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Graduate School in the Pandemic: Our Students Share Their Stories

By Shea Szpila

After Villanova’s campus closed in March, the graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dispersed across the country and globe. From reconnecting with family to learning new hobbies to adapting to new ways of learning and working, Grad CLAS students showed a resiliency, creativity and optimism that not only helped them persist through today’s challenging times but also prepared them for the challenges of the future.

Minnie Tsai took a colored pencil sketching class during the pandemic

Minnie Tsai, a second-year MS in School Counseling, spent her quarantine with her family in Taiwan. Tsai visits her family often, but the quarantine gave her the opportunity to spend more time with them than usual. “This is the longest I’ve been in Taiwan in five years,” Tsai explains. While she was initially nervous to board a plane during the pandemic, she felt safe in Taiwan, saying “it was a privilege to be able to fly home.”

She soon settled into a routine, carefully balancing her summer classes with intentional family time. Due to the time difference, Tsai had to wake up at 5:20 a.m. to attend her synchronous classes. School, a great coffeeshop nearby and inspirational articles about the pandemic kept her motivated to continue her school work this summer.
 
In addition to her studies, Tsai took the opportunity to explore one of her passions by enrolling in a community center art class in colored pencil sketching. “Art,” Tsai says, “is something I have loved since elementary school, but haven't really devoted time to it.”

She also made time to reflect on her gratitude for her health, and the extra time she had with family during the pandemic. “Maybe we need to make more of the time we have to connect, whether virtually or in person,” she says. Tsai is certain that the one thing she’ll take away from her quarantine experience is, “I really love my family.”

Mason Lee built a rock wall with his family during the pandemic

Stateside, Mason Lee’s quarantine brought him back home to San Antonio, Texas. A second-year student in the Master of Public Administration program, Lee spent his quarantine building something permanent: a 38-foot rock wall. Soon after returning home, Lee found himself busy cutting down cedar trees and digging up rocks with his father for the project. They used only the rocks from his family’s land, deepening their sense of accomplishment when the project was complete.

In addition to his landscaping work, Lee took up some projects of his own: baking and learning Italian. While Lee admits that motivation was sometimes hard to muster in the beginning, he soon set a strategy that would help him keep going. Lee explains, “I would set small achievable goals that made me feel like I was accomplishing things, and that propelled me more than anything else.” Lee’s efforts to stay motivated not only produced a hand-constructed rock wall, but also the “perfect cookie,” a white chocolate macadamia nut masterpiece.

Alexis Kapij, a first-year master’s student studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Alexis Kapij, a first-year master’s student studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling, finished her undergraduate degree in psychology from Rutgers-Camden remotely when the campus shut down in March. She spent her quarantine days taking Zoom classes, working her campus job remotely, and watching Tiger King in her free time. Kapij also worked at an in-patient psychiatric facility called Hampton Behavioral Health Center in Westampton, New Jersey. The pandemic introduced a new set of routines to the health center – mask wearing, restricted or socially distant visiting, and mandatory COVID tests for patients. Despite these efforts, the health center experienced an outbreak of the virus in March.

“A couple of staff members caught it and exposed some of the patients, who caught it as well. We ended up shutting down one of our six units and turning it into our COVID unit,” she said. Fortunately, the health center’s patients recovered, and the facility has experienced no further outbreaks of the virus.
 
Kapij’s strategies for pandemic survival included maintaining strict daily routines and a clear work-life division. Keeping her workspace separate from her rest space helped Kapij maintain a sense of normalcy and manage her anxiety about the state of the world. Overall, she says, “the pandemic definitely opened my eyes to how short life can be. Moving forward, I am going to work on being more present and appreciating each moment.”

Miranda Febus is pursuing a Master’s in Education with a concentration in higher education

Miranda Febus also used her quarantine time to advance her career goals. A second-year pursuing a Master’s in Education with a concentration in higher education, Febus kept busy this summer with a remote internship at Rutgers University’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI). Febus managed virtual projects oriented toward diversity, equity and inclusion, including a Twitter chat, a podcast and research briefs. Febus put her classwork to use by inviting higher education scholars Terrell Strayhorn and Roderick Ferguson to contribute to CMSI media. According to Febus, “it was so rewarding to be able to make connections with scholars whose work I know and admire.”

Febus is grateful for the networking and career advancement opportunities the CMSI internship experience offered her toward her ultimate career goal of becoming a Chief Diversity Officer. Overall, Febus is proud of her work with CMSI, and grateful to the Villanova faculty who reached out to her about the internship opportunity. She says, “I am forever thankful for the wonderful people I have met along my higher education journey, who are just as invested in my success as I am.”  

Finally, Madeleine Straley has had to handle the changes the pandemic brought to professional sports in her position as a Human Resources Coordinator for the Kansas City Royals. While the pandemic did not materially impact Straley’s online coursework in the MS of Human Resources Development program, the virus brought dramatic changes not only to her work day, but to the industry as a whole. She explains, “I think this shift has been thought-provoking in the sense we can blend personal and professional environments, similar to the way we view work-life balance. This experience has undoubtedly changed how I view my co-workers and how I cherish when I see them in person at the office.”

While Straley finds it difficult to be so distant from her co-workers, she is proud of the way the Royals have helped their staff through the challenges of the pandemic. Straley says that the Royals made a point to compensate the employees who could not work remotely. “Game-day employees were given a stipend depending on their years of service, ranging from new hires in January 2020 to employees who have been at the Royals for 30+ years. That staff is a critical part to the game day experience, and I’m grateful their work and dedication has not gone unnoticed,” she says.


Shea Szpila is a master’s student in English and graduate assistant in the CLAS Office of Graduate Studies.

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.