Motherhood, graduate school and a pandemic – all at once 

Navigating her journey as a new mother while starting graduate school, Nia Johnson tried to connect her peers to one another while relishing the time online classes gave her with her new son

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By Claire Healy, Assistant News Editor

As the world was gearing up for a year of trial, Nia Johnson was starting two journeys of her own: motherhood and graduate school. In August, she gave birth to her first child. In September, she began her time as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts School of Public Policy, pursuing a master’s in Public Policy and Administration.

“In undergrad, I could plan things out. But in grad school, I have to answer to a baby,” she said when asked about the transition to graduate school. “So, I have to do things around his schedule.”

Johnson’s motivation to study public policy came from her interest in education policy and her passion for increasing education access and equity, specifically for low-income schools.

“I wasn’t necessarily interested in education. I’m interested in education policy, and the rules and the laws that affect low-income schools specifically,” she explained. “I’m thinking of [working in] higher education because I think that’s really important too. If I’m going to do higher education, I want to focus on equity and access. So again, it’s still with low-income schools and that can tie into education policy, or it can just be its own avenue, and we’ll see where that takes me.”

As an undergraduate student, Johnson worked two to three jobs and was active in a sorority and multiple clubs. For the fall semester, she decided to take off work to give herself time to focus on starting graduate school and being a new mom, noting that being a mom “is a job in and of itself.” However, she has still been very active on campus, joining the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority alumni chapter and starting her own initiative to connect her fellow students.

After noticing that there were fewer avenues for graduate students to form a community, especially in the remote setting, Johnson got to work trying to revive the Graduate Student Association. She wanted to make sure students could connect with one another socially and academically as needed and be able to advocate for their needs effectively. She wanted “to be the bridge between students and faculty.”

By the end of the semester, she was working as a graduate senator and president of the Graduate Student Association, which she was still working on reactivating.

“I learned that in grad school, it’s not that there isn’t that sense of community, but you definitely have to reach out for it more. And if you can’t reach out and find it, make it. That’s what I saw myself doing. With the group chat I made [for one of my classes], I made the community that I want to see. I would reach out to people, I would have Zoom study groups with people,” she said. “It’s hard, especially because we’re remote and you don’t see these people. . . But make sure that you don’t make that be the end all be all. Make sure that you reach out.”

“It’s really to just get to know each other, and help each other where we can, and be a resource. I learned from people who have professional experience, because I don’t have that. There may be things that somebody thinks that they can learn from me, that they don’t have,” she said about her goals for the Graduate Student Association. “There’s different things that we bring to the table that will help us build a sense of community. So that’s what I hope to gain from this.”

For Johnson, starting life as a mom in the pandemic was a blessing in many ways. Her new ability to take classes from home helped with regulating her baby’s sleeping schedule and breastfeeding. Due to the online format, her son could spend his first few months at home with both his mom and dad, whereas before the pandemic, he would have spent some of that time in a daycare.

“As far as a career or academia goes, because of COVID[-19], I was able to stay home with my baby. I didn’t have to put him in daycare, which worked out for me financially. I know that there would have been more stress if we hadn’t done remote learning.”

Towards the end of the semester, Johnson started a new job working at the UPS, which came as an adjustment.

“I’m so used to him being with me. Becoming a mom in a pandemic was definitely scary because you have to take precautions all the time because he can’t wear masks,” she said. “For the first time we went on a day trip, his stroller completely covers him, but I have to constantly think of our surroundings, if people are coughing, or if people have COVID[-19]. Now I don’t just think for myself, I have to think for someone else.”

When asked what she got out of her first semester of graduate school, Johnson said she learned the pros and cons of spreading herself thin and knowing when to take a step back and when to push herself.

“This semester I juggled senate, I juggled classwork, I juggled a baby, I juggled my sorority … there’s so many things that I was juggling, and at times, I would just feel like I was spreading myself thin. And I just needed to get away from everything and shut off my phone,” she said. “But then other times, doing all of that, while in the pandemic, it makes me push harder because I know that I can do it. It also makes me hold myself accountable for when I’m like, I can’t do this. It’s like well, you did all that. So, you can do it.”

Since the end of the fall semester, Johnson switched her degree to a dual degree in public policy and administration and education. The spring semester was full of challenges, including a run-in with COVID-19 in her family, and as she finishes up her first year of graduate school, she is excited for the path ahead.

“To be quite honest this was a hard semester, my family caught COVID[-19] and I struggled with anxiety which led to me questioning my placement in school,” she said. “However, as of today I’m in love with my new path. I’m excited to start my education work and continue my policy work and my son is growing like a weed! I am truly blessed and only 3 finals away from finishing my first year of grad school!”

Claire Healy can be reached at clairemarie99@gmail.com.