SSCP Diversity Corner Featuring Danielle McDuffie, M.A.

16 Jun 2020 10:49 PM | Jessica Hamilton (Administrator)

And Then There Was COVID”: Understanding the Graduate Student Experience from the Perspective of an African American Student During COVID-19

Danielle McDuffie, M.A.

Note. This article will be featured in our Clinical Science newsletter: Fall 2020. 

“Rona”, as I colloquially call the virus when in conversation with friends and loved ones, has caused a complete upheaval of my life professionally and practically. In this column, I will discuss some of the implications from COVID-19 as a graduate student of color and personally. I will then provide some recommendations for students and for faculty members on how best to support their students from marginalized populations, including a positive initiative I have seen take place within my own organization.

COVID-19: The Good, the Bad, and the Semi-Ugly

Before all of the associated changes from COVID-19, I can admit that I was trying to accomplish too much this semester and was risking burning out. There is literature to suggest that ethnic minority students in graduate programs face stressors including racial discrimination, racial prejudice, feelings of isolation, and different cultural expectations that negatively impact their academic experience (Dyrbye et al., 2007). As a result, ethnic minority students had higher rates of burnout and depressive symptoms, and a reduced quality of life. Not only was I on a trajectory towards burnout by virtue of being one of the few minorities in my program, I was also actively (unintentionally) pushing myself to that point.

COVID-19 slowed me down dramatically. Professionally, almost all of my obligations were abruptly put on hold. I ended up cancelling my Spring Break plans and entered into immediate self-isolation. However, I did not realize how much I had been pushing myself until about a week into my Spring Break (my University extended Spring Break an extra week) when I realized I had barely opened my laptop and was checking my email at the rate of once every few days (I typically check my email multiple times in one day). I felt free, but I also felt an inkling of guilt at not being productive. To compound these feelings, New Jersey quickly emerged as the second epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. While I am currently living in Alabama for school, I am from New Jersey and many of my family members still live there. My parents and my grandmother are all either older or have some health complications that would make them vulnerable to the virus. My mother is also a certified nurse midwife, making her an essential worker. On top of my guilt at being unproductive, I was developing growing anxiety for my family. I made the decision not to fly home in early March for fear that I might catch something on the plane and give it to my parents (imagine the irony). It was a hard notion to contend with for many of the early weeks of the pandemic.

Moreover, my larger struggle was in challenging the rhetoric of the “Strong Black Woman”. The Strong Black Woman race-gender schema holds that Black women must be strong, self-reliant, resistant to negative mental health outcomes regardless of the circumstance, and willing to take care of others even at her own personal expense (Abrams, Maxwell, Pope, & Belgrave, 2014; Black & Peacock, 2010; Nelson, Cardermil, & Adeoye, 2016; Watson & Hunter, 2015). For the Strong Black Woman, breaks are not even thought of. This is a not a role I actively sought, but it is absolutely one that I have fallen into. For this reason, after my second week of doing nothing, the feelings of peace quickly shifted to blame, guilt, and some self-chiding. The grace that I had given myself during the weeks prior had dissolved into negative self-talk suggesting that I should be doing more and that my productivity should have doubled (or even tripled) with the increased time at home. I was unduly hard on myself. I had to have some candid conversations with loved ones, engage in journaling, and find others who seemed to understand my struggle (see the citation for the New York Times piece: “Stop Trying To Be Productive”) in order to let myself off the hook and find a happy medium between self-care and productivity during COVID-19.

I am not at all an expert on the marginalized student experience during COVID, but I want to share a couple of things that I have found helpful personally that could help you if you are a student from a marginalized population, or if you are seeking to help your students from marginalized populations.

