Being a graduate student has never been easy, particularly this last year as we faced different, and sometimes unknown, challenges due to COVID-19. It resulted in many rapid changes for students, with little time to adapt. COVID-19 also presented challenges for the university and college administrators who were looking to provide the best experience to students.
I remember, a few days before the shutdown, I was planning on attending two trips organized by the International Business School, and had been looking forward to them since the beginning of my degree program. Like many other students, I was also anticipating offers for several internships, and two in particular which I would have loved to do, and had managed to get some very good referrals for. Later in March, we started with our first online classes, and we clearly saw our professors trying hard to keep the same energy as our in-class sessions. I wasn’t thinking too much about the changes to going online in those first few weeks, as everything was being done so that we would be safe and healthy. But, time went by, and we were reading news about the situation worsening, receiving emails about unemployment rising, and, sure enough, by the end of April, I received an email that my internship had been canceled! This left me and my peers unprepared, and unsure about what to do next. Luckily, companies started to pivot too, and I ended up in a wonderful remote internship for a consulting company based in Cambridge, MA.
As we continued to deal with this new reality, here are several lessons I personally have learned so far from this experience. They helped me find positivity and I hope that you can get something out of this too.
First, I had to agree and be honest with myself, that that situation was discouraging. It was not what I was expecting from my university experience and what I had tried so hard to achieve up until that point; applying for internships, networking, sending countless applications and emails. But that was me only for a few moments or days. After that, I had to remind myself of what I really wanted. So I got back on track and tried harder to achieve what I really wanted for my summer. In my case, this was the only chance to have a professional experience in the US, because after my studies I would have to go back to Albania, my lovely country.
Going back to my internship search, I left no stone unturned. Starting from professors, friends, faculty, staff, and others, I reached out and asked for help if I saw an opportunity and they had a connection in that organization. At the same time, I also reached out to my scholarship organization asking for help and to which I am grateful. Due to my visa restrictions, I had to leave the US by the end of May if I had no official engagement during the summer, so I was feeling increasing pressure every day. After several attempts, in the 3rd week of May, I managed to secure an interview and got a remote internship with a consulting firm in Cambridge, MA. I got to learn a lot from the consulting projects I was assigned to, especially one project that was related to the current pandemic. With great odds against my situation, I feel thankful in the end that I kept going as normal, and with confidence can say that there is enough time for the things that we really want and as long as we don’t get discouraged but keep trying hard to get them!
It may get hard sometimes to find concentration and peace of mind, keeping us sometimes unmotivated to effectively do things, so it is important to take some breaks, go for a walk and really enjoy it – at the same time we maintain good health. Of course, staying healthy requires getting enough sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Waltham is a very calm and safe city and offers many opportunities for students to have a good time. I myself enjoyed a walk by the river as it is quite a view, and also visiting the restaurants on the famous Moody St.
Something we need to pay close attention to during these times is our health, of course. While we stayed indoors a lot, we became inactive and that is not good. We needed to find a way to workout even though we might not find all the usual ways to do so and that we are accustomed to. Not only will it be more important (as many of us self-isolate) to look after your physical health so that your immune system is strengthened, but in fact, exercise is also important for boosting your mood. I myself used to go running several times a week during summer by the river and in the nearby parks. And as school started online this Fall, the university had so carefully organized gym times and space for students to feel safe while working out. That shows how important this really is and the school is clearly supporting us on that. Anything you are having difficulties with, just reach out in school and you will definitely find support.
I am going to stop on the “time” aspect again, as we always say that we would wish for more time and that we never have enough. I think, at least during this period, we had more than enough time! More than enough to do many things we had left behind and also do new ones. Our everyday routines have adjusted during this time, so look for healthy ways to adapt your usual habits and form new ones. Personally, while doing my internship during the summer, I kept doing online training as well as so many websites were offering free content, especially for students to learn new and valuable skills during the lockdown. Brandeis offers LinkedIn Learning for free to students, and I did many courses there. Many useful courses are offered by Coursera and edX as well, which I would suggest to students to utilize. There is so much to learn out there and we can make the most out of it now that we have the chance to do so. And also, very important, while we know it is essential to practice social distancing and self-isolate right now, finding time to connect with family and friends virtually is now more important than ever. It helps us feel better and be more effective.
While it is nice to attend lectures, engage with the professor and other students, it was even easier to procrastinate now that classes were online. This could be a particularly challenging time if you’re prone to procrastinating and getting distracted. You have to work on computers so it’s easy to have distractions open. Make sure to take extra care to set firm boundaries around this – try disabling certain apps or setting timers, taking off email alerts, or setting time limits for self-care activities. I found it helpful trying to keep in touch with my classmates to help keep each other on pace. If you usually touch base during class or group projects, consider a quick text on your group chats about progress every couple of days. Ideally, have real conversations over video any week you’re working together. It is up to us to keep ourselves and each other going strong. Think about what kind of environment helps you study. If you usually study in a coffee shop or the library at school, see if you can recreate that at home. I find it very important to close distracting tabs and apps while watching video lectures. We need to be aware of what distracts us and what helps us focus, and then actually focus on what is needed! There is enough time to relax and watch Netflix and be more organized at the same time. Acknowledge and validate your thoughts and feelings, as we reminded ourselves to stay on track each day.
Lastly, I would like to emphasize the importance of networking during these times. The number and type of work-study positions will vary greatly from the past, depending on closures in the local areas, the nature of available jobs, and whether students will be on campus or not. It might be true that connecting with potential employers is hard online when trying to make a good impression and when looking for opportunities with the organization. But it was, and still is, important to not let that hold you back, as organizations understand the situation well themselves too. Take this chance to reach out more online to prospective recruiters, and learn to be comfortable doing that online, and accept the situation. Those recruiters are professionals and understand what it takes for us to apply for jobs and do interviews online. We have to be smart and start looking early for opportunities, some for a summer internship and others for full-time employment after graduation. So why not take this opportunity to establish a professional, personal online brand that you would be proud for prospective employers to see. Of course, the Career Strategies Center will help support you in doing this even before you join the International Business School!
We know that discussing future careers during a global pandemic isn’t ideal, but with empathy, resourcefulness, and communication, you can find constructive career advice by just reaching out and staying engaged. There are many resources available from the International Business School and outside for us to do that. I myself started with the ones that the career office suggests, attended those conferences presented to us, went to the speakers from whom I could learn and created new connections, and never stopped looking for further opportunities.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed here belong solely to the author.
©️ Selim Blliku, MIP fellow, MBA at Brandeis University, Boston