Note. This article will be featured in our Clinical Science newsletter: Fall 2020.
“Rona”, as I colloquially call the virus when in conversation with friends and loved ones, has caused a complete upheaval of my life professionally and practically. In this column, I will discuss some of the implications from COVID-19 as a graduate student of color and personally. I will then provide some recommendations for students and for faculty members on how best to support their students from marginalized populations, including a positive initiative I have seen take place within my own organization.
COVID-19: The Good, the Bad, and the Semi-Ugly
Before all of the associated changes from COVID-19, I can admit that I was trying to accomplish too much this semester and was risking burning out. There is literature to suggest that ethnic minority students in graduate programs face stressors including racial discrimination, racial prejudice, feelings of isolation, and different cultural expectations that negatively impact their academic experience (Dyrbye et al., 2007). As a result, ethnic minority students had higher rates of burnout and depressive symptoms, and a reduced quality of life. Not only was I on a trajectory towards burnout by virtue of being one of the few minorities in my program, I was also actively (unintentionally) pushing myself to that point.
COVID-19 slowed me down dramatically. Professionally, almost all of my obligations were abruptly put on hold. I ended up cancelling my Spring Break plans and entered into immediate self-isolation. However, I did not realize how much I had been pushing myself until about a week into my Spring Break (my University extended Spring Break an extra week) when I realized I had barely opened my laptop and was checking my email at the rate of once every few days (I typically check my email multiple times in one day). I felt free, but I also felt an inkling of guilt at not being productive. To compound these feelings, New Jersey quickly emerged as the second epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. While I am currently living in Alabama for school, I am from New Jersey and many of my family members still live there. My parents and my grandmother are all either older or have some health complications that would make them vulnerable to the virus. My mother is also a certified nurse midwife, making her an essential worker. On top of my guilt at being unproductive, I was developing growing anxiety for my family. I made the decision not to fly home in early March for fear that I might catch something on the plane and give it to my parents (imagine the irony). It was a hard notion to contend with for many of the early weeks of the pandemic.
Moreover, my larger struggle was in challenging the rhetoric of the “Strong Black Woman”. The Strong Black Woman race-gender schema holds that Black women must be strong, self-reliant, resistant to negative mental health outcomes regardless of the circumstance, and willing to take care of others even at her own personal expense (Abrams, Maxwell, Pope, & Belgrave, 2014; Black & Peacock, 2010; Nelson, Cardermil, & Adeoye, 2016; Watson & Hunter, 2015). For the Strong Black Woman, breaks are not even thought of. This is a not a role I actively sought, but it is absolutely one that I have fallen into. For this reason, after my second week of doing nothing, the feelings of peace quickly shifted to blame, guilt, and some self-chiding. The grace that I had given myself during the weeks prior had dissolved into negative self-talk suggesting that I should be doing more and that my productivity should have doubled (or even tripled) with the increased time at home. I was unduly hard on myself. I had to have some candid conversations with loved ones, engage in journaling, and find others who seemed to understand my struggle (see the citation for the New York Times piece: “Stop Trying To Be Productive”) in order to let myself off the hook and find a happy medium between self-care and productivity during COVID-19.
I am not at all an expert on the marginalized student experience during COVID, but I want to share a couple of things that I have found helpful personally that could help you if you are a student from a marginalized population, or if you are seeking to help your students from marginalized populations.
Recommendations for Students from Marginalized Populations During This Time
Limitations of My Experience
While I acknowledge that COVID-19 has presented additional hurdles for all graduate students regardless of race, ethnicity, or cultural background, I would be remiss if I did not highlight a special group that could be disproportionately disadvantaged at this time: students of Asian descent and/or international students from Asian countries. There is a portion of the rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 that is placing blame on Asian countries for the creation and spread of COVID-19. Some of the implications from this have been hate crimes and mistreatment of selected groups of people/students. I cannot fathom what students of Asian descent/from Asian countries might be going through at the moment, and I will not try to speculate about or dictate their narratives for them.
Abrams, J. A., Maxwell, M., Pope, M., & Belgrave, F. Z. (2014). Carrying the world with the grace of a lady and the grit of a warrior: Deepening our understanding of the “strong black woman” schema. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38, 503–518.
Black, A. R., & Peacock, N. (2011). Pleasing the masses: Messages for daily life management in African American women’s popular media sources. American Journal of Public Health, 101, 144–150.
Dyrbye, L. N., Thomas, M. R., Eacker, A., Harper, W., Massie, F. S., Power, D. V.,…Shanafelt, T. D. (2007). Race, ethnicity, and medical student well-being in the United States. Archives of Internal Medicine, 167, 2103-2109.
Lorenz, T. (2020). Stop trying to be productive. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/style/productivity-coronavirus.html
Nelson, T., Cardermil, E. V., & Adeoye, C. T. (2016). Black women’s perceptions of the “Strong Black Woman” role. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40, 551–563.
Watson, N. N., & Hunter, C. D. (2015). Anxiety and depression among African American women: The costs of strength and negative attitudes toward psychological help-seeking. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 21, 604–612.