Pandemic Graduate Student Writing and Transition Support: Reflections and Predictions (Part 2)

Vol. 2, No. 6 (Spring 2021)
Liv Marken, Contributing Editor, CWCR/RCCR

Link to Part I

PART II: Accessibility and Transition

Last week, we heard from Jill McMillan, a Learning Specialist at University of Saskatchewan, and Nadine Fladd, a Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist at the University of Waterloo. They talked about their pandemic year. Here, in part two, they share their thoughts on graduate student transition, and accessibility, particularly in regard to international students.

Liv: Jill, you teach the USask course, Academic Preparation for International Graduate Students. What has it been like helping international graduate students, particularly those who are studying from their home countries, in different time zones?

Jill: When it came to redesigning the course for it to make sense in an online format, I was hyper aware of time zone challenges, and so I made everything asynchronous. At least half of the students who were enrolled in the course were studying in their country of origin. That’s a particular challenge for international students, regardless of undergrad or grad is if courses have been designed with synchronous elements. I’ve certainly heard that from many students identifying that as a particular point of stress. Having that knowledge of the different time zones also informed some of the scheduling of complementary programming. With writing retreats, for instance, or some of the workshops, we were a bit more flexible in terms of offering sessions in the evenings, for instance, or early mornings. And we’ve also been recording a lot of our sessions in a way that we previously hadn’t, which offers students a different way to engage with our workshops

Liv: Nadine, what have you been noticing with international graduate students?

Nadine: A lot of the international graduate students that I work with have stayed in Canada. A lot of them have families, young children, and have decided not to return to their home countries and to spend the pandemic here. But for the sake of accessibility, our initial approach to programming was asynchronous everything. The directive from the university was to prioritize asynchronous delivery of workshops and materials. But students crave that real time connection, in appointments in particular, I think, and so we have some staff who are early risers who have offered early morning appointments to accommodate time zone differences. And we have some really fabulous peer tutors who work evening shifts to make sure that those times are available to students as well.

Liv: And in some ways the pandemic has helped somewhat with making services more accessible to and flexible for some students with disabilities, which incidentally has created some positive impacts for most other students.

Nadine: The interesting corollary for me was that at the beginning of the pandemic, when I was teaching online from my home, I think students being able to get a glimpse into my home life helped to soften that power dynamic that can exist in a formal setting of an office And so, in some ways, it was easier to build relationships with students because I, too, was in a vulnerable position where people were seeing what my home life looks like.And before we all got Zoom fatigue, that was really exciting. I remember how fun it was.

Liv: Can ask about what you’ve both seen in terms of transition for that group of students who’ve had to start graduate school online?

Jill: You’re managing that initial disappointment of “oh, this is not what I really signed up for. This is not the experience I envisioned.” But there’s not the lived experience to compare it with. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if second-year students actually had a bit more of a difficult experience because, yes, they would have those initial connections, but they knew what they were missing out on in terms of the casual conversation that would happen during class and during breaks and in the Tim Horton’s line.

And then, of course, just that different experience, being a Master’s student versus a PhD student, for instance. For a first-year Master’s student, it’s their first experience of graduate school, which can be very overwhelming for anyone during a conventional year compared with the PhD students who will at least have that experience of doing the Master’s degree under their belt. So, I think we’re looking at a situation where we can’t really generalize across those different populations because I think everyone’s grieving different things in terms of what they have imagined what was lost vs. what is known what was lost. It must be a very complicated experience for folks and certainly not one that I would envy.

In next week’s part three, our final instalment, Jill and Nadine look ahead to what they envision keeping and what will be changed in the slow transition back to campus.