Monday, June 29, 2020

The Graduate School Experience I Couldn't Plan For

I knew there would be differences when I completed my time at Saint Anselm College and went to the University of Edinburgh for my master's degree. 

I went from a school less than a two-hour drive from my front door to a school that was founded before The Thirteen Colonies and has a grading system where a 60 is good. The time would also be much shorter as my MSc Creative Writing program only goes from September 2019 to August 2020 with a graduation ceremony in November 2020. After having four years at St. As to build relationships and experience traditions, a year didn't feel like it would be able to offer many extracurricular activities.

Thankfully I was able to prepare for these things before I even applied for my Tier IV Student Visa.

What I wasn't able to prepare for were strikes that would take five weeks away from being in a classroom or a global pandemic that stole another two weeks and made the 3000-mile difference between my home and me feel even further.
The first UCU Strike ended my first semester early, while the second, fourteen-day strike was in the middle of the second semester.  They were undoubtedly inconvenient, but my classmates and I supported our professors by meeting up off-campus and trying to do coursework without an instructor present. The weather during these times was dark and dreary anyway, so not having to walk to class in the rain was a silver lining. We assumed there would be plenty of time in the spring and summer to see each other and explore.

The last day of the strike was Friday, March 13: the same day we got a school-wide email explaining that the remainder of the semester would move online. My classmates and I were devastated. Of course, we knew the coronavirus was spreading, but we hoped it would stay out of Scotland a little bit longer. We only had two weeks left of classroom time.

One class moved to online forums, another had one Zoom call, but canceled the last class, and my workshop met over Zoom without an instructor. Conferences and festivals were canceled. Summer travels became airline vouchers and refunds. My favorite cafes to write in closed indefinitely or switched to takeaway orders only. Instead of my idealized summer of exploring and fiction writing, I got the most out of my monthly rent payments by spending the majority of time in my bedroom.

Thankfully, Edinburgh is beautiful, and I'm not one to waste the opportunity of living abroad. Walks through parks and hills allowed me to practice some of the skills I learned in my Digital Photography class from senior year at St. As. There may not be any available tour guides to give background information at the moment, but there is still plenty to see.
My proudest lockdown accomplishment has to be the anthology publication of From Arthur's Seat Volume V, a tradition for the MSc Creative Writing students to produce. We started the process in the fall and refused to let a global pandemic hold us back. Unable to have a launch party at the local Blackwell's Bookshop, we took advantage of technology and figured out how to host YouTube Livestreams through Zoom.  Although not being able to celebrate together in one room was a disappointment, the Livestreams allowed for family and friends who wouldn't have been in Scotland anyway to hear us read our pieces.

I'm a planner; I always have been, and I expect to remain one.  However, for the past year and a half, I've had to remind myself of the mantra, "Make plans, God laughs." 

During Christmas break of my senior year, I was applying for full-time jobs, and graduate school was a thing other people did. By March, I had an application submitted to the University of Edinburgh, and by Easter, I had accepted my placement. One year later, I was in graduate school, but the world was in lockdown.  
This wasn't the year I anticipated. Nobody did. But as strange as it may seem, given the chance, I wouldn't take it back or redo it. 

I've met amazing people and been able to live in a beautiful city. The time I did spend in a classroom was beneficial and introduced me to a community of writers that I would never have met otherwise. I've discovered a love for Pub Trivia, even if my greatest strength throughout it is coming up with the team name. Terms like "team player" and "adaptable" moved from vague resume boosters I hoped were applicable to me, to skills that shined through when situations called for them.

My graduate school experience came with less classroom time than I predicted, but the year was still full of learning opportunities. After all, I'm leaving here with a Creative Writing degree; any craziness results in more material.

© Juliann Guerra
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