The onset of a global pandemic has meant tragedy and sacrifice across the globe. People have lost their jobs, their homes, and their loved ones. We can’t travel. More people than ever are working from home, and students of all ages have had to completely shift the way they are learning.
By the time I graduate come August, my entire 15-month graduate program will have been eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Do I mourn for the experience that I dreamt of for two years leading up to the start of my program? Of course I do. Do I regret starting my program in June 2020, despite knowing that most of it would be virtual? Not for a second.
When COVID-19 became everyday news, I was working at a grocery co-op in Madison. The anxiety that the world was feeling and fueling was at the forefront of my mind every morning as I watched the shelves empty in panic. Eventually, going to work became a sort of numbness. I don’t think our minds are capable of surviving on high-anxiety long term. While I felt calmer, I felt lost. I think many of us did, and still do feel that way.
Come June 1st, I was wound tightly as I waited to see what my education would be like from one side of a computer screen. I even invited a few members of my cohort over to the backyard the day before, because I thought meeting a few faces in person would make our first virtual meeting less intimidating. The first day was uncomfortable, but it was also exciting. As we outlined our summer semester, I no longer worried about what I was missing out on by starting graduate school in 2020. I was grateful for the things I was going to learn and the ways I was going to grow, despite so much of the world being ground to a halt.
Summer melted into fall. Group projects ended up being an easy way to get to know each other better. Our cohort did its best to plan in-person gatherings to break the virtual bubble. We went on hikes around Madison, had backyard bonfires, watched the sunset over Lake Mendota, went kayaking, celebrated birthdays, and even formed a twelve-person birding team to support the Great Wisconsin Birdathon in September. I’ve made friends with incredible, resilient people who I otherwise may not have gotten the chance to meet.
Meanwhile, school rolled along. I’ve taken classes about conserving biodiversity, land use policy and planning, climate change ecology, conservation planning, environmental professional skill development, and a graduate seminar that focused on people-wildlife interactions. In one class my group and I worked with a conservation education organization in Madagascar over 10 weeks to create a conservation plan to protect lemurs and the native forest.
The funny thing is, when I look back at my summer and fall semesters, I don’t feel like I was sitting at my own desk the whole time. I don’t remember my surroundings as much as I remember the powerful discussions, motivating guest speakers, and break-through group sessions that reminded us why we were all here. When people ask me how school is going, I always tell them that my education is not suffering due to COVID, and I’m proud to say that about my program. I used to think the in-person connections were going to be one of the most important parts of this chapter in my life, but looking back, I realize I was able to do that all on my own, even without the nudge of in-person classes. I built connections and relationships from scratch, and it feels good to recognize that growth within myself.
After a long winter break, our spring (and final) semester has started, bringing new routine and challenges. The Environmental Conservation program at Madison is designed to be flexible. With this in mind, the summer and fall semesters are intended to be in-person, but the spring is designed to be completed from anywhere. Classwork is asynchronous and completely online, so students in normal years could return home or travel throughout the semester. I’m still in Madison, but I’m not minding the asynchronous aspect as much as I’d feared. We don’t have hours of recorded lectures to watch in place of class time; instead, our time is filled with short podcasts from our professors, readings, and assignments (like creating a budget for a conservation project I can dream up). I’m also learning how to apply Geographic Information Systems (aka, collecting data and using maps for analysis) to conservation problems. The semester is a good balance, as long as I remember to drink water and step away from my desk for some fresh air an hour every day.
There are certainly tools and strategies that I have been lucky to apply while I’ve been learning virtually. Early on I invested in a good pair of headphones so I can focus in my apartment when there’s nowhere else to go. Eventually I grabbed a second monitor to make my digital projects easier to navigate. I upgraded from my $10 Ikea folding chair to a desk chair with back support and bought blue-light filtering glasses to ease the screen-induced headaches. I’m lucky to have enough space in my apartment for my own workspace that doesn’t have to be the kitchen table. These are all things that have helped me feel happier while learning and working from home, and I recognize that I have been privileged to accommodate myself at each turn necessary.
Studying environmental conservation and the leadership skills that the field requires has given me a purpose and a drive in an otherwise overwhelming period of time. Every day of classwork and learning is one slow step forward towards the future I want to build for myself and for my planet.
If you’re learning or working from home, know that this pandemic is not going to last forever, but we’re also not out of the woods yet. Find ways to make yourself more comfortable and happy in the space you need to work in, even if it’s as small as putting up your favorite photo nearby or moving closer to a window. There are so many things we miss and grieve, but the truth is, there are still so many moments to appreciate. Take a few minutes each day to find one.