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Graduate School in a Post-COVID World Requires Reckoning with More than a Virus

By Priya Shukla

Aug 6, 2020


Minute Read


Creating the circumstances for a post-COVID world means realizing that we’ve never lived in a post-racial one

In March 2020, when six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area were simultaneously issued shelter-in-place orders, my primary concern as a graduate student was how the coronavirus disease would affect the trajectory of my dissertation. Uncertainty set in about whether my research plans for the summer would be delayed or if I would have to find a way to do such work remotely. Thus, as I tried to manage my workload and newly heightened anxiety, I hoped that our collective efforts would bring a swift end to the pandemic.

Yet, while I was grappling with one public health crisis, the coronavirus had amplified another – anti-Black racism. Confined to our houses, we could not look away from the ways in which Black Americans are constant targets of systemic injustices. We were forced to reckon with the senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others – as we must also reckon with systemic racism across our institutions and our society. In the very same way that keeping the coronavirus at bay requires conscientious efforts from each of us on a daily basis, dismantling racism also necessitates concerted intentional actions. Black Americans are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to present and historic racism within the healthcare system. This is not only because testing for coronavirus is also less accessible in communities of color, but also because prisons are coronavirus hotspots and Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. 

Indeed, the coronavirus has laid bare that our current societal infrastructure is contingent upon racism and other social injustices – and this extends to graduate education in academia. Universities and scientific societies have recently demonstrated some sense of reckoning, such as devoting a workday to reflect on ways in which they can internally combat racism and suing the Trump Administration over a xenophobic ICE order that targeted international students. But preparation for a so-called “post-COVID world” must include scaffolding for making higher education more equitable. This is especially critical to do now because the state of the virus continues to fluctuate, and it is difficult to predict the impacts of this wave and any subsequent ones.  So, from my experience as a graduate student trying to navigate the pandemic, here are some guidelines for cultivating a more equitable environment for graduate students amidst the pandemic. It’s time to Do The Work, and here are some places to start:

  • Do Not Expect Your Students to be Equally or More Productive During the Pandemic. The ultimate goal during a pandemic is to survive (something that is disproportionately more challenging for marginalized graduate students). It is inhumane to expect anything else — especially given that graduate students are underpaid and healthcare accessibility will vary based on where they are sheltering in place. And, you should explicitly communicate this expectation (or lack thereof) to students.
  • Believe Your Students and Colleagues. When students and colleagues tell you that the pandemic has added undue stress to their lives – believe them. And, when they tell you that they are experiencing prejudice, discrimination and/or racism – believe them. And, to whatever extent you are able, help them navigate whatever situation they are grappling with so that they are not alone, working against entrenched power dynamics.
  • Improve Support For Marginalized Students. Given that a reckoning with racial injustice coincided with the pandemic, a “post-COVID” campus cannot only consider logistics around in-person teaching, community hygiene, and mask policies. It must also consider which members of the community are more vulnerable to the disease, and how infrastructure built by and for white academics can be modified to make higher education institutions more inclusive and accessible. 
  • Continue Asking Yourself the Uncomfortable and Hard Questions. Ask yourself “What would it take for our campus/department/lab to support students impacted by the pandemic?”; “Which students are more likely to be impacted than others?”; “What are the reasons for this?”; “Are those students that are disproportionately impacted underrepresented on our campus or in our department/lab?”; “Why is that?”; “What can I do to change that?”, “What would it take for these marginalized students to feel safe and supported on campus so that they are better represented?” 

This pandemic does more than affect the productivity of graduate students. Their health (both physical and mental) is compromised and it is important to recognize the ways in which academic institutions are ill-equipped to support students in this time. Ultimately, this pandemic is literally killing us, so our collective priority should be to make sure we all survive.

Priya Shukla is a PhD student at University of California, Davis and a 2020 Scientist Sentinel. 

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