. Pitts is pleased that no longer commuting lessens her environmental impact and allows her more quality time with her family. She’s also enthusiastic about what has given her joy during the pandemic, rhapsodizing, 

I am so proud and filled with joy to see how well my graduate students are doing in their courses, their TA and GA positions, and their doctoral and master's research. In August, one of my PhD students graduated and started an excellent job. My MA student graduated and won the thesis of the year award in our division at our national convention. I have seen my doctoral students collaborate with peers and create opportunities to network across the distance. Most importantly, my graduate students have been doing socially important and meaningful work to give back to our community. They are doing all this in spite of the pandemic and in spite of the increased demands on their time. Seeing my students flourish is my very best academic achievement, even if I can't exactly own it!

All of us in the Graduate Center and Graduate College hope all of you are also celebrating your 2020 achievements and successes, however large or small they may be, and we look forward to continuing to find new paths and reach new goals in 2021!