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To define graduate students’ time during Covid-19 solely through the lens of academics would be to overlook the numerous details that humanize and differentiate each of their experiences.
The following individuals are not merely Harvard students — they are also bakers and entrepreneurs, fathers and daughters, volunteers and Olympic-hopeful rowers. Eight students across five graduate schools sat down virtually with The Crimson to share their stories from an unprecedented year.
Daniel A. Arias wishes his scholarship weren’t so relevant to the current moment.
A second-year Ph.D. student in Population Health Sciences, Arias studies the intersection of mental health and epidemiology, as well as health economics — a practice he calls “quantifying the burden of disease.”
Though the relevance of his scholarship is affirming, he also said it has been “unsettling” to see previously abstract concepts — like cultural distrust around vaccines and the “structural violence” that undergirds the healthcare system — spill over into real-world harm.
Outside of coursework, Arias serves as the co-president of LGBTQ@GSAS and a member of the FAS Committee to Review Conduct Policies and Procedures. During the pandemic, he has taken up exercising, knitting and baking. He recently baked a croquembouche, a French confection he describes as a “puff pastry tower that’s massive.”
The flexibility of online school allowed Arias to move in with his partner and relocate to Washington D.C., near family. Over the past months, Arias has established norms — like avoiding scheduling meetings over weekends or after conventional work hours — to strike a balance between work and relaxation.
“I think that’s overall something I’ve been trying to encourage other folks to do — to try to defend their time,” Arias said.
During the early months of the pandemic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital established stringent visitation rules to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. The policies resulted in heart-wrenching decisions — some of which Peter Choi had to initiate.
Choi, a first-year student in the Masters of Bioethics program at Harvard Medical School and a volunteer at Brigham, has had to relay the difficult news that only two individuals can visit a loved one in their last moments.
“That’s been challenging — not only to deliver that news but also to deal with both the sad and the angry,” Choi said. “It’s hard to put on a straight face and say, ‘We’re sorry. This is a pandemic and these are our policies, and that’s all we can do.’”
Outside of volunteering at the hospital, Choi serves as the vice chair of governance for the Harvard Graduate Council, an industry relationship project manager at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of the University’s Title IX and Gender Equity Education Student Advisory Committee.
Choi is also an Olympic-hopeful rower. Though he has had few opportunities to be in a boat since the start of the pandemic, he trains regularly at the USRowing Para Training Center in Brighton, Mass. He hopes to compete as a coxswain at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
“I’m not in — a lot of people like to jump to that conclusion,” Choi said. “I am one of three that is trying out for one seat. So 33 percent chance.”
Brandon J. Mancilla was supposed to conduct archival research in Guatemala for his dissertation this past summer. Then Covid-19 hit.
Mancilla, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in History, is not alone in his predicament. Many graduate students at the University conduct travel-based archival research and fieldwork during their fourth year, according to Mancilla.
“I think all of us are in a position of, ‘Well, when exactly are we going to be able to do that? When are we actually going to be able to get on the ground and do the things that we need to do in order to produce scholarship on what we care about?’” he said.
“I’m sure a lot of dissertations will look pretty different two to three years from now, because of this period,” Mancilla added.
Mancilla also currently serves as president of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers.
HGSU-UAW swiftly transitioned to Zoom last March amid negotiations over its first-ever contract. Though the union reached an agreement with the University in June 2020, Mancilla said he still wonders how an unrealized second strike — squandered by the onset of Covid-19 — could have shaped negotiations.
“It’s kind of an open question of, ‘What would that strike have meant for our campaign?’ We don’t know,” he said. “Covid happened. We had to deal with that reality.”
For Mancilla, who lost loved ones during the pandemic, the union has served as an essential source of inspiration and support.
“Community matters. But what kind of community you’re a part of also matters,” he said. “Care and sustainability and justice, above everything else, have mattered a lot to me.”
Amreen Poonawala, who is currently pursuing a Master’s in Technology, Innovation, and Education at the Graduate School of Education, was far from thrilled when she learned her one-year program would be completely remote.
Despite her initial disappointment, however, Poonawala said Covid-19 challenged her and other students to devise creative ways of fostering fellowship remotely. Her cohort utilized Slack, Facebook, and clubs as means to build relationships, even before the start of classes.
The challenges Covid-19 has presented for educational models have also amplified the relevance of her program’s central questions.
“A lot of my professors have been researching for years, even decades, how we can use technology and software and potentially even video conferencing and other immersive forums to improve education and make it more scalable,” she said. “So they’re already doing this work — and now they actually get to apply it.”
