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Defending a Masters thesis during a pandemic

The quarantine has taken something from everyone. For me, it was my defense.

For two and a half years, I was a Masters student that enjoyed her program, but every now and then would daydream about crossing the finish line. I both feared and eagerly awaited the day that I would defend my work to my committee and then share it with colleagues, friends, and family in a public seminar. Many friends who had been through the process themselves told me it was a victory lap and would be the highlight of my degree. I was especially excited because it would be the first time my family would be visiting.

Then, unlucky Friday the 13th arrived. Right in line with the stereotype of Friday the 13th’s being unlucky, things started to spiral out-of-control. A colleague warned me of an email yet to hit my inbox: “Did you see the email? I’m not sure what it means for your defense.” I feared the worst as I quickly walked back to my office. I had just given a practice talk to several colleagues and was gearing up to incorporate their feedback. As soon as I was at my computer I opened my email and clicked “Refresh.” There was nothing. Refresh. Nothing. Refresh. Still nothing. After what felt like an eternity, but in reality was probably about an hour, the email appeared.

Part of the title read, “Cornell suspends class,” and further down in the email, in bold text, “Classes suspended at 5 p.m. today.” While the email did not explicitly mention public seminars or defenses given by graduate students, I knew what lay ahead. My advisor confirmed my interpretation of the email minutes later by stopping by to check on me in my office.

My expectations were shattered. The tears started and I couldn’t figure out how to save face, to be professional. The rest of the day, I tried to distract myself, to push on, to keep working. I couldn’t do it, though. Every time a colleague wanted to touch base the tears would come back.

I was told that my defense was still on, but it would be virtual. There was no reason that I couldn’t successfully cross the finish line. The defense and the seminar could be virtual, that’s the magic of Zoom. But a voice in my head cried out, “But it won’t be the same! It can’t be.”

You may be reading this and think that my reaction is over-the-top and unwarranted. I thought the same thing. Others were losing so much more. For crying out loud, people were losing their lives or their loved one! But there was no denying the loss I felt.

I’m beyond grateful that my network of support, including my partner, friends, family, colleagues, and committee, were there for me. With so much kindness and patience they allowed me to process my emotions and to take the time to make the next decision.

Not only was there kindness and patience, but there was also flexibility. My advisor, committee, and department gave me every and all options available. As I weighed my options the pandemic situation grew more dire not by the day, but by the hour. By the end of the day Sunday (two days after the news), I realized what I wanted to do. Monday night I’d drive down to Maryland to be with my partner. Then, that Friday, March 20th, I would give a virtual public seminar and defense.

Leaving New York for Maryland broke my heart more than I was prepared for. I was already planning to move back to Maryland to start the next phase in my life in August, but that was August. This was too soon, way too soon I thought. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my life, my friends, and my community. But I didn’t have much time at my disposal to process it and I had to get moving.

Once in Maryland, I unpacked, setup a new workspace at my partner’s kitchen table, and got to work creating what I was determined to be the best virtual public seminar there ever was! Even though there was a lot to think about, edits upon edits, and Zoom-friendly modifications to make, at least I wasn’t alone. My advisor had my back. He not only sat through a long practice talk, but also told me not to worry about the Zoom logistics. He’d take care of it. My job was to focus on my talk and the rest would fall into place. I still remember hearing him say that and feeling some of the tension in my shoulders melt away.

Then the day arrived. Even though it was virtual, I still put on my favorite dress and my favorite sweater. I did my hair just right. I could do this.

I logged on early, my advisor quickly followed suit and people started popping up on screen. There were five, ten, twenty-two, thirty-six. Sixty-five? Oh sheez, 79? 80?! Afterwards I was told that with some people coming in and out that the total reached 100, with 98 people watching at any one time. What?! I had never dreamed of sharing my work with so many people! To this day I’m in shock, completely humbled and honored by all those that showed up to support me.

The presentation itself went incredibly well, but I have to be honest it felt weird. For 45 minutes I had a camera to talk to and not the usual encouraging head nods from the audience to let me know that what I’m saying makes sense.

When the talk came to a close, there wasn’t any applause to cue me to take a breath or know that I did a goof job. Instead, I jumped straight into explaining how to ask questions. It took me a second to realize that there was an outpouring of cheers and congratulations going on in the Chat window I had minimized. In the moment, I couldn’t keep up, but was so thankful that the recording of the talk also recorded the chat responses.

Those watching left me speechless and close to tears. Their love and support overflowed! So many people congratulated me over text, voicemail, email, and tweets. Even though there was no celebration that could happen in person, I still felt my community all around me.

This pandemic has created a world in which we are physically isolated from each other, but it has shone a light on the love and strength that exists in our communities. I thought that the pandemic had taken my defense from me. Sure, it wasn’t the day that I had imagined, but instead became something even more beautiful and a memory I’ll never forget.

Featured image is from Pixabay and is used under a Creative Commons License 2.0 (CC BY 2.0).

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