Graduate student life in a pandemic

Written by Joanne Sims, Virginia Commonwealth University

Good Bye Spring Break, hello social distancing

It was a rare occasion that the news was on in the middle of my spring break. The first COVID-19 cases had just spread to Virginia.  Suddenly the post-midterm peace was pushed aside for a pandemic. 

About a week into “stay at home” my socials became littered with “the earth is resetting itself” type posts about how the oceans and sky were cleaner now that we all stayed inside and it made me a little fearful. Climate change, an issue you can’t see, was still happening whether I went outside or not. Suddenly all my classes were discussing COVID-19 impacts on sustainability practices and public health. 

Jack of all trades! How I became a student, teacher, and caretaker all at once.

I had already planned to go back to my mom’s house for part of the break so I just headed there with way fewer clothes than would eventually be required. My spring break got extended to two weeks when the stay at place order and school cancellations were announced. Thankful for my mother free child care was delivered right at her doorsteps (Me!).

I have two younger siblings, one in pre-school and one in high school. My new role became part time-grad student and substitute teacher. My day consisted of waking up, doing pre-K worksheets, prepping breakfast and lunches, and organizing a schedule of daily classwork for my high school sibling. 

This was my first semester in graduate school, studying sustainable planning. Switching to an online format was… WEIRD. I’ve only done 1 class online before and hated every second of it. Writing memos on environmental impact assessments with Peppa Pig blasting in the background is far from ideal. 

Thankfully most of my professors were pretty chill and the amount of work required this semester was reduced and altered to better fit an online format.  The worst part of virtual learning is honestly discussions on zoom. I used my phone for the first couple weeks because my laptop broke just in time for online classes. Trying to find a time to interject when you can only see a quarter of the class and it feels like your professor is looking right at you is an introvert’s nightmare. 

We had a discussion in my environmental policy and planning class about whether this prolonged isolation will cause a surge in suburban living. The resources strain of urban spawn is less than ideal environmentally, but the idea of having space at a time when parks and other public green spaces are closed is appealing. 

Being at my mother’s house where we have a yard and the ability to not run into anyone was nice at first but something about being able to see and hear people from your 2nd-floor window has a kind of peace to it as well. It is my hope that we’ll see a rise in tiny green spaces, more apartments with courtyards and balconies at least.

I’ve been really thankful that my family has been safe and pretty fortunate so far. My mom’s job actually decreased her hours in order to limit the number of people in the building. They even gave masks to all the employees and their family members. 

I definitely think being in the house with my family, who I normally see a couple of times a month, has been very stressful. Homework and babysitting don’t always agree with each other. I took a short oasis to my apartment to work on the finals. This increase in family time has made me value my peaceful one bedroom. 

One of my biggest concerns during the pandemic has been my grandmother. She doesn’t drive and relies mainly on carpools and public transportation and the majority of her time was spent at church in large group settings. 

I’ve been in charge of ordering all her groceries and working as tech support so she can video call family. Grocery delivery is super easy but she isn’t very adept with technology so a lot of my free time has been occupied with opening facebook’s lives of her pastor. 

My next goal is to get her to figure out how to open Netflix or at least send her some DVDs so she’ll stop impulse buying from catalogs out of boredom. She called asking if I could send her a VHS player so I got my work cut out for me. 

Looking into the future

Prior to the pandemic, I was feeling wishy-washy about my future. I was thinking about leaving graduate school but the state of the economy is making a Masters degree look more appealing. I’ve only been on the job/internship hunt for a couple of months and since COVID I’ve noticed a significant drop in job opportunities. I’m still hopeful but I’m definitely expanding my net to things that weren’t necessarily interesting to me. 

I have a bachelor’s in Environmental Studies and I’m not sure how a lot of the non-profit work I’m interested in will be fairing during a recession. An economic downturn won’t help already disinterested people care about the topic of climate change but it should. 

The speed of how quickly things turned from bad to worse with the pandemic can happen with our environment. It also gave me hope, seeing how quickly we’ve adapted to things like social distancing.

Hopefully, this shows people that fast-pace advancements for the health of our country are feasible and that we are resilient when it comes to change. 

Mental Health and Activism During the Time of Coronavirus

I saw a tweet the other day that went something like this:

My therapist: Your OCD is irrational

The Government: Wash your hands 19 times or else your dad will die

I couldn’t help but laugh at the grim reality of this tweet. I’ve had OCD my whole life, but was only formally diagnosed in the past couple years. I think it took so long because there’s a general misunderstanding of what OCD actually is. Although I relate to the above-mentioned tweet, I don’t have hand-washing compulsions. I also don’t compulsively straighten picture frames or clean (although sometimes I wish, since I have to deal with OCD anyway, I could at least get a clean room out of it).

OCD is actually a cycle of obsessive thoughts, anxiety, compulsions, and temporary relief. I’ll have an upsetting thought that I just can’t let go of, which results in almost unbearable anxiety. To relieve it, I’ll do something that my brain has decided makes me feel better – that could be turning my lamp off and on ten times, checking that the oven is off over and over before I go to sleep, or tapping my foot in a specific way on a crack in the sidewalk. I’ll feel better then, but just for a little while. Usually, giving in to the compulsions just makes the cycle more vicious, and soon enough, the compulsive behaviors are more upsetting than the obsessive thoughts.

