Traversing a New World

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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The shutdown of the US economy and quarantines to numerous states, including the one I live in, brought a combination of uncertainty and creativity to my life both as an essential worker and as a student. The way both work and study would change did not leave much to figure out, as the objectives remained the same, but how to execute them was shrouded in mystery. As employees wondered if they would still have jobs and if a highly contagious disease would affect them, I had to balance the necessity of completing my daily responsibilities at work with the academic responsibilities I had to accomplish for my research and studies. While I had access to do research from home, I could not wall myself off from the occurrences in the real world. Living an historical event provided me an insight I had not been able to experience while viewing documents from archives. I had to be physically involved in the making of history as I simultaneously researched it.

My job supplied me with the funding for my research and schooling. Dispensing from this was not an option. I had to being work at night which altered my research to during the daytime. Waking up and starting my academic work provided a new daily routine from the night schooling and research to which I was accustomed. Doing the mentally strenuous work before doing physical proved challenging, as the mental work was always more intense for me and to try and navigate this change resulted in an exhausting workday which normally lasted 10-12 hours. Having to approach physical (and some mental) work after hours of mentally challenging activity created a volatile situation. It was made even more of a challenge when dealing with employees who were uncertain, nervous, and financially strained. My research at times provided insights as to how to deal with these situations and enabled me to navigate a world not seen during my lifetime.

While researching European colonies in the nineteenth century, I came across events that greatly altered contemporary life. Wars, famine, governmental insecurity, and pandemics changed the lives of millions almost overnight. These instances are not too far removed from our current situation. How did those people handle those crises? How did people in positions of leadership take the lead in successfully continuing with daily life during uncertain times? Finding increased information through my research gave me the tools at times to apply to my daily job to successfully overcome the obstacles created by this pandemic. Finding creative ways to motivate people came from the firsthand documents of colonial governors, generals, mercantile traders, and local leaders. I used this during work nights to stress the “unique opportunity” that my employees had to continue to financially provide for themselves and accentuate the role they played in bringing essentials to a world where most people could not, in an attempt to galvanize a reluctant team to barrel through one wild, uncertain, and, on occasion, ferociously demanding night after another. It became easier to motivate a team to accomplish an objective over time. My personal dealings however, sometimes weighed heavily.

Having family that lives in New York and New Jersey brought a fear I did not experience in Texas. That area became the epicenter for the pandemic and knowing loved ones resided in a dangerous place sometimes knocked my focus off course. I also had to consider the possibility that I myself would become infected with the virus. Leading a crew of 20 people and working in a facility with double that number put me in a very susceptible situation to catch the virus. With a highly diverse team of employees from all across the metroplex, the potential for infection remained high. Having to go to work five days a week required the ability to shut those thoughts out and focus on the task at hand. Staying physically active in a fast-paced environment made that doable. Attempting to do my research and sit in front of a computer proved a far greater challenge. Trying to assemble and focus my thoughts and attention on reading and writing left many avenues to wander into external questions. How is my family doing in New York? What if someone at work tests positive for the virus? Have I myself contracted the virus? Without a campus or library to go to, finding a way to break these thoughts became imperative. Simple things such as going to another room, going outside on my balcony, or driving somewhere and researching from my car broke the monotony that caused these thoughts to dwell. It became essential to accomplishing my research and schooling over the last few months.

As life has begun to return to normal here, the ability to focus more on research without the distractions has increased. Work has become busier and the initial fears that existed at the beginning are subsiding. These positive developments have reinvigorated my desire to research with more tenacity than before. However, the events that occurred over the last several months also brought about new ways to view my schooling and research, as well as succeed in my job, and I have learned new tactics to find ways to accomplish my daily objectives despite the unforeseen events the world may throw my way. I hope my experiences will help and inspire others in similar situations going forward.

[Matthew Veith is an MA student at the University of Texas at Dallas.]

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