Dealing with COVID-19 as a Graduate Student

Ronunique Clark headshot

Ronunique Clark, MPP’23

As we enter our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can feel never-ending and draining. If you have experienced COVID personally, in your family, or close friends group, here is a list of ways on how I have tried to stay safe versus sorry during this time.

First, if you test positive for COVID or come in close contact with someone who has, you should communicate this to others in your academic and professional settings. What we have been seeing a lot during this pandemic is people not wanting to disclose their status but in order to keep the numbers low and everyone safe, it is important to communicate. I recommend that you reach out to anyone you have been in close contact with, communicate to your professors so that they can better assist you with help on assignments or deadlines, and speak to your supervisor so that they can assist you in rescheduling hours and work-related tasks.

Second, make sure to wear your mask, wash your hands with soap and water, and disinfectant high-touch surfaced areas such as doorknobs, light switches, dishes etc. These steps will keep the spread of COVID at a minimum so that you and others are protected against the virus.  If you’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive, make sure to self-isolate; it can be confusing on how long to self isolate for, especially if you received a COVID-19 vaccine but make sure to follow CDC recommendations.

Third, isolation and self-quarantine can be very difficult, having to sit in one space staring at the walls. Begin to find hobbies or things that interest you. Work out or do yoga for 15-20 minutes to keep your body up and running if you are able, start a new book, meditate or begin a self-journaling journey; anything that will keep your mind or body stimulated without causing too much stress on yourself.

This pandemic has been a hard and long one, but by following these simple steps, we can help keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Broccoli and Potatoes

Hannah Lougheed, MA SID/MS-GHPM’22

Yes, you read that right: broccoli and potatoes. We have all been there: dinnertime, standing in the kitchen looking for what you are going to eat to refuel yourself, exhausted, low energy, and just ready to call it a day and turn off your brain. You reach for the sad bag of ramen that has sat in the back of your cupboard for a questionable amount of time then reconsider… Well, my friends, let me fill you in on a secret – you too can enjoy the luxurious taste of broccoli and potatoes to break up your dinner time dilemma.

Here’s what you need:

1 head of broccoli

1 medium/large potato of your choosing (I prefer yellow potatoes)

Olive oil

Salt

Parmesan Cheese

Honey

Cut and coat the veggies in olive oil and salt then put in the air fryer (or oven, if no air fryer) for 10 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. After 10 minutes, move the veggies around then let sit in the fryer for another 6-8 minutes. When done, sprinkle with cheese and put some honey on top and voila! you’ve done it!

So, why am I telling you about this absurdly simple meal I make almost every night (not even kidding, ask my roommates – E V E R Y  N I G H T)? Well, in the midst of crazy grad school schedules, work schedules, and just general life craziness, having one less thing to think about each night has made my life much easier. Additionally, when you’re on a tight budget, this is a very wallet-friendly and healthy meal. Yes, it can be boring to eat the same dinner most nights, but for me, the trade-off is worth it.

I hope this grad school hack is helpful, or you may just think I’m a bit eccentric for eating the same meal each night. Regardless, the bottom line is, when life gets crazy busy during your time in grad school (which it inevitably will), having one thing that is constant and routine can be a nice way to reground yourself at the end of a long day. For me, that one thing is dinner as I keep it easy, quick, healthy and mindless. If you have a favorite dinner go-to please let me know, I – clearly – could always add a bit of variety to my dinner time routine.

*I have to throw an acknowledgement to my roommate Andy Mendez, as she inspired me to write this post!

You Ask, I Answer: What’s the Minimum GPA?

I’m continuing the “You Ask, I Answer” series where I respond to the most common questions I get from prospective or admitted students (you can find a previous You Ask, I Answer: When Should I Start Graduate School? here and You Ask, I Answer: How to Email the Admissions Office here). If you have a question you’d like me to answer in the next post, be sure to comment below!

This is definitely one of the top two questions that I and my other colleagues in Heller Admissions get (the other one would be “What’s the minimum GRE or GMAT score?”). As I explained in an earlier post, What Does “Holistic Review Process” Mean, Anyway?, this is a hold-out from a mostly-bygone time, when colleges would use “cut scores” (in which colleges wouldn’t consider applications from students with lower than a certain SAT score or GPA) to make the first “cuts” during application reading season. This practice is certainly less widespread now, but still the question persists; I think because students want some sense of certainty about whether or not they have a chance of getting in.