All this to say, coronavirus has made OCD much more difficult to manage. It’s a time of extreme uncertainty, I have absolutely no control over it, and I’m stuck inside all day without many outlets for my energy. Everyone with OCD is different, but for me, it’s really the perfect storm.

That means prioritizing my mental health has been more important than ever. But that’s not true just for me. We are in stressful, unprecedented times, and many of our coping mechanisms, such as spending time with friends and family or going to the gym, aren’t available to us in the same way. It’s more important than ever for folks to learn about their own mental health, and figure out the best ways to take care of it.

For me, taking care of my mental health in quarantine has looked like this:

  • Therapy. I’m lucky enough to have a therapist that specializes in OCD and is also there to talk about pretty much anything I want. It took me a really long time to go to therapy – I procrastinated for about two years. But it’s one of the best moves I’ve made for my mental health. I’m lucky enough to have health insurance that covers my visits, a workplace that lets me adjust my hours so I can make my appointments, and a therapist who has transitioned to tele-appointments during coronavirus. Not everyone has the same access to therapy, but it’s worth doing the research – you may be surprised at the affordable options out there! If you’ve been on the fence about therapy, take this as your sign. DO IT!
  • Being kind to myself. This one takes constant work, but is more important than ever during coronavirus. I tend to get down on myself for not doing enough or being enough, whether that’s because I ate chips and salsa for dinner three nights in a row, or because with all this free time, I’m still opting for netflix over the books on my bedside table. Once I became aware of this thinking pattern, it became easier to recognize the moments where I am unnecessarily hard on myself. And in those moments, I gently remind myself that we are in a global pandemic, and that I am doing enough. Another trick that’s been particularly helpful has been writing down all the things I get done at the end of the day – that way, I can remember all that I’m doing, and not fixate exclusively on the unchecked items on my to-do list. 
  • Exercise. Whatever that means for you! I’ve never been a big walker, but suddenly I have a lot of free time – and I’ve discovered I actually love going on walks. However, not everyone lives in an area where it’s super safe to be outside right now. So listen to your body, and do whatever feels good to you.  But, truly, getting a little bit of exercise every day has been critical for me and my mental health. (The photo at the top is one of the many photos I’ve taken on my daily walk. This is one of my favorite views near my mom’s house.)
  • I know I said I would never show anyone my embroidery, but I guess I’ll make an exception. It’s a small, simple design, but the process is so therapeutic!
    Creative outlets. I will never let anyone see my watercoloring or embroidery, and absolutely NO ONE will ever be hearing me play the guitar, which I started learning a couple months ago. But that’s because these creative outlets aren’t for other people, they’re for me. Coronavirus means a lot of staring at screens and redundancy in everyday life. Spending time being creative feels like a breath of fresh air for my brain, and I’ve found it really helps reduce my anxiety.
  • Doing what’s in my control – like fighting climate change. I think mental health can be so tricky to manage right now because it truly feels like nothing is in our control. When things first started to pick up in the US, I was one of those people who was frantically googling coronavirus numbers at three in the morning, and checking every single news alert that came onto my phone. But this just left me feeling anxious and hopeless. I’m so grateful that I’m not in that place anymore. Instead, I’ve directed my energy into what is in my control – Which is where climate action comes in.

Climate Action: Necessary for the planet, equally necessary for my mental health.

I always knew that climate action was important to me for the obvious reasons. Our lives and the lives of future generations are at stake, and the most vulnerable communities will be hit hardest by our changing climate. Taking action on climate isn’t just an environmental necessity, it is a human rights necessity. However, during the coronavirus, taking action on climate has been equally necessary to maintaining my mental health. Because, even though climate change is a complex, global issue, I still have control over my impact. I feel better knowing that I am taking action, and that my small impact is still a real impact.

Of course, climate action looks a little different during a stay-at-home order. Strategy meetings are now on zoom, protests are on twitter, and educational events are on Facebook Live. And although I am eagerly awaiting the day we can all operate in-person again, I’m also feeling better and better about virtual activism. There is a huge, passionate community of people that are doing everything possible to avoid future catastrophe – and a stay-at-home order hasn’t stopped them. Folks are posting more about climate on social media, contacting their legislators over the phone or email, and are attending educational webinars hosted by organizations across the country. I am confident that this momentary pause in physical activism is only fueling the passion and drive that climate activists have always possessed. When this is all over, we’re going to fight harder than ever.

There are a lot of organizations doing a ton of great work right now, but here are a couple things that CCAN has lined up to help you get involved in climate action during coronavirus.

A skill-up on digital advocacy. We’re holding a training for how to best use social media for climate advocacy. Have you heard about the “Facebook townhall” feature, where you can reach out to all your local officials on Facebook at once? Learn this and more by watching this uber-informative social media training for climate activists.

Learning about the next big clean energy campaign in Virginia. We’re not just going to build a movement for the sake of building a movement. We’re going to put our new skills and communities into action! The next big clean energy fight in Virginia will be on transportation. Learn about what opportunities we have, like fare-free public transit, and how you can help us win! Click HERE to RSVP for the transportation info sesh with experts on May 26 at 7:00pm.

I hope that, sometime soon, you can take a moment to really consider your mental health. Sometimes, it can feel easier to ignore the question of how you’re doing than to really take a moment and check in with yourself. But, at least for me, prioritizing my mental health has been critical to staying afloat during coronavirus. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely worth it. 

An example of virtual activism! I participate in weekly virtual climate strikes. Email me at to join me!