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Career-Building in the Age of COVID

by Mariana Garcia Medina


As a first-generation graduate student, I can't help but feel a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. It's a feeling that doesn’t fade easily, regardless of my accomplishments. The world is facing a pandemic, this country just concluded a long and painful election, my job went online, I had to uproot my life mid-semester and move back into my parent’s house in Oregonand I’m still expected to stay on top of my homework assignments.

Graduate school is challenging, and it makes that clear before you even start. After an exhausting application period, I woke up one day in 2019 to an email notifying me of a decision letter from the University of Southern California. I quickly closed it, fearing the worst, and went to work without reading it. Once I felt I was mentally prepared for rejection, I opened the email and found my acceptance letter and scholarship offer. Instead of celebrating, I kept asking myself “Did they make a mistake?”


But a few months later, I was on a one-way trip to Los Angeles to begin my masters in public policy (MPP) program at one of the nation’s top public affairs schools. I was filled with excitement, but also guilt—for leaving my family behind, for fulfilling a dream that many others had been denied, you name it. But as soon as I stepped foot on campus, there was a sense of pride and determination. I was ready to complete my MPP and gain the skills and knowledge to become a better advocate for my community.


My second semester of graduate school was in full swing when the pandemic hit. I had spent the first semester getting to know the libraries on campus and creating a strong grad school family who cheered me on and cheered me up. I felt like I had finally found my stride, which is why a mid-semester email from University Housing stating that it would be best to move out within 24 hours was so jarring. I immediately bought a ticket back to Oregon, packed my carry-on, and left.


The thrill of my program soon worn off and was replaced by uncertainty, stress, and fear as the COVID-19 pandemic unraveled. My father is diabetic and had been recently diagnosed with kidney disease, automatically placing him in the high-risk category. I worried for him and others like him, but I was still a graduate student, and was essentially given one weekend to process a global pandemic while moving back into my childhood bedroomwhich from then on pulled double (triple?) duty as my classroom, library, and office.


At first, it was nice to be comfortable in class, a blanket over my lap and my cat by my side as I took notes. It was cozy, even though it felt like the world was on fire outside my bedroom. It was no longer just imposter syndrome that would sneak into my thoughts during work and class, it was accompanied by elevated anxiety, fear, and isolation.

2020 failed to faze me, despite everything it threw at us—remember the murder hornets? The rigor of school continued, and Zoom fatigue was real. Staring at a screen for lectures, group work, my internship, and homework began to take a toll. On top of the stress and anxiety I was feeling about graduate school, the pandemic plunged us into an economic crisis, and later that summer the U.S. (finally) woke up to the fact that racial discrimination has plagued this country since its founding. So while nothing in 2020 exactly surprised me, it certainly exhausted me.


This pandemic has not only revealed but exacerbated flaws and blatant injustices in our system. It seems like every day brings a new crisis, even now that vaccination is underway and there's hope on the horizon.


But COVID-19 has brought me one benefitbesides getting to attend class with my cat—in that it has reminded me of why I decided to go to graduate school in the first place: the gaps in the system. There is no space for imposter syndrome to hold me back or distract me when there are more important things to focus on and improve in my community.

I still feel anxiety, fear, and frustration about what is happening in the world. But more important—and more powerful than these negative emotionsis my sense of hope and motivation to continue forward and stand up for what I know to be right.


The end of my graduate program is a few months away. Maybe I’ll have a stage to walk across, maybe it’ll all be on a laptop screen. But either way, I look forward to crossing that finish line, making my family proud, and dedicating myself full-time to my community.


Mariana Garcia Medina is a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Southern California’s Price School for Public Policy. She works as a policy associate at JCI and was previously Office Manager and Policy Assistant for the office of late Portland Commissioner Nick Fish. Mariana holds a BA in Political Science from Portland State University.

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