Unfortunately… it really does depend.

But, in the interest of transparency, I’m here today to share with you a little about what we look at when we’re looking at your transcripts, because contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about your GPA.

Challenging yourself. Let’s say two students apply with the exact same cumulative GPA from the exact same college, and majored in the exact same thing. If we were only looking at GPAs, we would hold these students in equal regard, but that’s not always the case. We also look at the courses the students took to determine how we should consider those grades. If Student A was using their electives to take classes like Astronomy, the Global History of Capitalism, and Supply Chain Analytics, and Student B was using their electives to take Tree Climbing, South Park and Contemporary Social Issues, and The Art of Walking (all real classes offered at schools across the US, by the way!), well, we’re probably going to give Student A an edge. That’s not to say that you can’t take a course that’s a little off-beat or pursue a niche subject that you’re genuinely interested in, but we want to see that, for the most part, you used your time in college (or your first graduate school degree, if that’s the case) to challenge and better yourself.

Relevancy of coursework. Don’t get me wrong, students at Heller come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some of the most common include public health, sociology, education, international relations, history, law, economics, social work, anthropology and psychology, but we have students that majored in English, biology, art history, journalism, chemistry, studio arts… the list goes on and on. But with that being said, we want to make sure students are set up to succeed in our programs. For example, if a student were applying to our PhD program, we’d want to see high grades in courses like economics, statistics, research methods, or some other class along those lines; if they received an A in all their other classes, but low scores in those, it might be a cause for concern. Especially in our more quantitative programs, we’ll want to make sure that students have the relevant backgrounds that they need to succeed at Heller, although that can come in many different forms, of which coursework is just one.

Trends or growth. You probably heard this when you were applying to college, but application readers do look at trends in your grades. A difficult first semester in college isn’t likely to tank your chances of getting into graduate school, nor is a tough semester with extenuating circumstances explained in your statement of purpose. What may be more concerning, however, is a student that starts off strong whose grades gradually go down, which might suggest that they struggled with more advanced course material.

If, after reading this, you take a look at your transcript, and you find that there are some yellow flags in your transcript, all is not lost! As I explained in my earlier blog post about holistic admissions, there are opportunities to course correct. It’s probably too late to get a new job to put on your resume, but you can decide who your recommenders are going to be, what to highlight on your resume, and what to write in your statement of purpose. Addressing these issues in your statement of purpose, or demonstrating that you have those skills in other ways, are easy ways to provide context to those grades.

Event Recap: Gender Working Group Open Mic Night

Hannah Plumb headshot

Hannah Plumb, MA SID’22

One of the great things about being at Heller is that there are lots of clubs you can join that match your interests! There are clubs like the Brandeis University Africa Forum, the Heller Student Association, Net Impact, the Racial Equity Working Group and more. One group that I became involved in since the beginning of the semester is the Gender Working Group. The Gender Working Group is a club that fights for gender equality on campus and tries to raise awareness of different gender issues around Heller.

About a month ago, the Gender Working Group held our first “Open Mic Night”, which I attended. The Open Mic Night was a great opportunity for people to perform (pieces related to gender or not) and also acted as a fundraiser for a local organization called REACH. REACH is a Waltham domestic violence organization that helps survivors find housing and different resources to get back on their feet. They also have programs related to the prevention of domestic violence within the Waltham community as well.

The Open Mic Night was held in Heller, on a Friday night about a week before classes ended. With it being so close to finals, we were really worried about how many people would show up. However, we still managed to get around 20-30 attendees, which was amazing! It was a truly wonderful event, raising awareness about domestic violence and gender issues. There were about 8 performances total. There were a few singers that sang songs about women empowerment, a few poems, a speech, and an amateur film. It was pretty amazing seeing the passion in each performer’s voice and how comfortable and confident they all seemed. As soon as the next performance started, I felt like I couldn’t look away.

There were also some yummy snacks available at the event, and as an incentive to donate to REACH, there was also body painting (face paint but on your arm to make it covid safe) available! I had a wonderful time at the Open Mic Night; it was really amazing getting to see how talented all of my classmates are. And also, seeing how much of a community Heller is that so many people showed up. We also ended up raising over $350 for REACH, which was pretty amazing. I left the night smiling and happy, and reminded of even through the stress of finals, why I am here at Heller.

