Scholars Share Their Pandemic Stories

illustration of people at home, work, and school

Illustration by Elizabeth Landt

We asked for stories on how the pandemic and/or political and cultural unease around the world has impacted your life and below are some of the stories we received. Though we are not publishing all stories, we are reading them and taking in your experiences and feedback to help shape programmatic planning.

We would love to hear from you, so share your story with us.

A Senior Year Defined by Knowledge

Roddy Biggs

Biggs wearing a mask in a parkAs someone who is finishing up an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies with a minor in Sociology at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) before starting seminary where I plan to enroll in the M.Div. program, the pandemic has dramatically impacted my academic experiences, my personal life, and my ministry work.

I had hoped to spend my last year of undergrad in the classroom with my fellow peers and scholars as I have for the previous two years at MTSU. However, as classes moved online suddenly last spring and news of the pandemic continued to come in, the reality of doing so became less and less. As such, I will be spending the fall semester mostly online meeting only over Zoom with my peers and faculty, fully aware that this reality might also be the case in the spring, thus making my last year of studies at MTSU one done almost entirely away from my beloved campus community.

As for my work outside the classroom, I have been blessed in that I have, for the most part, not been without work as I have had many an opportunity to lead paid, virtual worship services on Sunday mornings for Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country during this time of pandemic uncertainty. Because of the pandemic, I have been granted opportunities that I would not have otherwise had, and for that, I am grateful. Also, because of this pandemic, I have had time to make time for my own mental and spiritual health, something for the longest time that, unfortunately, due to a hectic schedule like many, got neglected.

As the world continues to face a global pandemic, police violence, and systems of racism, the future of my generation becomes less clear, but one thing that does remain clear and defined is that of knowledge. The knowledge that I have gained as a Religious Studies Student, the knowledge that I will take with me as I continue my education in my degree program, and the knowledge that I, after all of this is said and done, will be able to say to future generations lived. However, a time of pandemic gives me hope for my future as I look forward to what might come next both for myself and the world all around.

The Disappearance of Study Abroad

Andrew Boyd

A year ago, I was recovering from an intensely busy academic year. 

In 2018-2019, I had taught a total of 17 full credit classes. Nine of those had been in the spring semester. This is a little higher than usual, but not by much. Nearly all of my colleagues teaching in international programs here routinely teach six or seven classes each semester, out of necessity. Adjunct pay is clearly about 1/3 what it should be. 

Seven of those seventeen were for one employer, The Catholic University of America, who thanked me for my six years of teaching and advising, marked by my willingness to go above and beyond in teaching new classes, teaching outside my field to cover for administrative failures, and even taking on extra classes in the first week of the semester... by not renewing my contract without notice or explanation. My immediate supervisor was as confounded as I was. No one 'back home' would even acknowledge my inquiries. Nothing but positive evaluations had preceded it. I simply have no explanation for it. 

A whole new level of imposter syndrome creeps in: "What could I possibly have done that was so bad that they won't even tell me what happened? That they act like I don't exist now?" Déjà vu to middle school!

So, I entered 2019-2020 with half my usual work and income, and the insecurity and lack of closure one gets from being inexplicably—unethically—ghosted.

As spring 2020 began, I still had a seriously reduced course load: only four classes and J-term. I felt like an unemployed bum. 

On Saturday 29 February, I was scheduled to take two classes to visit the catacombs of Priscilla and then the Grand Mosque. At a little past midnight that morning, the program that operated our study abroad program sent out an email to the students (but not the faculty) notifying them that the program was cancelled and they were being sent home. I arrived at our meeting point to find three empty vans and 90% of my students responding they were not coming because of the announcement (that I had not yet seen). 

We, too, went to online teaching mid-semester, but with students coming from multiple time zones, all of which at least six hours different than mine, synchronous live classes proved impossible. 

Except in one case, mostly older students. Nothing lifts the spirits like a 60-something Scotsman who can't figure out Zoom for the third week in a row, let me tell you! 

After the intensity of prepping asynchronous learning materials mid-stream and trying to track down a couple of my better students suddenly off the grid, sudden silence. All summer programs were cancelled. All fall classes, cancelled.

While I have been watching colleagues stateside complain about having multiple conditions and back up plans, about whether campus is open or closed, and preparing to teach online, mixed, and in person... we have nothing. 

Obviously, there's no study abroad right now. Few international students are coming in to the Roman institutions. But that means no classes—not even online, because how do you put study abroad online? And even the courses that could well be done without the unique local components, we are already doubly "out of sight and out of mind," thousands of miles from home campus and contingent. 

So, no work since early May, and as of right now, it looks like Fall 2021 might be the first opportunity for more. Time to get writing done, but guess how quickly you are dropped from online database access when you have no active contract?

Strength In Togetherness

Lily An Kim

Kim standing in a room with healthcare workers who are giving a thumbs-up and standing in front of bagged lunches.Relationships are key to survival in a crisis.

Inspired by a Holocaust survivor named "Kitty," during the pandemic I responded by encouraging community in three ways: ensuring safety for the vulnerable; mobilizing a wide circle of support; and importantly, connecting solitary individuals, i.e. widow(ers).

