Reflections on the virtual semester – Fall 2020.

Well, folks, we did it. We survived the COVID virtual semester. I guess.

I hope this post finds you well. I hope it finds you rested and in good company, whether it is family, friends, or your own. I hope you are taking some time off and taking care of yourself.

I meant to be better about posting and such. But, you know, COVID.

I recorded a voice note back in October in lieu of writing because I was tired but I wanted to get some thoughts out. So, I have transcribed it here because as messy as this is, I think there is an important message. So, bear with me and lets’ see where this takes us:

October 21st, 1:00 AM

I’m exhausted and my brain feels like it’s underwater. But I had some thoughts, and I wanted to remember them. I definitely don’t have the capacity to type or look at my computer now so I thought a voice note might be the way to go.

I am tired. I am zoomed out, polled out, emailed out. I literally cannot look at an email without feeling a sense of deep dread in the pit of my stomach anymore.

Actually, when my phone goes off and I see a new email notification my anxiety peaks – I feel a twang in my stomach. I don’t want to open it. Because I just don’t want to have to read all of it. I don’t want to respond to it. And very likely, I will have to read it all and respond, because it’s not a spam email. How I miss the day of spam emails from Sephora or Groupon.

I’ve been thinking more and more about the state of the semester and the state of my mental health, and that of my colleagues, and somethings gotta give. This is not right. And I don’t know what the answer is, but this is not it.

Today the county that my university is in has declared a stay in place order for our undergrads because our COVID numbers are spiking. So, COVID is running rampant in my university, yet we are marching full steam ahead towards finals. This semester has been wild. I don’t think another word describes this semester better than will. Well, I can think of a few but let’s stick with wild. 

It blows my mind how our response to a global pandemic is a semester that is running at lightning speed with an exponentially increased workload for our students, and our GSI’s. And our professors and faculty, and everyone really, but I really feel like the brunt is falling on the students – the undergrads and graduates. And I don’t mean to take away from the faculty and professors who are working so hard, to discount their labor and their time. But honestly, as a GSI and a graduate student, personally, I am one unfortunate event away from a mental breakdown. Or maybe I am there already. I am talking to my phone at 1 AM.

So let’s just kind of, and reflect on the state of things, and look at all the things that are wrong here, shall we?

First, there is the fact that our university is prioritizing money over us, to put it simply it has been made clear many times that our lives, mental health, and well being are not worth more than the all mighty dollar. Great feeling.

So here we are, pretending like everything is ok. Working from our rooms or dorms or wherever we may be. And the ironic thing is that instead of having a slower pace semester as one might assume if you’re going to go through with classes in a global pandemic, we have done the opposite.

As a result, my students are anxious. They are exhausted. They are confused. They are terrified. My students have had COVID! They email me asking for an extension on their assignment because they have COVID. That’s the first thing that pops into their mind when they find out they have COVID.

Like, kid – I am so sorry that this is your train of thought right now. That you have a virus that is killing people. And we have programmed you to worry about your stupid grade so that you email me at 7 pm on a Friday asking for an extension when you should be resting. This is what we have done for our students. And we are doing this to ourselves too because I was just talking to my roommate the other day and honestly both of us were thinking, if we were to get it – get COVID – our first thought in our minds would be “oh my god, how am I going to get through the semester.” That is how we have been programmed by this commercial, consumeristic, capitalistic system. Where we prioritize our classes, our “education” over our health. And that’s really fucked up, to be honest. And I don’t want to blame us really, I blame this system for this, fully.

We have created this system where it’s like a zero-sum game where you either play by the rules or you forfeit. And for many of us, we have invested way too much of our time, energy, and labor into our program to forfeit now. I’ve been in this game for over 8 years now, I can’t quit, I’ve invested pretty much my whole adult life into this – so there is no going back for me. I mean never say never.. but still.

End of transcription.

I did say it would be a mess, but I hope you were able to follow my train of thought, muddled as it was. My point is – this semester was terrible for my mental health, and from my observations, that of my peers and my students. So I don’t think I am over arching when I say this was likely the case for many many others. I am not blind to the fact that it is a privilege to be able to attend school, safely, online from my home. And that many people had to risk their lives daily to go to work to keep the rest of us afloat – I understand that. I merely wanted to reflect on how the academic year progressed and see if there is room for improvement as we move froward – and there is always room for improvement, my friend.

I acknowledge that most universities were laxer in terms of grading and deadlines to accommodate students struggling with COVID or COVID related issues. And I acknowledge that how accommodating individual faculty members are is really up to them, and there is not much the admin can do to ensure that everyone plays by the new COVID rules. I was lucky that my professors were understanding – but I know this was not the case for everyone.

I know that many countries are now rolling out the vaccine but the vaccine is not a miracle cure. It will take time to get enough people vaccinated for us to have some sort of immunity. We still have to be careful about social distancing in the meantime – virtual school may our reality for longer than we want to even think about. And if that is the case, we need to learn from this semester. Because to be very frank, I don’t think I can handle another semester like this.

It is so easy to over book and overextend yourself in a Zoom semester. To agree to another meeting because you don’t really have to go anywhere, anyways. To attend another seminar because its free or because you have a 40 min gap in your schedule. To eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in front of a Zoom lecture. Or to forget to eat all together.

I am not going to sit here holding my breath that all the change needed will come top-down. What I can change however, is how I approach next semester personally. So if you have some advice for setting healthy boundaries and managing virtual learning, please do send them my way! In the meantime, I think the number one thing I will be prioritizing in 2021 is valuing myself and my time more. I was terrible a doing this past semester, and my mental health suffered it greatly.

This does not mean that my approach to 2021 will be avoidance – to check out. I will of course, still put 100 % into everything I do. I will try to be the best student, GSI, colleague, and accomplice I can be. But I will also try to be the best sister, daughter, and friend. And to do any of these things, I need to be a good caretaker of myself – mentally, physically, and emotionally.

So fellow students, as we wrap up 2020 and head into 2021, remember to love yourself more. You will get everything that you need to get done. But remember that to tackle that ever growing to-do list, you need to be ok first.

Peace, love, and positivity.

(And all the sleep.)

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