New Years Resolutions and Your Statement of Purpose

It’s almost that time again: that time of year when, against all evidence to the contrary, we promise ourselves that this time it’ll be different. That this year will be the year we a) start working out more, b) give up a bad habit, c) keep our kitchen cabinets organized, d) stop buying stuff we don’t need or e) all of the above. If you’re anything like me, you spend all of December making promises to yourself, all of January being good, and then all of February wondering how it all went wrong.

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with your statement of purpose, so here it is: as someone who would really like to be better at New Year’s resolutions, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about goals, and how to set a good goal, and a lot of what makes a good goal also makes a good statement of purpose. You’ve probably heard that you should be setting S.M.A.R.T goals (specific, measurable, attainable/achievable, relevant, and time-bound), but have you ever thought about writing a S.M.A.R.T. Statement of Purpose? For example, instead of writing, “Gaining a master’s degree from Heller will help me to achieve my goals” why not get more specific by telling us how it will help you, or what those goals are? Or, instead of saying, “Ever since I was young, I have wanted to help people” why don’t you make that more measurable by saying how you want to help people, or which people/populations?

When you look through your statement of purpose, I encourage you to circle the places when you lean into generalities and apply a “S.M.A.R.T. check”; ask yourself in these places, can I be more specific? Can I make this more measurable? Can I show why I believe this is attainable or relevant? Can I allude to the time frame of this (i.e., when do you hope to achieve a certain milestone)? By asking yourself those questions, you transform your statement of purpose from a wishy-washy statement of your hopes and dreams, to an action plan that your reader can get behind. We know that you want to change the world– that’s why you’re applying to Heller! Your job for your Statement of Purpose is to tell us how… remember, be S.M.A.R.T. about it!

Tips: How to find a Graduate Assistantship

Hannah Plumb headshot

Hannah Plumb, MA SID’22

Graduate school is an amazing time to learn new skills, take thought provoking classes and meet fascinating people both on campus and off. I was so excited to get to Heller and get to experience all this, but amongst the excitement, one worry kept popping up in my brain: money. While a wonderful experience, graduate school is definitely also a financial investment, and I was really concerned about earning money while I was in school.

One great way to offset the financial costs of graduate school is to get a graduate assistantship! What exactly is a graduate assistantship (GA)? It is an on-campus job specifically set aside for graduate students, and that generally pays a bit more than the undergraduate jobs. There are GAs in almost every department you can think of: admissions, the career center, the gender and sexuality center and more! GAs also help you to gain some experience in an area you’re interested in, such as research, programming, fundraising etc.

Here are some tips to securing a graduate assistant position!

  • Identify a department you are interested in working with

When thinking about graduate assistantships, it helps to have a specific department in mind you want to work with. I would suggest the summer before you enter school looking up the different departments at Brandeis and figuring out where your passions lie. Once you’ve figured out where you want to work, go ahead and reach out to the department heads on the Brandeis website and see if anything is available! 

 

  • Search for interesting positions on Workday

Workday is the Brandeis jobs website (which you’ll have access to once you enroll) and lists all the available student jobs on campus. Look around the postings and see which ones appeal to you.

 

  • Apply to multiple positions on Workday

You can also apply to the GAs on Workday. It’s a very easy process, but make sure to always include a cover letter that mentions the job you want! Even if it does not require it, it helps you stand out. 

 

  • Prep for your interview

Once you get an interview request, make sure to prep ahead of time by looking at the work the department does that you’re curious about. Also, look at the responsibilities and determine where your experience shows you can do these tasks and what you want to learn more about.

With any luck, after you interview, you’ll hear back from the department! If you don’t get an offer on the first one, try not to get too discouraged — there’s a lot of jobs you can keep applying to. I hope these tips helped and good luck on the job search!

The Heller Student Association

Hannah Lougheed, MA SID/MS-GHPM’22

When I decided that Heller was the right place for me, I also decided right then and there to make sure I took advantage of the opportunities to get involved on campus and with my peers.  For some, it looks like joining a hiking club, proactively sitting in a public space to engage in conversations with others, or to be intentional with being active in a WhatsApp group chat. Whatever involvement flavor you feel most comfortable with, there is an opportunity here at Heller for you to get involved.

