For prospective graduate students or those attending the Texas Tech Graduate School, education amid the pandemic can face a variety of changes moving forward.
Graduate School Dean Mark Sheridan said they realized in March there would be a significant disruption for graduate students because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When COVID-19 cases started appearing in Lubbock in the spring, Sheridan said he and his colleagues from other Big 12 schools had conversations about alternative credit for coursework and discussed the subject of credit versus no credit for the spring semester.
“I also decided to hold in abeyance any suspension or terminations for spring and summer because of the disruption,” he said.
There were very clear signals of stress associated with graduate students who were dealing with all-online instruction amid the closure of campus in the spring, Sheridan said.
Although, whether it be qualifying exams for graduate school or thesis and dissertation defenses, Sheridan said there are some aspects of graduate school education that were required to be completed at a distance.
For prospective graduate students, Sheridan said he relaxed the GRE score requirements for Spring 2019, Summer 2020 and the next academic year.
Because testing centers were closed overseas, Sheridan said there were challenges, as he could not relax the requirements for English proficiency exams. He encourages students to utilize online English proficiency exams, such as Duolingo.
“We definitely relaxed our admission target date for new applications,” he said regarding other changes that were taken for the fall. “We were taking applications up until the day before class started in many cases. In some cases, when there wasn’t room, we pushed those applications to spring.”
Because some programs only have a fall intake, Sheridan said the Graduate School is considering providing a spring or summer intake for those programs to provide as much access to students as possible.
In addition, Sheridan said presentations of thesis and dissertation defenses could see some changes.
“So, that’s what we’re going to do in the fall is we’re going to continue an option for in-person and remote thesis in the state’s defenses,” he said. “But again, this is suggesting that they do the Zoom links for the public presentation.”
When campus closed in the spring due to the pandemic, domestic students were not the only part of the Tech community that faced hardships.
As part of the university’s student population comes from different countries, one may consider the issues that arise with bringing international students to the U.S. and providing as many education opportunities as possible.
When COVID-19 cases started appearing in the spring, Sheridan said there were a number of international students who wanted to go home late spring or early summer because of a variety of reasons.
“This was a concern because we knew that there may be difficulty of them coming back into the U.S. because of travel restrictions that we anticipated that would be put in place, which, as it turned out, did get put in place,” he said. “But also, as it turned out, there were a number of rule changes that were placed on our international students, and so, that was a concern for us.”
Since the university cannot employ students outside of the U.S., Sheridan said the Graduate School tried to make accommodations for international students.
If students were on an assistantship, Sheridan said he asked departments to provide scholarships, so they can maintain their enrollment while abroad.
“Most of the overseas embassies and consulates closed,” he said regarding an issue working with new international students. “So, students could not schedule visa appointments, and those that were sort of, you know, admitted early in planning their visa appointments that they had made were canceled.”
There were about 1,000 newly-admitted graduate students, which consisted of 700 students who were overseas and could not obtain visas, Sheridan said.
Along with the challenge of working with new international students, Sheridan said there were issues with helping new domestic graduate students, as some were reluctant to travel.
Some of these students were on assistantships, Sheridan said. But accommodations were made for these students.
“We left all those things in place, so that students could be assured that when they were able to obtain a visa, their TA would be available for them when they got here,” he said, “and we did honor all of our recruitment scholarships and fellowships for the fall semester, even if they couldn’t be here but required them to enroll online instead of face-to-face.”
As classes were delivered virtually in the spring, graduate students adjusted to a different form of learning. Although, education delivery may not have been the only aspect of graduate school that was affected.
On campus or out in the field, there are a variety of research opportunities that might have faced different issues during the first months of the pandemic.
“Those things that weren’t considered, you know, mission-critical to either the livelihood of the research or the subjects of the research that we would maintain those things for some time after we went to that online-only sort of moving-to-phase-three operational plan,” he said.
In addition to this factor, Sheridan said a student’s research plan was considered when dealing with human subjects or interviews. To avoid any delays in the research progress, amendments were made to certain research plans.
“And then as we went into the summer, it became increasingly clear that we’re going to have to shut down all research,” Sheridan said.
The health and safety of students, faculty and staff was paramount, but the disruption or research activity also was an issue, Sheridan said.
The Graduate School worked closely with the campus research office to work with people dealing with sponsored research and handling the relaxation of certain research requirements.
“This, as it turned out, unfortunately impacted a lot of our international students probably disproportionately that had hourly employment on campus,” Sheridan said. “So, in the beginning of the spring, I and my colleagues, we did a substantial fundraising effort. They call it the Raider Relief Fund, where we appeal to our friends and alumni for contributions to help our students, and this was even before we knew we’re going to get some money through the CARES Act.”
Some good news is that a majority of research activity on campus has resumed this semester, Sheridan said.
“But the approval for restoring research and scholarly activity was predicated on meeting certain standards in terms of personal protective equipment and social distancing standards and so on,” he said.
Around mid-July, applications were able to be sent in to restart research, Sheridan said.
“There was a screening process that reviewed the health and safety plan on restarting the research,” he said, “and then the authorization came by, and then we continued to communicate about all the necessary components to healthy and safe restarted research.”
In addition to studio and lab research, this included field research as well, Sheridan said.