My Experience as ______ at MIIS

We typically present personal stories and experiences of community members in this section. In this issue, we hear from a variety of students, faculty, and staff about their experience during the pandemic. We feature responses from students Layisha Paerhati, Isabel Zaragosa, and Chetna Aggarwal; professors Wallace Chen, Jeff Knopf, and Scott Pulizzi; and staff members Rachel Christopherson, Patricia Szasz, and Carolyn Taylor Meyer.

As a student, faculty or staff member, what specific concerns have you had related to the Covid 19 pandemic?

​Layisha Paerhati (IPD 2020): “As an international student who is graduating in May, my concern is related to my visa status and job applications. (I believe this is what most international students are concerned about). Also, we are locked down in a foreign country and some of them may be blocked from re-entering the US, which adds to another layer of stress.”

Isabel Zaragosa (IEP 2020): “I was initially bothered by the uncertainty of graduation, the quality of education that I feel I am no longer getting, and the amount of credit hours that I am losing.”

Chetna Aggarwal (TLM 2020): “As a student, I was not sure what to expect after the decision to move everything online was made. I was concerned that the quality of my education would suffer because of it, but I was also aware that there was no other option and I should be grateful for having the opportunity to continue and complete my degree. Furthermore, I was not sure how the pandemic would affect my life after graduation in May 2020. As an international TLM student, I had to decide if I want to stay in the United States for as long as I can and find a job here, or go back home to Switzerland. The localization landscape in California is completely different and I would have wanted to spend more time here, get more work experience and explore all of my options.”

Wallace Chen (Professor, TI): “Academic continuity, interaction with students and colleagues, uncertainty about the Institute’s future.”

Jeff Knopf (Professor NPTS): “As a faculty member, I’ve had a lot of the same concerns as everyone else. My own health and the health and safety of family and loved ones. Whether MIIS would stay open or close, and how we would support moving instruction online. Whether or not I would be able to access my office if needed. How well our internet infrastructure will perform. I’m also the NPTS program chair, and that adds another layer of concerns. Will all the faculty teaching in my program be able to make the move successfully to online instruction? How will this work for our students? How are our students holding up in the new circumstances and how do we keep track of any potential issues? There are also future-looking concerns. Will we be able to open up again in the fall? How will this affect MIIS finances and future enrollments?”

Scott Pulizzi (Visiting Associate Professor, DPP): “I am most concerned that existing social and health vulnerabilities will be exacerbated.”

Rachel Christopherson (Program Manager, Center fro the Blue Economy): “I am most concerned with my beloved friend and neighbor who is 90.   She is a wealth of humor, experience, and perspective, and I so miss our weekly dinners together.  She still drives and does all her own housekeeping and shopping, and yet she does not seem to take the epidemic that seriously—I know we all die,  but to lose her to an epidemic like this would be such a tragedy.  Time together is more precious than anything.”

Patricia Szasz (Associate Dean for Language and Professional Programs): “My biggest concern is the emotional toil the pandemic is taking on our community. We all seem to be on an emotional rollercoaster, and without the ability to rally around each other in person, it’s difficult to support friends, family and colleagues who are going through tough times emotionally.”

Carolyn Taylor Meyer (Director of Immersive Professional Learning): “I’m worried about preventative care being delayed/ignored locally. At the global level, I’m worried that the world isn’t working together. No one seems accountable. Also, there has been no discussion of preventing a potential COVID-20. Nature doesn’t stagger its pandemics. Human-animal interactions seem to be posing a problem to humanity.”

How have your concerns been addressed or not addressed during this period?

Layisha Paerhati: “In terms of legal concerns, the school’s international service (especially Kelly) has been very helpful and has regularly provided us with the most recent updates. I completely understand that many questions are hard to answer because of the uncertainty. So, I have been showing my understanding and try to keep track of the latest news. In terms of job applications, I would have to say it is more or less the same case.”

