The biggest lesson I learned being a graduate student this year has been that flexibility and adaptability are essential skills we must foster. Adaptability has never been so important because we all had expectations that needed to be adjusted. When I was in college, I put a lot of pressure on myself to choose a career that I would stay in forever. I envisioned a plan for my life and expected to execute it flawlessly. Although my path was certainly not perfect, I thought it was what I wanted. I held on to my ideal vision but no longer felt as passionate about it. I was so focused on one career that I ended up limiting my opportunities.
When I began graduate school again in 2020, I did not expect a global pandemic a month and a half into my program. Going back to school at almost 28 and dealing with a pandemic challenged how I viewed education. The five-year gap between my two master's programs required more adaptation than I initially thought. My writing felt rusty, and I was not used to being graded on my work. I had to adjust to attending classes and completing schoolwork again. My work felt never-ending, even if the actual workload was reasonable.
I was confronted with my previous school-related perfectionist tendencies. As an "older" student, I needed to reevaluate my approach to learning. I learned that it is more important to truly understand the material than worry over a grade. That may seem obvious, but we are taught how important our grades are to success. At 29, I remind myself that I cannot define my intelligence or worth on a course grade. Building competency in my future profession is more meaningful and valuable. I re-prioritized my educational goals for learning over perfection because extra stress is built in from all of us worrying about health, money, and family.
Self-compassion proved invaluable to succeeding in graduate school during a pandemic. It was challenging to let go of my expectations for this year and how my education was supposed to look. We all had to be flexible this year, and flexibility can be difficult. It is not easy to completely change your work or school environment and deal with health and safety concerns. I had to remind myself of the organization tips I so often taught other students. It is hard to disconnect from pressures to succeed, but it is okay to struggle with focus and motivation right now.
The increase in virtual experiences led to my volunteering with NASPA, which has been a great way to involve myself in student affairs as a graduate student. I am not inherently skilled in networking and need to push myself to be involved in professional organizations. I typically feel pressure to use social media and other networking sites or events the same way as everyone else. Websites like LinkedIn should connect people, not create extra stress or comparison. You can create your own terms for how you want to use it, rather than feeling pressure to spend every day interacting with people. We live in a society used to instant gratification but do not forget the boundaries you need for your mental health.
Author: Ilana Wolf (she/her/hers) is a graduate student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is currently the New Jersey representative for the Region II NPGS KC. Ilana loves coffee, Netflix, and being an aunt.