I was a first-year doctoral student when the world entered a pandemic. I, like most UNC students at the time, was enjoying my spring break when suddenly the world changed overnight. My roommate never came back from a visit home, and I stayed alone in Chapel Hill, a town I was still unfamiliar with, unsure how safe it was to leave the house.
The pandemic shaped the bulk of my interactions with other graduate students in the department of communication. My cohort and I, now in our third year, had to navigate essential milestones, develop research questions and connect with faculty, all while isolated from one another.
Along the way, we combatted Zoom fatigue, which made any non-academic socializing difficult. On top of our student responsibilities, we had to fulfill our roles as instructors.
I took a gap year between getting my bachelor’s degree and pursuing my doctoral degree. I was one of two students in my cohort to not enter the program with a master’s. This meant that I not only had to adjust to a new discipline but that I suddenly became the instructor in a classroom where a few years before I was the student.
My first semester of teaching terrified me. Students thought I was a student myself. I was sure that my students would quickly find out that a fraud was among them, impersonating an expert. I wondered how I could exert authority over people that were only a few years younger than me. They asked questions I couldn’t answer on topics I had little experience with.
For the majority of that first year, I was as much a student of the material I taught as they were. For example, when I taught Introduction to Media Production, I would attend the professor's lab on Thursday, then teach that material to my students on Friday. I was educating young people on a topic that felt foreign to me.
With remote learning, the act was tougher to keep up. Staring at a screen of faces made it feel like everyone's eyes were on me at all times. It was either that or a blank screen where I spoke into the void and hoped that someone heard me.
I know that teaching remotely presented challenges for everyone, including faculty, but my course load as a student meant that I didn’t have the additional time to devote to perfecting the skills required of me.
All that I had learned so far about teaching did not account for Zoom and the myriad of technical challenges teaching online included. As a student myself, I empathized with the students I was in charge of.
The world was burning around us and we had to pretend it wasn’t for several hours each day.
Existing in both the position of student and teacher continues to be a challenge as we transition back to in-person learning. I missed being around other students and faculty in my department, and the small class size typical to graduate classes meant a reasonable transition back to close contact with people after a year of absolutely none.
Taking three-hour seminars is a bit more bearable when you’re not alone, even if you can’t fully see everyone’s face. Though I also missed teaching in person, I feel more exposed, not only to the students in my classroom but to the host of other people they live and socialize with on a daily basis.
With COVID-19 comes the fear that any exposure from me may reach them, as well as my peers and the faculty whose classes I’m in.
Recently, I was in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. While the school's policy gave me an excused absence as a student, I had trouble finding coverage for my classes as a teacher.
UNC's COVID-19 policies are not elastic enough to accommodate graduate students like me who function as both students and instructors.
As graduate students, we’ve had a dual challenge being both students and instructors employed by the University.
Though we make up a little over a third of the total enrolled student population at UNC, we interact with hundreds of students and have to also make sure we perform the best in the classrooms we sit in. All for little pay, with children and families to take care of and with professional goals to prepare for.
While I’m not sure that we’ve reached “back to normal,” it’s clear that my graduate student experience has been forever changed by the ongoing pandemic.
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