Graduate students encounter difficulties after final exams aren’t canceled


Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

Graduate Student Commons. TGS coalition members requested support and institutional equity for marginalized students at a Wednesday town hall.

Yunkyo Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

When Joshua Shelton published a March 16 petition urging the University to extend optional final exams for graduate students, he had already been denied by NU Health Service after suspecting he had COVID-19 symptoms.

The Ph.D. candidate, who suffers from severe asthma, said his condition worsened in the last couple of weeks. When he visited University Health Services to seek a test for COVID-19, he was turned away by the staff because he did not fit the exact prerequisite such as contact with a known carrier and a fever.

Shelton said he administered his own 14-day quarantine at home under University guidelines, but it cut him off from accessing resources at the library necessary to do graduate work. On top of this, he had to take care of his aging parents who are immunocompromised due to their histories with cancer.

“(I’ve) been trying to collaborate with my siblings (who) all live in different parts of the country, so it’s been really difficult to come together and figure out how to best support them,” Shelton said. “The responsibility of caring for elderly parents has been really difficult.”

Shelton’s petition to Provost Jonathan Holloway, Vice Provost for Academics Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, and The Graduate School Dean Teresa Woodruff garnered nearly 350 signatures on the same day it was published. It states the University asked all instructors to make undergraduate final assessments optional, but had not extended this to The Graduate School.

Despite experiencing the same coronavirus-related stress as undergraduate students and additional burdens of taking care of young and elderly family members, work and grading responsibilities, the petition stated, graduate students were not given the same consideration.

“For this reason, it strikes us as an unfair and undue dispensation not to afford to the graduate student body equally,” the petition read.

The petition stated that graduate students are choosing to travel home to be with loved ones and self-isolation guidelines make it next to impossible to access physical course materials to complete graduate responsibilities.

The graduate students are not advocating to be treated equally as undergraduate students, Shelton said, as they understand they have different roles. However, he said it is unrealistic to assume that they would be able to produce rigorous, graduate-level work under such global duress.

In a March 17 email to TGS, Holloway and Interim Provost Kathleen Hagerty wrote that they had read the petition.

“We understand that some of you are angry,” the statement said.

The email added that they still could not grant optional finals because graduate education is complex and cannot be covered under a blanket policy, unlike the undergraduate population. Some graduate disciplines require licensure issued by national accrediting agencies and differing timelines that the University does not have authority over.

Holloway and Hagerty also wrote that they consulted with representatives from schools before deciding that degree programs and instructors have the “greatest expertise to make good decisions” for graduate students. Furthermore, graduate students are not required to take final exams in person and have until the end of Spring Break to complete Winter Quarter assignments.

The response was not satisfying but the reasoning behind it was understandable, TGS student Kate Erskine said. Erskine, who studies screen cultures, said the director of graduate studies for her department gave flexible accommodations for final exams.

Still, Erskine said the emotional burden persisted. She made the difficult decision to not go home to Texas to her elderly father and mother with a chronic illness.

“I didn’t want to infect (my parents) in case I have it,” she said. “Even the mental and emotional burden of that is a lot, and it’s of course really difficult to concentrate on writing a 20-page paper while you’re worried if your father is going to die.”

Erskine said she still wished there was more of a united response between graduate departments on final exam policies. Not giving accommodations, she said, would be an unnecessary punishment to a member of the campus that has already proved their dedication to their academic pursuits.

Karlia Brown, a TGS student from Chicago, said she did not have a lot of tasks to wrap up due to her research assistant activities being halted because of the outbreak. But she will have to provide a lot of care to her family. She is serving as a delivery partner to her sister who is going into labor “any time now” and her son will have surgery next week.

“There’s the added stress of surgery, hospitals, newborn, all of these things with the coronavirus,” Brown said. “A lot of my time is now being spent trying to figure out the best ways to go forward.”

While professors have been understanding, Brown said the University should send explicit recommendations to instructors and departments to consider dismissing finals if not necessary to certification.

Even though the University offered “incomplete” marks for graduate students who do not finish their work by the end of Spring Break, Brown said it was still an unresolved burden as it is unclear when students will be in the right physical and mental state to finish their academic work. There should be options to make this transitional process easier, she said.

“(Shelton) and the folks who helped organize the petition in such a difficult time for all of them as well is really impressive, it’s empowering, it’s a testament to just how grad students are to the Northwestern community and to each other,” Brown said. “I think that’s something that the university should recognize and reward and appreciate.”

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Twitter: @yunkyomoonk

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