I have always been drawn to governing boards – be it in student council in high-school, an honors club in undergrad, or – currently – as a co-chair for the Heller Student Association. It has always been important for me to feel that my voice was heard when I spoke up, and I have learned that governing bodies such as the HSA really do work well to amplify the voices of those they serve. Upon completing our first “Town Hall” it served as a good reflection point for me (hence me blogging about it today).

The mission and vision of the Heller Student Association (also referred to as ‘HSA’) is:

“to take a holistic approach on understanding and empowerment in all of our educations through a focus on cross-collaboration between students, working groups, professors and staff at Heller. The mission of the HSA is to participate meaningfully in decisions affecting student’s time at Heller. We will amplify the voices of the student body by bringing your input to the faculty, administration, career services, staff, steering committees and program directors whom we meet with regularly.”

So how is this relevant for you,  dear blog reader? Well, if you are currently a student at Heller, know you always have access to a group that will work to amplify your voice – so long as it aligns with the aforementioned mission and vision of the organization. And, if you are a student considering Heller, know that the voices of you and your peers are taken seriously when/if you join this family. The faculty and staff at Heller have a great working relationship with the Heller Student Association and value our presence. As a Co-Chair, me and my fearless Co (shoutout to Zari) have the opportunity to listen and offer input on the students’ behalf at meetings that do not typically hold a student presence. We are not there just to check the “is a student present?” box. No, we are instead actively engaged in conversations that effect students.

All of this to say, if you’re wondering what it looks like to be in concert with the faculty and administration as a student, the Heller Student Association is a great example of that. Also, Heller has a wide variety of student groups that go far beyond being an advocacy/governing body. So, if your comfort for involvement includes joining an organization, consider the Heller Student Association!

Financing Graduate School as a First Generation Graduate Student

Ronunique Clark headshot

Ronunique Clark, MPP’23

The feeling you get when you receive your offer into the graduate school of your choice is undeniable one of the best feelings ever! You may have been working on your application for months, recommenders may have bailed out on you, the personal statement began to look like a blur after too many rewrites but you finished it, submitted it, and got it. The next order of business is always “so how will I pay for this?” This can be answered in many ways, but for now I will just offer my own two cents.

For me, I was lucky enough to leave my undergraduate institution with minimal student debt because I was granted a full scholarship. However, unlike undergrad, I knew that it would be difficult to secure sufficient funding in grad school. When I started my grad school application process, I would search the websites to determine how schools would disburse financial aid. Heller usually offers at least a 50% merit scholarship to most students applying to their programs, though some programs may offer more. This was a green flag for me when applying because it showed that Heller did not want students to necessarily worry about the financial part, but to come in and be able to learn without the additional stress.

A few things I learned when seeking funding for grad school: First, I learned when searching for funding, you need to be specific in your wording. I would recommend searching for “scholarships for public policy students” or “scholarships for graduate students”, which would narrow the information down to my particular request, avoiding disappointment from “this is only for undergraduate students only”.

Second, I live by the saying “closed mouths do not get fed” and from this, I took the initiative to reach out to my mentors, former supervisors, or programs that I worked/volunteer for. This can be helpful because most jobs or programs have funding to support individual’s academic efforts; sometimes these can be free without any additional requirements or you have to fill out an application and work out a system to receiving the funds. If you do not advocate for yourself and work ethic then who will?

Lastly,  working and going to school can be difficult. I found that full-time or part-time work-study jobs to be beneficial. Note that most schools do not offer work study for graduate students, especially international students. Yet, even if it is not work study some on campus jobs are able to hire students directly to their payroll if the department allows for it.  I advocate for on campus or work study employment because they work the best with students’ academic schedules, they also are able to provide support and resources, and you may be able to score a job that fits your academic interests.

Seeking funding for graduate school can be rough but it does not have to be. Always reach out to the school of your choice and see what resources they provided to graduate students; if you do not ask, then you will never know and it can be too late. This information is sometimes public but not always, so it is important to really advocate for yourself and needs at all times when you’re applying, during your time in the program, and even after.