Isabel Zaragosa: “However, those things are situations no one can control. Social distancing is necessary to control the spread of COVID. I am mainly bothered that MIIS is such an expensive institution, but the student body is not getting the semester’s worth of the credits that we are paying for. I don’t think that staff and faculty are really grasping the concept that many of us are going to walk out of this institution with over 100k in debt. We are taking on a huge financial burden expecting to get a quality education in return. I don’t think that there is much conversation on a breakdown of what is happening with our tuition dollars during the COVID crisis. The student body needs financial transparency especially in times like these.”

Chetna Aggarwal: “After having completed my first online class, I have to say that I was impressed by how well our professors had adapted their courses to the new online environment. I also appreciated the positivity of faculty members and their concern about our well-being. I did not think that online classes could be as interactive as they have been and even if it is not easy to stare at a screen all day long, I am sure it could be a lot worse. As for the situation after MIIS, I think that CACS addressed our concerns and pushed us to apply for jobs. Personally, the pandemic gave me a lot of time to reflect on what I really want to do after MIIS. Even if I know companies are still looking to employ people, I do not think that most jobs out there are for students who just completed their degree, but for professionals with more experience. It has not been easy and figuring out the next steps is a big challenge. A lot of international students need to decide if they want to stay in the United States or go back to their home country. The job market is not great, no matter where we are. But I think it is up to us to decide upon our next steps and figure out how we want to deal with the current pandemic.”

Wallace Chen: “Many of my concerns cannot be addressed easily given these difficult times. I’m getting used to all the changes and don’t expect them to be addressed effectively in the near future.”

Jeff Knopf: “​Mostly yes. I think communication from the administration has been reasonably timely and clear. I give a major shout out to the people in DLINQ, who have provided amazing support for faculty in making the transition to online instruction. Probably the hardest challenge has been figuring out how to stay in contact with students who might be struggling in the new circumstances. I don’t think we have done as well as we could have at all staying connected.”

Scott Pulizzi: “I am afraid that things will get worse before they can get better.”

Rachel Christopherson: “All of us are dealing with uncertainty, but overall I think MIIS/Middlebury has been as forthright as possible, up front about the finances and prospects.  I appreciate that.  I’ve been able to fully adjust to work from home, and have been given every resource to make that happen.”

Patricia Szasz: “There’s a level of uncertainty that means no one has a clear picture of what the future holds for us. My personal strategy is to try to take things one day at a time. I’m so impressed by the professionalism and commitment of the staff and faculty who are supporting the institution and our students in unprecedented ways. While the COVID crisis has been distressing, I’ve never been more certain of the values we share as a community. The Student Emergency Fund that was quickly set up was just one example of how the community has responded to support those in need.”

Carolyn Taylor Meyer: “My concerns have been addressed in the workplace. I thought the Monterey County Health Dept. lost some esteem by focusing their recent order so heavily on golf access. This made it seem a bit political or potentially motivated by special interests rather than public health interests.”

What else would you like the school to do?

Layisha Paerhati: “I know that the school also has been facing unique challenges. In order to better understand the needs of the students and faculty, I think the school can send out more need assessment surveys.”

Isabel Zaragosa: “Honestly, I don’t know however else we would deal with this situation. I have noticed some professors are not adapting their classes very well to the current state of events. I think many of us need to be more empathetic to others’ situations. Everyone is trying to deal with this pandemic differently. Some days I want to hear nothing of COVID, other days I want to know every detail. Some days I want to talk to everyone on Zoom, others I can’t even turn on my camera because I can’t stop crying. It’s a hard time for many of us. It’s an emotional roller coaster every day. Some of us are alone, others are stuck in a toxic environment. I think trying to normalize the world and adapt it to work online is the best we can do at the moment. It’s also important to remind ourselves too that even though the world is pretending to function as usual it’s okay if we don’t. We need to remind ourselves that the person on the other side of the screen is also trying their best to just cope.”

