Students, Faculty, and Staff Share Their Pandemic Reflections

Meghan Henriquez
Megan Henriquez

Ph.D. student Megan Henriquez (Anthropology) is writing her dissertation on parasitic infections in capuchin monkeys.

GC: How has the pandemic impacted your work, your scholarship, or your life?

Henriquez: The COVID shutdown has forced me to completely reimagine my dissertation research. I have changed my proposed research topic, study species, study site, and collaborators. It was extremely stressful at first, but I am grateful to have advisers and collaborators who are supportive of me and who have helped me re-tool my project into something with real-world consequences that can progress right now despite me being stuck in NYC.

GC: How have you had to adjust your work to the "new normal"?

Henriquez: Initially, I found it hard for me to set boundaries for myself. I would either be working all day — from the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to sleep, or I would take entire days off because I was just too burnt out to do anything productive. I think now, I'm finally learning to pace my work better. I have set hours when I'm online, and I'm trying to set daily routines to give me back any sense of normalcy. 

GC: Any helpful lessons, takeaways, or advice?

Henriquez: Boundaries are important — just because you can work all hours of the day (and night), doesn't mean that you should. It's also OK if you can't be as productive as you were pre-COVID. Allow yourself more time than usual to adjust and get things done. 

GC: What are you most looking forward to doing when the world is back to normal?

Henriquez: I'm looking forward to traveling and seeing friends and family! I miss them so much and would just love to be able to get together again under normal-ish circumstances. Also, I would love to be able to travel for my research!

Shawna Townsend

Shawna Townsend

Ph.D. student Shawna Townsend (Nursing) was on the front lines at the outset of the pandemic, preparing nurses at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients.

GC: How has the pandemic impacted your work, your scholarship, or your life?

Townsend: The pandemic impacted my dissertation journey by shifting to the virtual classroom, I became Zoom fatigued very quickly. I prefer in-person instruction so that virtual learning was a big adjustment. I appreciated that my cohort chose to continue with synchronous seminars as we learn better with open discussions and sharing of ideas. It was difficult not being in the lab to practice statistical analysis techniques but with the CUNY virtual desktop we learned to adapt.  

GC: How have you had to adjust your work to the "new normal"? 

Townsend: Being a nurse in a hospital, I still had to go to work, there was no working from home for me. However, I had to adjust to always wearing PPE, sanitizing stations, ensuring staff practice social distancing, meetings moved to a Zoom platform. Helping patients to cope with having no visitors or limited visitation. 

GC: What has surprised you most about the pandemic and its consequences, particularly for CUNY? 

Townsend: People came together and found ways to support each other. CUNY offered support for students with a no-grade policy and providing laptops for students when we switched to an online only platform. I think that was remarkable. 

GC: Any helpful lessons, takeaways, or advice?

Townsend: I think everyone should make an informed decision to get vaccinated. Being vaccinated though is not a free ticket to stop washing our hands, or not practicing social distancing. I urge people to continue to be vigilant with mask wearing and avoid unnecessary travel and socially distance. Most of all, get enough sleep, manage stress levels, and eat a balanced diet. It is important to practice good self-care and persevere until this pandemic is behind us. 

GC: What are you most looking forward to doing when the world is back to normal?

Townsend: Though it may take some time, I am looking forward to the day when I can feel comfortable in public without a mask on. When the pandemic hit NYC, I decided since then that I am prepared to wear a mask for at least two years, based on the history of influenza pandemic over a hundred years ago. 

GC: Is there one thing that you've found solace in or enjoyed doing since the shutdown — a puppy, a TV show, puzzles, TikTok, bread-baking — or one good memory from the past year that stands out — the 7 p.m. cheer, helping out a neighbor, having some place in NYC all to yourself because there were no tourists?

Townsend: One good memory is the 7 p.m. cheer. My heart would become full of emotions as store owners, residents in their windows, and pedestrians on the street corners would set up with metal pots and spoons, cowbells, or simple applause for us as health care workers. There was a time I thought to myself that I could pull over right now, and lie in the middle of the street and watch the sky for five minutes before another car comes on the scene. I found peace driving for miles on empty streets and highways. It made me feel good that people were staying home and that they were safe indoors.

Emily Dabrinski

Emily Drabinski

Emily Drabinski is The Graduate Center’s interim chief librarian, series editor of the “Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies” series by Library Juice Press/Litwin Books, and she teaches master’s level courses in information policy and literacy.

GC: How has the pandemic impacted your work, your scholarship, or your life?