For Poonawala, too, the pandemic has crystallized her academic interests into tangible initiatives. She is currently co-creating a product, ChalkEd, that provides educators with data and recommendations on student engagement in online classes.
“I honestly think none of that would have been possible — that vision wouldn’t have been possible — if it weren’t for me facing some of those challenges during the pandemic myself,” she said.
Angela Han fell in love with Harvard well before moving to Cambridge to study government at the Harvard Extension School.
In 2015, Han enrolled in Harvard Summer School while still an undergraduate student in Canada. She recalled an atmosphere of support and camaraderie at the University. One day, when she was lost, a professor even helped her find a way to class.
“She actually just walked me there, in front of my classroom – this is just one of the stories,” Han said.
Now, Han works to pay that atmosphere of support forward by serving as the chair of student life for the Harvard Graduate Council. The Council’s shift to Zoom has helped representatives coordinate activities, involve internationally-based students in meetings, and recruit guest speakers, according to Han.
She hopes to craft more opportunities for graduate student socialization before her tenure at the Council is over.
“A lot of students, they stay in their dorm alone. And some of them stay in their very small apartment, disconnected with the rest of the world, except for their online classes,” she said. “It’s very important to have that connection, to create that platform to make sure people can feel connected during this difficult time.”
For Juan Pablo Ugarte, adapting to life during Covid-19 has been “extremely challenging” — not just as a doctoral student, but also as a husband and a father. A fifth-year student at the Graduate School of Design, Ugarte recently returned to Cambridge from Chile with his wife and daughters, ages two and four.
At the start of the pandemic, his wife, a psychologist, transitioned from home visitations to sessions on Zoom. Early in March 2020, their daycare also closed. Those shifts temporarily forced Ugarte to pause work on his thesis, though he has since resumed work — a new normal.
“We sort of divided the days — maybe one morning I would be with them, and then in the afternoon, she would be with them, and then we would switch,” he said.
He traveled with his family to Santiago, Chile, during the winter of 2020, later visiting Pucón for vacation. Traveling to Chile and reconnecting with family rekindled his appreciation for in-person connection, according to Ugarte.
Ugarte, who said this past year will be “ingrained” in his family’s collective memory, hopes the trip to Chile provided a much-needed reset before resuming life in Cambridge.
“We recharged our batteries,” he said. “And hopefully, it’s going to be easier this year.”
Himaja Nagireddy is no stranger to celebrating milestones virtually. She graduated remotely from the University of Connecticut and soon after, entered her first year of her Master’s in the Department of Environmental Health at the School of Public Health on Zoom.
Though Nagireddy initially felt stressed “being constantly surrounded by Covid” both in her daily life and her scholarship, she ultimately decided to “lean into” the crisis.
“I started studying it more, just trying to absorb it — not only for myself but for my parents as well, for my sister, my brother, the people in my life,” she said. “Oftentimes as public health people, you have a public health crisis going on, and people look to you for answers. And you’re like, ‘I’m just a first-year, I don’t know anything!’”
To counteract feelings of enclosure, Nagireddy — who currently lives with family in Acton, Mass. — has been experimenting with nature photography, a passion she first developed during her undergraduate years. She often uses her photos as Zoom backgrounds to transport vicariously to new places.
Advocacy — particularly for gender-based issues — has been a vital way for Nagireddy to feel connected during the quarantine. Through her work with the United Nations Association of the USA, she helps coordinate conferences on gender equity.
“It’s been so cool getting to connect with people and learn about them, and try to broach this topic of gender advocacy, which is oftentimes so misunderstood,” she said.
After briefly relocating to Virginia from Cambridge, Mass., Moulshree Mittal moved back to Delhi, India, to live with her parents during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mittal, who is pursuing a Master in Design Studies at the Graduate School of Design, is currently working on her thesis. Amid coursework and extracurriculars, she tries to squeeze in activities with her family — watching movies, cooking, playing card games — when time permits.
Though Mittal and her parents visit local grocery stores, they try to avoid excessive activity outside the house, particularly because of their dense metropolitan surroundings. Time with family has been one of the greatest boons of the past year, according to Mittal.
“I am grateful for that because it would have been terrible to live by myself and not meet anybody,” she says. “It has been such a mental relief and emotional connection for me.”
For Mittal, understated interactions with family — what she calls the “day-to-day things” — have often been the most poignant moments of life during Covid-19.
“There’s this vivid memory where my father and I were working together, and my mom was resting in the other room. That was so calming and relaxing for me mentally. It felt like, ‘I’m complete at the moment, I don’t need anybody else — this is it,’” she said. “That is one memory I’ll cherish forever.”
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.
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