Admitted: Spring 2020

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 day I found out that I would be starting graduate school is still a vivid memory for me. I was working at an elementary school as a classroom assistant and checked my phone to see a new email admitting me to Claremont Graduate University. My wife and I had prepared for this opportunity for some time. We had moved to Claremont, not far from the university in hopes of my admittance, and we had saved in order to allow me to quit my job and focus simply on my education. In early January, I quit my job and dedicated myself full time to my studies.

I started graduate school with all of the hopes and dreams associated with beginning a new experience. I dreamt of an experience that would enrich my mind and also prepare me for future endeavors as a university-level educator. I quickly realized, however, that this experience would be challenging for a number of different reasons. Building a community in graduate school has been incredibly difficult. I had hoped to meet others with similar research focuses but found that my area of interest, the first Black Congressmen and their contributions as politicians during Reconstruction, was foreign to those in my classes. Their research focuses were foreign to me as well. In addition, the workload of my graduate school classes took some getting used to. Eventually I found a groove. I kept up with my studies and even won a monetary award that would allow me to do archival research this summer. As I was beginning to plan my trip this summer, as well as getting ready for Spring Break, everything changed.

In mid-March, other Claremont colleges began to go online due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. What would happen at CGU in the future began to become a topic of conversation in my classes. We discussed options for continuing the semester in my classes, and as my fellow students called for in-person classes to continue, I found myself unable to speak my truth. I was in the minority, hoping that classes would go online. This is because I live with diabetes and if I were to contract COVID-19, I would be at risk of complications that could potentially be fatal. I found myself wondering what my options would be if my school decided to continue in-person classes. Would I have to go into class and risk my health? Would my professors be understanding? Would I need to drop classes in my first semester of graduate school? Ultimately, my school chose to go online, like so many others did, and while I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to choose between my health and my education, the weight of the past few months has been heavy.

While going online solved one problem related to COVID-19, not having to risk my health in order to attend class, the isolation from the community has become worse during this time. During the remainder of the semester I found myself walking my dog (with a mask on), reading for my courses, writing for my courses, getting on Zoom class meetings, and generally feeling even more isolated than I had before. Zoom was not exactly the conduit through which one could find friends and colleagues. And with all events on campus being canceled, I found myself with few options to be social.

While my wife and dog have been invaluable company throughout this ordeal, I can’t help but feel incredibly isolated throughout this time period. While I have been allowed to focus more on my research and am planning my trip to archives this summer if that becomes possible, I have found the uncertainty to be overwhelming. There is uncertainty surrounding if the Fall semester will be in person or online, there is uncertainty about if I will be able to visit archives this summer, there is uncertainty about if California will reopen, and there is uncertainty about what that would even look like. It seems as if the uncertainty grows by the day, and being an individual with underlying health conditions means that I need to be more careful than others. So here I sit, at home, isolated from the potential of community, one of the major things that drew me to graduate school in the first place, wondering just what the future will hold. The lessons from this time will continue to unfold, and although this is not the graduate school experience I envisioned, I am still grateful for the opportunity to learn both in the classroom as well as outside of it.

[Omari Averette-Phillips is an MA student in History and Archival Studies at Claremont Graduate School in California.]

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