Loneliness during the pandemic triggered memories of trauma and the Holocaust, as survivors like Kitty recalled being forced into hiding from Nazi persecutors who murdered their families. Over the past decade, while chairing Holocaust Education Week and facilitating Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto, I had developed a friendship with Kitty, as with dozens of survivors of atrocity (originally from Europe, Rwanda, or First Nations reserves). I sent each of them a "survival kit" list, informing them about COVID-19 and its dangers. Because most widows live alone, my daily "work" grew into an unanticipated routine: checking in with survivors like Kitty; asking if they had any emergent needs; and also, contacting organizations or corporations that might help.

Because PPE such as facemasks were in exceedingly short supply—even at the hospital where my husband works, I personally ordered whatever was available, and also, requested donations from pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies. Honda responded by sending the hospital a shipment of PPE, plus $500,000 to be spent on emergency healthcare in pandemic. Personally delivering PPE to survivors was my immediate priority, yet I also wondered: What if they might risk their safety and accept invitations to Passover gatherings? I needed to create an alternate plan of engagement. I decided to educate survivors about virtual meetings, which could enable otherwise isolated individuals to feel connected through "Coffee Time with Lily" (mentioned in by Olivia Waxman: "How Holocaust Survivors are Handling Pandemic"). Each week, these survivors thus socialized virtually—first by Zoom, and then with my help, transitioning recently to Google Meet.

When tragedy struck and a nurse in my husband's hospital committed suicide, Kitty was the first person who showed concern. She turned to me and said, "Who else is in a position to do something?" Kitty felt I could use my writing ability to fundraise and prompted a "real achievement" by offering moral support to those who needed it: the frontline workers in my husband's Intensive Care Unit. Three survivors gave what they could afford as the initial "seed" money for my project. Their $50 each grew into $5,000 of community support, which I fundraised from neighbourhood groups via social media.

One week, Christian individuals donated 50 hospital workers' meals; another week, with school contacts or teachers' help, many more were fed. Altogether, we would cover the cost over two months of weekly meals provided to ICUs. My first time, delivering trolleys of bagged soup and sandwiches into the hospital, eyes behind the masks and shields of nurses' faces were lowered as they rushed by in silence. The atmosphere surrounding COVID-rooms was depressing, and staff were afraid to go down and buy food from the cafeteria on hearing reports of coronavirus outbreaks at other institutions.

Week after week, I reported to Kitty that frightened healthcare workers appeared cheerier; they shouted greetings as I delivered meals in accompaniment with my husband to ICU staff rooms. The final delivery included a cake on the hospital's 100-year anniversary, and also, messages of support from the community that I typed out to staff...with an added note about mental help resources for calls of distress. At each step, Kitty demonstrated her belief in me. She cared. There is no end to what one person can achieve with another, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. "Coffee Time with Lily" and survivors like Kitty taught me that true strength is in togetherness.

Finding Hope in Community


As a Taiwanese who has lived in the US for a number of years and who was a part of an African American church, I straddle multiple worlds. 

For the longest time, my heart aches for my homeland for not being able to participate in such international organizations as the UN or WHO. Taiwan exists as a nonbeing. She has a body but without a face. I often said to myself, the reason why Taiwan’s issue is not receiving enough attention worldwide is because not enough blood has been shed.

When COVID-19 hit, all of a sudden, Taiwan received plenty of coverage due to its success story. I said to myself, Taiwan finally received some attention precisely because too much blood is being shed. 

Still, Taiwan was unable to participate in the World Health Assembly that took place in May 2020, although why Taiwan is still not a part of WHO made it to the agenda of the coming WHA meeting. 

It is not so much Taiwan’s technology skills that contributed to Taiwan’s success thus far in fighting against COVID-19, but the survival mentality acquired from 2003 when the country was prohibited from obtaining timely information during the SARS epidemic due to political reasons. The “no one will help us in crisis but ourselves” conviction was what drove Taiwan to get prepared.

I love the saying of Shirley Chisholm: “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” But what if I told you that Taiwanese cannot even get through the gate in the “game”? Holders of Taiwan passports cannot even enter into the UN’s New York Headquarters! 

As unusual as it may sound, it is the continued fight of my black brothers and sisters for justice that gives me hope in a pandemic. It is inspiring to hear an African American theologian say in a webinar that she remains hopeful, following the death of George Floyd. It is, at the same time, painful to learn that many African Americans deal with these tragic events so frequently they, to some extent, are desensitized to brutal violence against their own kin. 

Having to navigate my own anxiety in a pandemic, I have not been able to reach out to the black community that I was a part of to ask how they are coping. However, two people from the black church reached out. The sister who sat behind me at church emailed in May to ask if I was doing okay. The brother who sat next to me at church texted me in August. The message went,

Brother: “Hi [Name]. How r u? Hoping u r safe and well. Take care of yourself.”
Me: “Hello brother [Name], thanks for your text. I am doing okay. I hope you are well. You stay safe too and drink plenty of water!”
Brother: “Where r u living now?”
Me: “[City Name]. In someone’s home.”
Brother: “Great. U r still local. Take care and stay safe. Love.”
Me: “Yes, im still local. You take care as well. Love you too, brother.”

Moved by the humanity that I felt from my friend, I teared up after this brief exchange. He just wanted to know if I am still around the area so that maybe in the near future, we all may see one another again. “You are important to me, I need you to survive,” was the hope message from my black brother to me during a pandemic.