Navigating the Covid-19 Pandemic as a Graduate Student in the School of Planning

Friday, September 11, 2020

In spite of all the challenges the Covid-19 pandemic triggered over the last several months, two of the welcome gifts it also afforded me has been 1) time to reflect and 2) the ability to continue with my studies in an atypical way. My experience as a graduate student in the School of Planning had already unceasingly tested my motivation and self-direction but working as a Research Assistant (RA) and powering through electives over the Spring term helped me recognize how important it is to foster supportive relationships and prioritize your own wellbeing during uncertain times.

Like many of my peers and colleagues, I left campus in March grappling at the state of the world and sorting through the constant flood of information. My classmates and I figured that deadlines and responsibilities would ease for a couple of weeks and we’d be back to finish final assignments by April. Across the world, leaders and health professionals were calling for a two-week hiatus of activity to flatten the curve, but this timeline seemed almost arbitrary considering national sports associations were cancelling seasons and borders were closing. Shortly after UW decided to close campus indefinitely, I was also notified that my internship with the Region of Peel would be pushed back to the Fall. Recently I learned that it would be pushed back again, albeit understandably. All the sudden changes and global sufferings felt overwhelming, but I knew that what was best for me was committing myself to keep moving forward and simply prepare for a different Spring term.

By mid-April I had submitted my final assignments and welcomed the short break in between semesters. My supervisor, Dr Leia Minaker, was exceptionally supportive and hired me as an RA in May, and I decided to take my two remaining electives over the Spring term – one of which was through the School of Public Health and Policy and offered fresh learning material in contrast to Planning. As an RA, I worked on gathering data and creating a social deprivation index for both my thesis and my poster submission for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) Annual Conference scheduled for November. Both projects focus on non-traditional retail food environments and measure geographic and economic impacts of gentrification on healthy food access in Toronto, ON. I’m super passionate about this research area because I think it’s important to understand how commercial infrastructure and development can contribute to disparities and health outcomes across neighbourhoods.

I rotated between three workspaces in my home depending on the weather and how productive I needed to be; the corner desk in my bedroom, my backyard patio table, and sometimes a laptop pillow on the living room couch. I definitely missed working in a café or in little cubicles beside my peers in the GoHelP Lab, but writing outdoors was a nice change in scenery and I still maintained contact with my research buddies throughout the term. In the spirit of transparency, buying a coffee scented fragrance plug also helped bring home some coffee shop familiarity, especially on the cooler and rainy summer days.

Patrycia's Work From Home Setup.

Accessing ArcGIS applications, using RStudio, and seeking census data remotely proved to be a bit challenging at first, but after many emails and Zoom sessions with support staff, I was encouraged to explore features on my own – shout-out to the MAD Lab, Geospatial Centre, and Statistics Help Desk for their constant availability and support! Setting up remotely was also super easy and straight-forward. However, there were times when my motivation was low and compounded by pandemic-induced stress. On those days, I focused my attention and energy in other directions and reached out to classmates I knew were in similar positions so we could strategize solutions.

I think it’s pretty typical of graduate students to feel pressured to constantly produce quality work so breaking down large tasks into more manageable goals helped focus research priorities. I embraced soft deadlines because they were forgiving but still kept me in line. I learned how to better balance time between studying and spending time with close friends and family and found this relieved a lot of anxiety. And finally, hosting Netflix Parties for AGP Social Events was always something to look forward to too! Overall, it was a far more relaxed semester than I was used to, but in hindsight, I found myself working with more intention and efficiency because I was almost forced to alter how I approach studying and my research values. I also worked out a few research kinks too, which afforded me time to reflect on how fortunate I am to have a supportive supervisor and get to be part of such a positive and driven student cohort.

As I approach the start of the Fall term, I find myself preparing for another remote semester but with a more concrete idea of how I want to set up my daily routine. In times of upheaval, it’s important to set yourself up for success, create comfort in your work environment, and be cognizant and responsive to pressures. If you can control these stresses, do so as you see fit; and if you can’t, remember that your support networks will be there for you or you can always create new ones with your classmates (including me) or through Campus Wellness. I know the new academic reality will be challenging for most of us, but I hope that my fellow graduate students and incoming cohorts can relate to some of my experiences and remember that each step forward is a step closer to your goal(s); don’t forget that we’ve already achieved so many of our goals before so who’s to say we can’t achieve the rest – they just might require a more hybrid approach this time around! 

I want to finish off by wishing everyone a happy Fall term and good luck in your writing and research – see you all virtually via AGP socials!

- Patrycia Menko