The COVID19 pandemic hit all of us differently. Staying away from home and family has been incredibly hard on all students, but especially international students who may need to go an extremely long time before seeing family. In this post, educational psychology PhD student Ananya Tiwari shares what keeps her going amid the COVID-19 pandemic while far from home.
My home country, India, is fighting COVID in a manner that is very different from the United States. I share this concern with many of my Indian friends that to be safe in India largely depends on the action of our own family members. The government machinery is under immense pressure and has not been able to respond to the rising public needs in the wake of the pandemic. In addition to these worries, COVID-19 has brought incessant personal losses for me.
It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of all of these challenges and losses. As a culmination of everything, the question that bothered me often was “what is the meaning of the work I am trying to do here”? Or does it have any meaning at all? Personally, academic prowess means little if it doesn’t solve real life problems or help people in some way. One really questions the value of a PhD if it is stuck between the pandemic, lack of funding, broad global crises, change in research directions and not being with family – something that disturbed me immensely during this time.
Finding Ways to Keep Going
Meaning through Service
Victor Frankl has talked about the importance of having a purpose in life that adds meaning to it. It is similar to the existentialist Buddhist philosophy that acknowledges that everything in this world is inherently meaningless and is never stable; one has to add meaning to objects, experiences and life itself. Both these sources have helped me survive and develop my own understanding around the pandemic and its impact. Frankl states that everything can be taken from a (wo)man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
For me, this was SwaTaleem but more importantly – the idea it stands for. In this nonprofit organization I cofounded, we work to enhance educational outcomes for young girls prone to early marriage. COVID19 hit this community of girls in ways unimageable for us. I can always come back to my research if there is a gap or disruption – it doesn’t mean the same thing for them. In communities where child marriages are high, disruption in education means never coming back to school; it means getting married. The residential schools where we work in have been shut down and girls have been sent back home. Online education does not work in these settings. Even having a phone in a household doesn’t guarantee that a girl can access it. Being at home now, simply means a higher likelihood that the family will marry them off as a liability. In fact, a recent UN report suggests that COVID will push 13 million more girls into child marriage.
The challenges that these girls face are much more serious than mine. In fact, if one looks closely at this community, they carry out negotiations each day fueled by resilience and resistance. What a pride it is to work for and with these girls! And it is simply this that has kept me going. Each day I get up and, pausing my own ‘research,’ try to assemble some solutions for this complex social but very real problem with equally committed and passionate people in India.
It just gives a bigger meaning to my pursuit of a degree, to the research I do, to the truth I seek and to my life.
Through this work, I have realized that when you work for others, your problems seem small – always – and it somehow propels you to do better. Because there is a bigger driving force that makes you work harder.
Building on the previous point, I want to highlight a larger angle on getting perspective in life. When I read the news on the migrants in India, the Amphan cyclone in South East Asia – the strongest in a decade, the COVID hit populations in Illinois around me – the majority of whom are Blacks and Latinas and the collective resistance in the George Floyd case - it humbles me. It gives me perspective as well as a deep sense of gratitude to not just what I have but also to what some of my people all over the world are facing. I have food, shelter, work to do, a salary and a loving partner – this has been more than enough for me to sail through and with empathy.
My husband and I spent the last year and a half apart before he could come to America from India. He arrived at the beginning of the year, before travel restrictions were put in place. During the pandemic, we were together, and it was truly a blessing. We also had a close friend of ours who stayed with us during the pandemic. Having this support system in place made so many things lighter for us to absorb-in as a collective. Sharing meals and conversations brought us closer but also lessened the daily impact of what each one of us was going through. Also, its encouraging how some of the faculty have taken active roles and stepped up to work in collaboration during this time to create an environment of support for us.
I will end with Hope – one of the most important qualities that keeps us going through the darkest times in our lives and what it means to me as an Indian international graduate student.
I always think of the time when one day, soon enough:
I will be able to go back to India in December and breathe its air and listen to the chaos on the roads;
That I will be able to eat Chaat and Samosa and Masala Dosa;
That I will be able to see the girls back in school and ask how school is going and what they want to be in life?
That I will be able to meet and talk to the teachers on cold sunny mornings in Haryana about what we can improve in our program;
That I will be able to discuss program strategies with the team members while planning what to cook together in the evening (yes that’s how work happens in remote areas);
That I will be able to see and touch and play with my dogs and hug them like I want to now;
That I’ll be able to cycle on the busy roads of my hometown and have Chai with my mother in the evenings.
Our life gives us few chances where we can truly change what we believe in and what we do. Maybe this is one such chance and this ‘Hope’ can help us choose the right path.
Disclaimer: The views are personal.
You can read the complete version of this post on the APA Grad Psych Blog.
Ananya Tiwari is a doctoral student in educational psychology and the Program Coordinator for the Graduate Evaluation Diversity Internship (GEDI) program with the American Evaluation Association (AEA). She uses developmental psychology to study socio-emotional (SE) skills at the intersection of poverty and gender. Ananya is also the co-founder of the SwaTaleem Foundation that works with rural adolescent girls in India to enhance the educational outcomes through SE skills and human-centered design.