Chetna Aggarwal: “I think the pandemic was a surprise for everyone and adjusting to the current situation was not easy for anyone. I appreciate that the school offers various workshops for students to seek guidance/help if need be and also promotes various events such as movie nights for instance. I cannot think of anything that should have been/be done differently.”

Wallace Chen: “Ensure academic continuity and keep the Institute operational.”

Jeff Knopf: “​MIIS is trying very hard, but ideally I would like to see more innovations to address student anxieties and the disruption experienced. Some new and different things that can be offered to students that would partially substitute for some of the opportunities being lost.”

Scott Pulizzi: “Our students have been great, resilient; they need continued support to succeed.”

Rachel Christopherson: “I think the school is doing what it should—putting the health and safety of the students/faculty/staff first, and dealing realistically and transparently with the financial fallout.   I think the approach so far, from the early call to cancel classes to keeping staff off-site have been good.  I’ve been able to visit my office to get supplies needed, and was really proud when they announced the “hours-bank” for those not able to keep up with full time work.  From planning an online graduation to every detail of three possible return to work scenarios—I don’t think there is anything else I would want from the school administration at this time—wish them luck—that is a lot to keep in balance.”

Patricia Szasz: “As a member of the Institute Council, I have two main commitments. One is to ensure timely communication. Sometimes we don’t have “new” information to share, but as everyone shelters in place, it’s important to keep in touch with our students, staff and faculty. Secondly, I continue to seek ways to support our community emotionally. That might be as simple as checking in by phone or text with a colleague or reminding people about the wellness resources available through our Employee and Family Assistance and Student Assistance Programs.”

Carolyn Taylor Meyer: “I would like the school to involve everyone in some form of committee to work on an operational or academic issue related to COVID-19. Right now, the decision-making seems stuck at the top. I realize everyone is busy, but assign people to some group unless they object and task that group with addressing some issue related to MIIS and COVID-19.”

What is something fun or morale-boosting you’ve done during this period of social distancing?

Layisha Paerhati: “I have definitely started to cook more and have organized virtual happy hours or game nights with friends. Also, I do virtual study groups with my friend to motivate each other to do work at home.”

Isabel Zaragosa: “I’ve been reading a lot and I started journaling again, mainly for mental health purposes but I’m glad it’s something that I’m doing again. I feel like I’ve been growing in a lot of areas that I wanted to grow in but hadn’t necessarily made a priority. I’ve also been gardening a lot and making yummy things in the kitchen.”

Chetna Aggarwal: “I love the ocean, it is the place I go to when I need a break or if I need to reflect on whatever it is that crosses my mind. I grew up in a landlocked country and just seeing how big and wide the water is, is incredibly calming. I occasionally go out rollerblading or join a friend or two to go out on walks. As long as I get to be outside for a bit, I am happy!”

Wallace Chen: “Meditation, jogging, spending time with family.”

Jeff Knopf: “​Trying to get outside for hikes and bike rides, though not always to do this in ways that are compatible with social distancing requirements. Also started watching some TV shows I’d never seen — currently getting addicted to The Expanse.”

Scott Pulizzi: “Teaching Spintensive remotely–the students were engaged and produced good work. That really boosted my morale.”

Rachel Christopherson: “A friend/neighbor had a birthday in early April—my husband and I walked down the street dressed in silly hats, feather boas, carrying drums and a birthday banner.   We stood across the street from his house and made a bunch of noise. We stretched the birthday banner out between us.  It was a social distance celebration, brief but cheerful—and I hope we brightened his day—certainly brightened ours!”

Patricia Szasz: “Of course, I’ve taken part in my fair share of Zoom happy hours to connect with friends and colleagues. But even these can take their toll if you’ve been on Zoom all day. One of my favorite things is sharing funny memes and videos with friends to try to lighten the mood. Getting outside in nature with my dog, to a beach or to a park, also really helps remind me that there’s a big beautiful world out there.”

Carolyn Taylor Meyer: “I’ve spent a lot of time with my senior dog!”