Thoughts on starting graduate school in a pandemic

Since I’ve last written, I’ve traveled more than two thousand miles, moved into a new apartment, and finished my first academic term at one of the most rigorous philosophy-of-science programs in the country. Much has changed and, at the same time, much has not. Within the U.S., at both the state and the national level, politicians continue to bungle their response to COVID, placing the economic concerns of large corporations over the best interests of the common people, and expressing indignation when caught violating the safety policies that they themselves have implemented. Meanwhile, across Europe, a completely predictable second wave has arisen, leading to a second set of lockdowns—-which, absent improved contact tracing and isolation measures, will likely prove no more effective than the first.

For sure, it’s been a doozy of a year. At the end of January, I lost a friend to suicide, and then had to watch in horror as the intricate details of her death became national news. Worn down by worry and exhaustion, I fell ill the following week with what a classmate told me was “flu” but, looking back, must surely have been COVID; my lung capacity was significantly reduced for the next month, and—after breaking down on the side of the highway during a snowstorm, abandoning my vehicle at a tiny repair shop in rural Indiana, and catching an Uber to travel the remainder of the distance to O’Hare—I arrived at the LPS interview weekend an exhausted, feverish, coughing mess. While, for myself personally, the year hasn’t been devoid of triumphs—I managed to both graduate from Notre Dame, and get into graduate school—it has nevertheless been a year of grief, loss, and countless tribulations. In the spring, I cut ties with my biological parents, after it became clear to me that no amount of pleading or rational argumentation could convince them to enter therapy, or admit that their history of “strict” parenting methods—which included uber-conservative religious indoctrination; verbal, physical, and emotional abuse; and manipulation of my finances to the point that, sometimes, I could barely afford to eat—had been more harmful than helpful. Shortly thereafter, my parents convinced my younger sister to cut off contact with me, and so my final connection to my nuclear family was abruptly and unceremoniously severed. While my some of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles have been empathetic to my situation, and have tried to keep me “in the loop” concerning events in my siblings’ lives, nothing can really fill the void created by the knowledge that I can’t be there to watch my younger brothers and sister learn and grow, start college, or acquire new hobbies. Perhaps what hurts most is the knowledge that my own siblings have been taught to view me as “the bad guy,”—-and that they will possibly carry that view of me with them into adulthood.

In all honesty, my professional life this year has been no less turbulent than my personal life. Despite the fact that UCI’s COVID-related regulations have left individual students physically isolated from one another—graduate classes are being hosted online, and on-campus gatherings of two or more students are prohibited—I’ve been able to network with many of the other graduate students in the department, through a combination of online gatherings, group chats, and off-campus outdoor activities. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the fact that the other students have been overwhelmingly supportive, and have quickly accepted me as a new member of their close-knit social group; for the first time in my life, I feel that I “belong” somewhere, that I’ve found people every bit as nerdy and quirky as myself with whom I can “fit in.” And quite a few faculty members at UCI have gone out of their way to be especially kind to me, offering to write me last-minute recommendation letters when necessary, or extending deadlines after a bout of stress-induced chronic stomach pain struck me mid-quarter. Unfortunately, all of these delightful professional interactions can’t really make up for the fact that, this year, some of my most important professional relationships—which, in a way, were also my most important personal relationships—turned sour. At the same time that I was starting graduate school, in the middle of a pandemic—while also trying to write a $100k funding proposal, and struggling to buy groceries after the university lost my paycheck in the mail twice—I suddenly found myself the target of certain smear-campaign tactics; meanwhile, some of my most important advisors chose to walk out of my life, justifying their decisions with the assertion that my neurodivergence was making me “irrational” and that, as a result, I was merely imagining verbal and emotional abuse where there was none. I spent whole days crying, to the point that I was losing both sleep and work time. In the end, I realized that, for the good of both my career and my mental health, I was better off simply letting certain relationships go. While I knew that I was making the best decisions for my health, my sanity, and my future, I struggled with feelings of failure—-as I wondered what about me was so unworthy or insufficient that even those who, in the past, had sworn that they “loved me unconditionally” and “believed in me” no longer wanted to be part of my life. In an effort to alleviate my distress, I launched my own campaign for a position on the newly-minted student-led department climate committee. Even if I myself had faced unfair treatment because of my gender and psych disabilities, I reasoned, I could still prevent other students from suffering the same discrimination. And while my friends and colleagues couldn’t fully understand the depth of my distress, they rallied to my support and assured me that I had what it took to succeed in graduate school, even if my superiors’ seemingly arbitrary opinions didn’t always align with that reality. Alone with my thoughts, I’ve had the dawning realization that my academic success, like my self-esteem, is truly dependent on no one but myself. And while certain people may accompany me for a time on my academic journey—which is, in a way, simply a journey of self-discovery, after nearly two decades of isolation, lies, and abuse—no one, no matter how talented, influential, or empathetic, can walk that path for me. My life plan and purpose, like my trauma and struggles, are mine and mine alone.

As this year comes to a close, many people are looking to the new year for a new beginning. But with case numbers climbing, and new lockdown rules even more lax than the spring’s, I fear that 2021 will simply bring more of the same. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are touting new vaccinations as the silver bullet that will enable us to innovate our way out of the COVID crisis; but with slow rollout rates, rapid viral mutations, limited safety and efficacy data—and a sizable portion of the population reluctant to take a prophylactic for which there is only limited safety and efficacy data—hope for a rapid resolution of the global situation is slim. Even in sunny Southern California, it seems, there is a long and dark winter ahead.

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