In January 2020, I was one semester away from graduating with my M.A. in Higher Education Leadership from the University of San Diego. I was busy with my last class, my action research project, and applying for jobs. I had several great prospects, and I was hopeful that I would have a job by the time I graduated in May. Everything I had worked toward and planned came to a halt in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. As I recall that time, there are no words to describe the anxiety that was collectively felt, especially due to the ambiguity of the situation. I observed how complex the pandemic's impacts were, especially for marginalized communities already affected by racism and institutionalized discrimination. So many things were happening at once, and I felt a heaviness and hopelessness within me. Though I made adjustments to my research study, part of me was still worried that I would fail. I struggled between wanting to rush through my research and feeling too tired and anxious to look at my data. It was hard not to compare myself to my peers and wonder why I wasn’t able to do what I needed to do.
As I reflect on this experience now, I realized that I had to allow myself to feel what I was feeling, and be more patient with myself. Though I wanted to push myself to get things done, I had to take more modest steps, such as reaching out to my faculty advisor and breaking down my project into even smaller pieces to make it more manageable. I also sought support from my fellow peers, who were having experiences similar to mine. So many times, we pressure ourselves to be “busy” or “productive,” that we do not realize how much rest is needed. We forget that we were not meant to be productive all the time. In this case, it’s even more understandable to feel fatigued and anxious with such a significant global event affecting our daily lives.
Part of what sets action research apart from other research is the personal reflection that the researcher can add to their project. My project was on the mental health concerns of first-generation graduate students, which provided me a unique experience in understanding the first-generation experience and the impact of the pandemic. As my project focused on mental health, it gave me all the more reason to consider my mental health and self-care. Writing became cathartic for me, as I wrote about my experiences and struggles.
As I consider other graduate students who are still in school, it is hard for me to come up with a single piece of advice to give during this time. Your frustrations, grieving, fatigue, and anxiety are valid. You are worthy of care, rest, and healing. You are worthy of perseverance, resilience, and making decisions in your own path. From someone who struggled to graduate during the pandemic, know that it is possible to cross that finish line.
Author: Edith “Meredith” Mendez, a first-generation college student, completed her BA in Human Development at CSU San Marcos and her MA in Higher Education Leadership at the University of San Diego. Her higher education experiences including promoting internship opportunities, working with student veterans and military-connected students, and advocating for mental health. She currently works as an internship counselor at UC San Diego’s Academic Internship program. In her free time, Meredith enjoys spending time with her pets, exploring San Diego, and reading webcomics.