Drabinski: When the pandemic started to look serious I was eating Ilocos empanada and laughing too hard with students and faculty from the library school at the University of the Philippines, Diliman as we talked about the ways gender and sexuality shape information production and circulation. A day later I was on an urgently booked one-way flight home to New York, trying to beat the border closures. Since then, I’ve been focused on The Graduate Center library: keeping myself, my colleagues and the community safe while maximizing access to library resources and services at a distance. I miss the parts of my life that I spent elsewhere, from the Philippine archipelago to my mom’s house in Boise, Idaho. My world feels smaller now, but I certainly know its perimeters more intimately than I did before this year.

GC: How have you had to adjust your work to the "new normal"?

Drabinski: It is very hard to be productive when you don’t know if colleagues who miss meetings might be dead. At the beginning of the pandemic, that was a real and constant fear and it lingers now even as death rates have dropped. Balancing that unbearable reality with the need to operate the library so that at least some parts of normal life can continue has definitely taken some adjustment! I am someone who normally works very hard as a way of staving off anxiety about mortality, my own and others. Finding ways to slow down and step away — for my sake, and for the sake of those receiving my emails — has been the most difficult part of my job.

GC: Any helpful lessons, takeaways, or advice?

Drabinski: All we have is each other. Staying connected is crucial. The single most important thing to me right now is to maintain an open door for as many people as possible in my corner of the CUNY community, whether it's sharing news and information about vaccine sign-ups or showing you my cats in a Zoom meeting. As much as I can, I have your back, and I know that you have mine, and that makes all the difference.

GC: What are you most looking forward to doing when the world is back to normal?

Drabinski: I want to go to Idaho and see the mountains I grew up in.

GC: Is there one thing that you've found solace in or enjoyed doing since the shutdown — a puppy, a TV show, puzzles, TikTok, bread-baking — or one good memory from the past year that stands out — the 7 p.m. cheer, helping out a neighbor, having some place in NYC all to yourself because there were no tourists?

Drabinski: For the first five months of the pandemic I ran a 30-minute online Cat Chat! for kids at 8 a.m. each weekday morning. We’d discuss the Cat Chat Question of the Day (e.g., If your cat went to school what would their favorite subject be?) and showed each other our cats on Zoom while their parents grabbed a few minutes without them. If you need a strong injection of joy, ask a kid who loves cats about their cat.

Sandra Langston
Sandra Langston

Ph.D. student Sandra Langston (Nursing) is a member of the NYC Medical Emergency Reserve Corp (MERC). At the outset of the pandemic, she was on the front lines caring for coronavirus patients

GC: What are you most looking forward to doing when the world is back to normal?

Langston: I am not convinced that life as I knew it would return to normal after the pandemic. I think that the devastation and loss of life caused by COVID-19 are forever engrained in my memory and will impact my decisions about social gatherings and travel. However, I look forward to vacationing at an isolated resort where I can relax on the beach, enjoy the sunshine, take in the oceanfront view's peacefulness, and exhale from the events of 2020.

Rod Hurley
Rod Hurley

Ph.D. student Rod Hurley (Psychology) is a social psychologist, recording artist, songwriter, and digital music producer. He’s also co-chair for communications of the Doctoral and Graduate Students' Council (DGSC). 

GC: How has the pandemic impacted your work, your scholarship, or your life?

Hurley: First of all, my thoughts and best wishes go out to those who’ve experienced immense losses since the start of the pandemic. People have lost lives, livelihoods, and loved ones. Seeing how much others have lost and endured, I consider myself very blessed and fortunate through all of this. I’m thankful that nobody in my family contracted the virus or was unable to work. I was able to spend more time with my family at home.

GC: Is there one thing that you've found solace in or enjoyed doing since the shutdown?

Hurley: I’ve always loved cooking but for some reason I had this huge fear of baking. What started out as an experiment has turned into a genuine love. I’ve really found so much peace and happiness in the kitchen in general but baking really helped me cope with the shutdown. It’s been almost a full year since I bought bread!

GC: What has surprised you most about pandemic and its consequences, particularly for CUNY?

Hurley: One thing that has definitely surprised me is the resilience of my undergrad students! They’ve been through a lot, and most of them have really risen to the challenge and pressed on.

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary 

Professor Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (GC/Hunter, Psychology) studies the causes and consequences of stress and anxiety.

GC: Any helpful lessons, takeaways, or advice?

