Dear Faculty Member,
We are not okay.
We are the graduate students who don’t seem to have it too bad, who have places to stay, food on the table, and are still able to pay rent. Our basic needs are met, and we are quick to acknowledge this privilege. But we are not doing well.
We’d hoped that the phrase “this is a pandemic” would be self-explanatory. This doesn’t seem to be the case. We have been told to take advantage of this time, to aspire to be modern-day Shakespeares and Isaac Newtons – never mind that these historical figures never had to contend with emails or Zoom meetings. Professors have assigned us extra work for our “extra time” at home, continued with business as usual, and in some cases, barely acknowledged the pandemic at all.
But isolated in our homes, the pandemic stares us down. We are forced to acknowledge, if not its severity and direct impact, then at least its immediate consequences.
Some of us have children. In addition to being graduate students, teaching assistants, research assistants, and hourly workers of various sorts, we have become K-12 teachers and 24/7 daycare providers overnight. We were not trained for these roles. We were not ready. Much of the time, we worry about doing this thing right, about providing our children with the education and care they deserve. We also worry about making it through the day with enough snacks and activities to minimize work interruptions.
Some of us have partners, spouses, or other family members who work on the front lines of this pandemic. Our loved ones work at hospitals, grocery stores, and post offices. Our society needs them. We need them too, but overtime, exhaustion, and quarantine procedures keep them away and at risk. It’s in these times that we could most use that someone to talk to or shoulder to cry on. Being deemed essential for the survival of others has the unfortunate consequence of being seen as inessential at home.
Some of us have moved back home with parents or households with extended family, siblings, or grandparents. Not all of us have good relationships with these family members. Not all of us have bedrooms reserved for us or a quiet room for Zoom calls. We don’t always have spaces to work, good-enough-quality internet, or uninterrupted time that allows us to focus at the levels required for graduate-level scholarship .
Both isolating and moving have also caused complications in gaining the physical and mental healthcare we need. We no longer have access to our physicians, therapists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, or other health professionals in the same way, or at all. We’re having a hard time getting our regular prescriptions filled. Some of the professionals we rely on cannot practice across state lines. Some of us should have seen these professionals more often, to be honest, but now the barriers have become so high.
Faculty member, we sit in your Zoom class, one of many little boxes on your screen. We turn in assignments on time, or sometimes late. We respond to the many, many emails now flooding our inboxes. We are just as tired as you are of the ones from this or that office of the college or provost or dean or someone somewhere. We play along with the farce that things can proceed as normal.
Off-screen, we cry. We have good days followed by very, very bad days. We stress eat. We can’t eat from the stress. We have eating disorders and the new fixation on food and weight threatens to reverse our progress. We pull ourselves together for your class, for our families, for Zoom meetings, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our anxiety, depression, unhealed grief, and traumas join forces with all our emotions about this pandemic, and sometimes they beat us.
So when we sit down to read books or articles for your class, well, sometimes we can’t see the point. Sometimes we desperately want to see the point; we love your class and we’ve enjoyed the materials. But with books in our laps, we think about our grandparents, who we might not get to see again. We think of our mothers, working at hospitals where they check for fevers because they have no tests for the virus. We start to dwell on how many people will actually die during this pandemic, and how many of them will be people we know.
Then we realize we’ve been staring at the same sentence, that somehow it’s already 6:00 pm, and someone has to cook dinner.
Please understand that this is a pandemic. And that we are not okay.
Your Graduate Students
This letter combines the experiences of multiple graduate students from across the US, perhaps a testament to the wonders and community-building potential of social media. Thank you to the individuals who were willing to share their experiences with me.