Professor Spotlight: Marji Erickson Warfield and Lisa Lynch

Daniella Levine, MPP ’21

Too often in academia,  you get stuck learning from a tenured professor who is out of touch with students (Netflix plug – The Chair). I attended a liberal arts university for my undergraduate degree, which allotted me the flexibility on the courses I took, choosing based on interest and professor ratings. So when entering into a more structured degree program, I was nervous about my ability to connect both with the required material and the professors.

I am about to finish my third semester at Heller, with a total of seven required courses under my belt and I have only good things to say about my time so far (taking into account that I completed six of those courses online due to the pandemic). Each professor adapted and modified their courses to support and uplift students while we were completely virtual, and have found ways to engage students who join class virtually during our current hybrid semester.

But I would be remiss if I told you I didn’t have favorites. Marji Erickson Warfield and Lisa Lynch have taken two subjects that many might cower away from and made the material accessible, entertaining and informative. In a degree that attracts policy-driven individuals, more tactical courses like research methods and economic theory can be daunting at the onset. I am in awe of the intellect and integrity both professors hold. Dr. Marji Erickson Warfield is a Senior Scientist and Lecturer at Heller. Her work is designed to understand and evaluate ways to promote the well-being of children, youth and young adults with disabilities and the adaptation of their families.  Dr. Lisa Lynch is the Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Heller. She is a Brandeis powerhouse and focuses her research on labor markets, unemployment, and organizational Innovation.

Both Marji and Lisa found ways to enliven subjects that might come off as dry and teach in such a way that makes the material not only understandable but demonstrate how it’s applicable to my professional goals. On top of their in-class work, they are wholly available to students outside of the classroom, through office hour appointments, events on campus and personalized emails with news or opportunities that match your specific policy interests. I have never felt like blank face in a sea of students; they go out of their way to chat in the halls and contribute to student-led initiatives. I am grateful to both professors for their inclusive teaching, and to Heller for prioritizing the hiring of such great faculty.

End of Semester Wrap-Up: Favorite Classes

Hannah Plumb headshot

Hannah Plumb, MA SID’22

After what feels like a whirlwind, we are finally at the end of the semester. It honestly feels weird to already be almost done because it felt like the semester went by so quickly. It was full of hard work, some stress, lots of learning and lots of great times with my friends and classmates. Some specific highlights I can recall are orientation, my first class of the year, a visit to Salem, and a Friendsgiving celebration. While looking back on the semester, I always like to reflect on the classes I took, and which ones were my favorite. This is what I would like to share in this blog post; specifically my favorite classes of the semester.

The very first class I took after arriving at Heller was actually a MPP class called Contemporary Issues in Gender and Public Policy. Even though this class was outside my degree, it ended up being one of my absolute favorites. Fighting for gender equality and gender justice are my passions, and what I want to focus my career around. I loved learning in this class all of the policies that either elevate gender equality or cause unforeseen problems that continue to disadvantage women and LGBTQ+ individuals. The professor also did an amazing job of addressing gender issues from an intersectional lens, and seeing how the impacts were different based on issues like race, class, gender identity etc. We also got the opportunity to have some speakers that are gender policy professionals and hear about their experience working in the field. It was amazing to hear about all the great work that they were doing and to hear exactly what kind of jobs you can do in this field. Lastly, our discussions in class were amazing. We all brought our different perspectives, and I left class every day feeling like I truly understood gender policy on a deeper level. Especially if you’re interested in gender issues, take this class!

One of my other favorite classes was Introduction to Geographic Information Systems. Especially in the environmental world, this software is a really important skill to have. While it seemed daunting at first, the professor really teaches the class in a very understandable and comprehensive way. He gives you a lot of confidence in your abilities to use the software and create a map that displays issues you’re interested in. It’s a great hard skill to have, and taking this class made me confident I can bring this software to my career. It also makes you think about the utility of maps in a different way; they’re applicable not only to the environment, but also health, policy issues and more! Also, even though it was a night class, we have had snacks every class, which definitely acts as a pretty great incentive to keep you more alert haha.

While I had lots of great classes this semester and learned a lot, these two were definitely my favorite out of the whole bunch. I come to the end of this semester feeling calm and content. While it was hard at times, I feel like I learned so many valuable skills and concepts that have made me more confident in my career. I also got the chance to participate in so many great events and make lots of wonderful friends. All in all? A great end to the year. 

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