Dean's Message

Congratulations! We are greater than our challenges

pandemic lessons thrive learned future challenges graduate students
By Elizabeth Wentz on April 26, 2021

Congratulations to all of you for making it through one of the most difficult academic years in the modern era. 

When I was a graduate student, I faced challenges that sometimes felt overwhelming – a member of my committee asked me to write a new section of my dissertation; I declined a TA offer and funded myself for 8 months to complete my degree; I lived alone and grew tired of working alone in my at-home office (little did I know that COVID would come)--but my challenges pale in comparison to those faced by today’s graduate students and postdocs.  

As Vice Provost and Dean, I witness the incredible resilience of graduate students every day. Today’s challenges for graduate students have included dealing with significant amounts of personal frustration and anxiety, confronting social injustice, adapting to new learning environments and degree requirements, and facing job loss and an uncertain job market - all while they have completed degrees at nearly the same rate as students did before the pandemic. 

Until the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, almost no one alive today has lived through a global pandemic. After what feels like a very long year, millions of people in the U.S. and around the world have been vaccinated or are very close to being vaccinated and we continue to learn about the spread and variants of COVID-19. There are hopeful signs of emerging from lockdowns and closures, coupled with strong desires to return to “normal,” however that might look. 

This makes it a great time to reflect on what we learned, how we thrived and the path forward as we build back better. 

What have you learned? How have you thrived? What does the path forward look like to you? Here are some of my thoughts:

5 things we learned

  1. We like the convenience of staying at home but miss the social interaction of going to class or to the office. Also, virtual meetings are surprisingly tiring.

  2. You can learn almost as much about people by sitting in a zoom meeting as you can in an in-person meeting.

  3. You can fit more virtual meetings into a day because you never have to leave your location. 

  4. Virtual meetings allow you the ability to multitask. You can fold laundry, check social media, send email and send slack messages to friends (the old fashion equivalent of passing notes in class). Too bad there’s no such thing as doing two things at the same time.

  5. We really wished for an in-person graduation.

6 ways we thrived

  1. Graduate students completed courses and degree requirements at nearly the same rate as before.

  2. Graduate students found alternative ways to meet with their professors and work together effectively.

  3. Hosting virtual thesis and dissertation defenses on Zoom allowed former faculty and family and friends from nearby and far away to participate.

  4. Novel ideas for degree completion are being designed for experiences like clinical experiences and internships.

  5. We have been alerted to the impact of multiple intersecting pandemics (again). 

  6. Through ASU’s Community of Care, we found out that people really do care about other people.

How things will be different

  1. Things are forever changed. 

  2. The path forward means that we might be able to pick and choose which adaptations to the pandemic to keep and which to jettison.

  3. We will pay attention to the inequities that virtual work creates for those with less access. This is especially important for women who often (but not always) also manage a higher home workload.

  4. Zoom is here to stay, but it does not completely replace all in-person interaction.

  5. We need more skills for how to pick up the nonverbal cues in communication that happen naturally with in-person meetings. 

  6. We can appreciate the time we have face-to-face with colleagues, friends, and family.