“We are all in the same boat …” This phrase has been uttered a million times since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Frankly it quickly became cliché coming from everywhere -- from friends on social media, from the leadership within my institution, from local businesses in their endless radio/TV/internet advertisements, even from government officials. Sometime in late April, a new sentiment emerged and was immediately picked up across social media platforms …
“I heard that we are in the same boat. But it's not that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Your ship can be shipwrecked and mine might not be. Or vice versa …”
This new sentiment is usually attributed to an unknown author, but it may have originated with this tweet by Damian Barr. Further increasing its impact, the poem was accompanied by a stunning image by Barbara Kelley from a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that depicts many different kinds of boats in a stormy sea.
The poem and image got me thinking about how each person’s circumstances affect their perception of the COVID-19 pandemic and the various stay-home orders, as well as the ability of each person to succeed in virtual learning and working from home. So I wanted to share considerations from my own experiences and from the experiences of my graduate student peers.
Some students are at home with their families. They may be struggling to coordinate online learning for their kids, balancing childcare with their work and classes, or even navigating bringing home a newborn without the usual support of relatives and friends outside the home. Several of my fellow graduate students have been trying to care for toddlers and preschool-aged children during classes, forcing them to miss parts of classes. A few more have been suddenly forced to take classes alongside their children, trying to navigate homeschooling multiple kids while taking their own classes. One student in my program gave birth to her first child during the quarantine. Only one person was allowed to be with her for the birth, and friends and family have been unable to visit or help them at home.
Some students may be serving as caregivers for at-risk or aging parents and other relatives. At least one of my peers regularly goes out to buy and deliver groceries and essential supplies to their elderly parents.
Other students are at home with roommates and suddenly trying to find ways to share their space and resources for everyone to work at home. Two students in my program who share an apartment had to get creative with how they would run separate video calls from the same room for a class.
Some students, like me, live alone and are isolated from all of their friends and family members by the need for social distancing. This isolation has caused overwhelming loneliness and touch starvation, which has had a profound impact on my mental health and productivity. My spouse is stationed in Canada with the U.S. military, and we have found ourselves separated by a closed border. The rest of my family live across the country from me, and interstate travel is severely limited.
Some students are in even more unique circumstances. Many international students are forcibly separated from their family and their home as international travel is stopped. Students may be finding themselves stranded in another country, or trying to navigate visa renewal and citizenship applications during a government shutdown. A colleague of mine is even facing delaying graduation over visa concerns and the difficulties travel restrictions and office closures pose to that process.
Most students that I know are having to improvise a makeshift desk. With all adults and children in the home all needing to work and take classes, often via video call, students have been forced to turn multiple rooms into makeshift offices and use kitchen tables, coffee tables and couch trays as desk spaces. I live in a studio apartment with no room for a dedicated desk. I normally do all of my work at the school, so now I have been forced to turn my love seat into an office with my laptop resting on a lap tray.
Student workspaces also differ wildly on the availability of computers, monitors, printers, headphones and microphones, and other office equipment. Unless your school provides students with laptops, it should not be assumed that all students can access a computer. There were many years in my life where I relied on computers at school or public spaces, such as libraries. Tablets and smartphones can be useful, but they are more limited in their functions. Some of my work normally requires a second display monitor, which I do not have available at home. Speaker and microphone quality are critical to a successful video call, but not every student has access to these, limiting their participation. I also had a professor this semester who expected students to be able to take notes on physical paper, but most students did not have home printers, so we ended up having the worksheets mailed to us.
Internet access is the single most important resource for virtual learning and remote work, but it is still treated as a luxury. I spent a few years without home internet access at all. Even for students who have home internet access, the location and the local demand may mean a low-quality or unreliable connection, leaving them struggling to access classes and web-based resources.
Additionally, some types of work, class content, and learning styles are inherently easier to transfer to digital mediums. Wet-lab research, fieldwork and hands-on techniques are difficult or impossible to do remotely. My peers and I are finding ourselves unsure of our graduation timelines as our experiments lie untouched. Meanwhile a friend of mine working on a master’s degree in fine art is struggling to complete a major project without the studio equipment at her school. My discussion-based class this semester transferred exceptionally smoothly to video format, while my hands-on research technique training came to a complete stop. As a visual learner, video classes and web-based reading are effective learning tools for me, but tactile learners are likely to be especially hindered by the current situation.
The long-term reliability of the scholarships, stipends, assistantships and grants on which graduate students rely is in question, causing financial anxiety for students who are already living paycheck to paycheck and in debt. Those students who supplement their income with part-time jobs are now facing furlough or essential worker status, adding additional stress. The recent stimulus checks can help, but many students under age 24 and noncitizens are ineligible. When you are worried about affording rent and groceries, it is hard to focus on coursework.
Many graduate students do not have cars and rely on public transportation as well as meals on campus. With social distancing measures limiting public transportation, campuses closed and food deserts in urban areas surrounding many campuses, some graduate students are struggling to access grocery stores and stock food to cook meals at home. For students like me with food allergies and special dietary needs, the shortages and disruptions in food supply chains have a dramatic impact on their ability to get adequate nutritious meals.
Students with chronic health conditions that require regular medical visits are being left to manage on their own at home. Certain medications and medical supplies are in short supply. Some students fall into the heightened-risk categories and are even more limited on their ability to leave their home for groceries and essential supplies. When chronic physical and mental health conditions go without normal management, students’ abilities to focus and be productive decline. Add in the additional burden of social isolation and many students may be struggling just to survive and manage their basic day-to-day needs.
Finally, many students have been directly impacted by COVID-19. Students, their family members or their friends may have been diagnosed with or even died from the illness. I have been fortunate enough to remain healthy myself and to not have lost anyone I know personally, but I worry daily about my brother, who is a front-line worker, an EMT.
I hope this will remind students that they are not alone in facing different struggles at this time. Most of all, I hope that supervisors, mentors and professors will take these experiences to heart, step back and reconsider how they can communicate with their students and mentees, adjust their expectations and offer new support during this time. After all, we are all facing this storm, but not everyone is in the right boat to survive it. Look around and make sure you are throwing a life raft to others when you can. If we face this storm together, we will come through it.
What have your experiences been with virtual learning and working from home? What do you wish your mentors and school administrators knew about supporting you as a student during this time? Please let us know in the comments below.
Emery D. Haley is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cellular biology at Van Andel Institute Graduate School, where they are involved in science outreach and diversity activism. You can find them on Twitter @EmeryHaley2 or on LinkedIn.