An almost normal first year of graduate school

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on

By Ziyu Lu & Obinna Ukogu

This past year we were first-years in the Department of Applied Mathematics. Our first year of graduate school was by turns exhilarating and exhausting. The coursework challenged us and broadened our skills, we tried out research projects, and grew familiar with our responsibilities as teaching assistants. In many ways, the year seemed quite normal, except that of course it wasn’t. All these experiences were shadowed by the global pandemic. Now we hope to reflect on an extraordinary first year of graduate school. Here are our thoughts on the good, the bad, and the COVID-19.

First, we note that remote learning was surprisingly effective. Instructors quickly adjusted to the realities of remote teaching: recording live lectures (usually), uploading the lecture notes, and having flexible office hours. Yet, as students we missed spontaneous conversations with classmates before and after lectures, the informal discussions with professors in class, and working side-by-side on homework and projects. Despite this, Zoom university had its share of fun times. For instance, Prof. Trodgon’s dog was a regular attendee of the AMATH 586 lectures, and Prof. Greenbaum and Prof. Shlizerman embellished their lectures with oscar-worthy musical scores.

On the flip side, we also had to adjust to teaching remotely. Initially, teaching online limited our opportunities to get to know students and engage them in the course material. For one of us, it even involved a significant time zone difference. It was common for ours to be the only camera turned on during an early morning session, or for a question posed to students to hang awkwardly, unanswered. Gradually, however, we came to appreciate the advantages of online teaching. Zoom made it easy to remember student names and to organize students into breakout rooms, while eliminating early morning commutes to campus to run a quiz section. Additionally, instructors put in extra effort clarifying our responsibilities as teaching assistants. By the end, we had some students requesting our Instagram handles on account of how much they had enjoyed our instruction.

Going into the year, our ability to do research and form working relationships with faculty was our biggest source of anxiety. Neither of us had met any faculty in person, and still haven’t! Most of these fears have been put to rest however. One anxiety-ridden email exchange was usually all it took to set up a short reading project with a faculty member. Research advisors were flexible about scheduling meetings, even accommodating significant time zone differences. Between us, we worked fruitfully with six faculty members over the course of the year. Of course, there were some drawbacks. We couldn’t simply drop in on professors in their offices, attend journal clubs, seminars or group meetings regularly; and collectively we had few opportunities to form informal mentorship relationships with senior graduate students. However, all things considered, we are extremely grateful that our ability to make early progress on research was preserved.

The relative difficulty of building a sense of community during this all-remote period was another major source of anxiety. At the very beginning of the program, we missed the in-person campus visit and what might have been our first cherry blossom sighting at UW. Afterwards, although we met our classmates in Zoom lectures and virtual study groups, we missed the experiences of sharing an office with our fellow first-year students, having small talk around the proverbial watercooler, or taking coffee breaks together. Socializing was especially hard for those of us in different time zones from Seattle, as game nights and happy hours became “game dawns” and “sleepy hours” in the early morning. Still, we recognize and appreciate the effort made by our faculty, staff, GSRs, and student club leaders to organize social events, from the student mentorship program for first-years, to departmental tea time in the virtual Lewis lounge, to a virtual baking competition, to SIAM discussions, and to the Make Someone’s Day initiative. 

All in all, we are proud to be part of this warm, creative, and resilient community. As a new academic year approaches, we are eager to work and study in Lewis hall, to see our classmates when they are not in pajamas behind cameras, to explore the city of Seattle, and to feel the rain.

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