Recommendations for Students from Marginalized Populations During This Time

    • Take a break from social media! My personal break from social media actually came months before the onset of COVID-19; however, it became glaring how much less anxious I was feeling compared to loved ones who were still on social media. From what I have heard from friends who remained on social media, there is a mild spirit of panic across popular social media platforms. I have a very close friend living in New York who has expressed to me how anxious she sometimes feels when seeing all the COVID-19 conversation on social media. She has never been particularly anxious, and she should/could be the most-well informed on the outbreak as someone living, working (from home), and supporting herself in the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic. While I am not saying “delete your social media”, try taking a day or two away. And when you DO go back, do not try to scroll back and see everything you missed from the prior day or two. Go in with fresh eyes and a fresh mind.
    • Remember that it is okay to say NO! I am a huge victim of not being able to say “no”. This was what got me into a lot of stress before the onset of COVID-19, and what caused a lot of distress for me in the early weeks of unproductivity. However, it is OKAY to not be at your maximum productivity right now! Graduate students of color often have this narrative that we have to do over and above what we are currently slated to do. In Black culture, there is a saying: “you have to do twice as much to get half as far”. However, in the midst of a global pandemic, adopting this mindset can cause more harm than good. Take the time to be intentional about what you are devoting your time to, even if that is a day spent watching television and communicating with loved ones. It is okay to be intentional with your mental and psychological health and to give yourself some grace, especially now.
    • Make realistic to-do lists. I am a to-do list aficionado. I make a list for everything: packing for trips, daily tasks, things I need to do around the house, e v e r y t h i n g. I have found that during this time, making realistic, attainable to-do lists has helped me feel productive while not pushing me too far to the edge. Items on your to-do list could be as simple as writing one page of a manuscript, cooking one healthy meal, or going for a walk. But the feeling of checking something off your list is a reward that is unmatched (in my humble opinion).
    • Ask for the help you need. I have wonderful research and clinical mentors, and one of the things I think helped me most during this time is my mentor allowing me to figure out what my life should look like right now. We would have weekly check-ins not only about my academic or clinical progress, but also about my mental health and things I was engaging in to promote health and wellness. Within these meetings, I was given the space to tell my mentor that I needed some time for myself, particularly after my heavy first half of the semester and concerns for my family. Even if what you need at the time is time, advocate for yourself and the space that you need.
Recommendations for Those Aiding Students from Marginalized Populations During This Time
    • Allow students a healthy amount of space and time. The best thing my mentor did for me was give me just enough space while still keeping me aware of my goals. My mentor did not push me to be working on anything specific. Instead, she checked in on my mental health, how my family was doing, and if I was taking care of myself. She would provide subtle nudges and suggestions during our check-in calls, but she never made it imperative that I complete a task. She allowed me to make my own decision for what I could handle. For students from marginalized populations who might not be handling the shift due to COVID well, or who might not know how/when to say no, I think it is important to create that space for them to take a break and to have that not be the end of the world.
    • Think about starting an anonymous Student Support Network for students of color you may know. At my University, I have been pleasantly surprised by the unity and outreach from professors to the students from marginalized backgrounds across graduate programs. In an initiative spearheaded by the head of the Gender & Race Studies department, an email went out to faculty soliciting anonymous donations for a fund that would support graduate students from marginalized populations who might be disproportionately struggling during these times. In the email, it was stipulated that graduate students in need had to only reach out to one person (the head of Gender & Race Studies), and that their names would be kept on a protected document that only he would have access to. There then would be a text message correspondence set up between the student and their one faculty shopper to arrange what items were needed and how/where to drop them off. I think this initiative is one of the best I have seen proposed by graduate departments, and very sensitive to populations of graduate students who might have come into their graduate programs at a financial disadvantage.

Limitations of My Experience

While I acknowledge that COVID-19 has presented additional hurdles for all graduate students regardless of race, ethnicity, or cultural background, I would be remiss if I did not highlight a special group that could be disproportionately disadvantaged at this time: students of Asian descent and/or international students from Asian countries. There is a portion of the rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 that is placing blame on Asian countries for the creation and spread of COVID-19. Some of the implications from this have been hate crimes and mistreatment of selected groups of people/students. I cannot fathom what students of Asian descent/from Asian countries might be going through at the moment, and I will not try to speculate about or dictate their narratives for them.

References

Abrams, J. A., Maxwell, M., Pope, M., & Belgrave, F. Z. (2014). Carrying the world with the grace of a lady and the grit of a warrior: Deepening our understanding of the “strong black woman” schema. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38, 503–518.

Black, A. R., & Peacock, N. (2011). Pleasing the masses: Messages for daily life management in African American women’s popular media sources. American Journal of Public Health, 101, 144–150.

Dyrbye, L. N., Thomas, M. R., Eacker, A., Harper, W., Massie, F. S., Power, D. V.,…Shanafelt, T. D. (2007). Race, ethnicity, and medical student well-being in the United States. Archives of Internal Medicine, 167, 2103-2109.

Lorenz, T. (2020). Stop trying to be productive. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/style/productivity-coronavirus.html

Nelson, T., Cardermil, E. V., & Adeoye, C. T. (2016). Black women’s perceptions of the “Strong Black Woman” role. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40, 551–563.

Watson, N. N., & Hunter, C. D. (2015). Anxiety and depression among African American women: The costs of strength and negative attitudes toward psychological help-seeking. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 21, 604–612.