Dennis-Tiwary: During the pandemic, screens have been a lifesaver. But most of us have learned over the past year that we prefer connecting with people live rather than through a screen. Psychology and neuroscience research shows this necessity of direct human connection — just being in the presence of a loved one helps us handle stress better, and reduces overwhelming anxiety in the face of a challenge. I believe that we will come out of the pandemic being better digital citizens — that is, we will know more about how to achieve screen-life balance, and to use technology to benefit us rather than become victims of our social media feeds. 

Stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems have increased during COVID. I'm particularly concerned about young people. In a recent COVID-19 trends survey, almost 90% physicians say that the mental health of their patients is their biggest concern for the coming year. But there's good news, too.

First, we're more resilient than we think. Research shows that many children who lived through the Beijing SARS lockdown of 2002–2003 emerged with few long-term mental health problems, and even showed increased signs of positive adjustment. The science of adversity shows that, with support, when we face challenges head on we can come out stronger. 

Second, since the pandemic began, we’re more open to talking about mental health, and know that’s it’s OK not be OK, which reduces stigma and helps us seek help when needed. This dialogue will push policymakers, insurers, employers, etc., to prioritize giving everyone access to mental health services.

Indeed, we’ve seen digital therapies and tele-medicine truly take off like never before. It’s no longer a luxury. It's a priority. So, while we should be concerned about increasing mental health challenges, we can be optimistic about their destigmatization, about resilience, and about growth in access to mental health care.

Arielle Shanok

Arielle Shanok

Arielle Shanok is deputy director of The Graduate Center’s Wellness Center for Student Counseling Services.

“When the COVID-19 tsunami hit the shores of New York last March, my colleagues at the Wellness Center and I were awash with uncertainties. None of us had experience providing tele-health services. Does that even work? How could we connect with and help students through a computer screen, without the visceral experience of sitting in the same room together? Could we provide a confidential enough space via a video-conferencing platform? Could our groups continue? How could we help students who moved out of New York when state laws forbid psychologists from providing therapeutic services across state lines? How could we help students through overwhelming stressors that we were also enduring? And many more!

Crises often amplify preexisting dynamics. I am deeply grateful that our staff had worked well together for years, sharing a strong commitment to our center’s mission. Our connectedness, mutual respect, and open communication have been the platform on which we have climbed massive learning curves, pushing through challenges from frustrating technical issues to developing best practices for helping students in crisis remotely. Each of us has faced profound stressors, from loss of close family members, to major health scares, to partners losing jobs, to juggling kids at home and more. We have each cried at meetings. We have picked up work for each other when one or another of us needed time off. We have reminded each other to slow down and breathe. We have helped to sustain each other so that we could have the strength to support our students. We never could have gotten to where we are without each other.

So where are we? We are all trained and comfortable providing tele-health services, as are our awesome clinicians-in-training. In March, we temporarily paused our groups. Yet, in response to group members requesting to meet, we got all groups back up and running and even added an Academic Support Group for Black Identified Students. It turns out that tele-health services, for the most part, work! We built up our academically-oriented services so that students who moved out of state or country could participate. We are expanding our referral networks across the globe as we partner with students living outside of New York in finding local, affordable treatment. We revamped our workshop series to address pressing needs such as grief during COVID-19, navigating the new normal during COVID-19, racial battle fatigue, a healing space for LGBTQIA+ students during COVID-19, parenting during COVID-19, dealing with anti-Asian discrimination, and many more. We developed a mental health video series for ease of access no matter students’ time zone or schedule. I don’t think any of us could have fully imagined what we’ve been able to achieve. And we are ever learning.”

Luke Waltzer
Luke Waltzer

Luke Waltzer is a Graduate Center alumnus and director of its Teaching and Learning Center. He and his team have been guiding faculty and doctoral students who teach at CUNY as they adjust their practices for the digital classroom.

“The most generative and fulfilling conversations about teaching and learning center on an ethos of care and a sense of purpose about the work. The pandemic and its disruptions have made those values ever more necessary at CUNY, and I’ve learned how important it is for me to feel at the end of the day that my contributions to my students and to the University have been, above all else, humane. That goal will continue to guide my work well into the future.  

I’ve learned to be more intentional about how I organize my time and plan my work across various projects. I’ve learned to be more mindful of how my decisions and obligations are impacting my mind and my body, and to take space to slow down, if needed. This is something I hope will continue.         

I know that years from now when I look back on this experience, I’ll remember the pain and the trauma of it all, but I will also cherish the extended time that I got to spend with my family. I’ll remember us finding our separate corners of the house to work and to learn, and then coming together for meals, to watch shows, and to go for walks and bike rides, to take comfort in being together.”    

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: MAR 10, 2021

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