Navigating a new normal: Sara Guthrie

Newswise — This past year certainly hasn’t turned out to be what anyone expected. Our students have persevered, learning how to study in virtual classrooms and finding new ways to stay connected. We checked in with several students as they shared challenges they’ve faced since the start of the pandemic and advice for others navigating this new normal.

What motivated you to go to graduate school?

I’m a first-generation college student, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into with graduate school. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to help mentor students like me – first-generation students, queer students, students I didn’t often see reflected in people who were teaching my courses. I didn’t have a lot of that mentorship, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my career. I knew the only real way to do that was to continue my education and go to grad school.

How did you choose WVU for your graduate studies?

While I was studying for my master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Boston, I realized quickly there was a lack of research in rural areas. Everyone was talking about how important it was to study all these people living in urban areas. But that wasn’t my experience. I’m from rural Pennsylvania. It’s different. You can’t just assume that everyone is going to follow the same ideas and patterns that people in urban communities do. When I was at UMass Boston, I realized I needed to go to a university that would allow me to focus on rural populations. I also really liked that WVU is a land-grant and a public university, and there is this idea of giving back to underserved communities. That’s why I thought WVU would be a good fit.

What is the focus of your research?

My research goals are very connected to Amish communities now, but they weren’t always. A lot of my research is focused on political mobilization. I started with an interest in why and how people in rural communities are able to be politically mobilized specifically around environmental issues. Then the pandemic hit, and I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to get into or access these communities in the same way. I was already working as a graduate research assistant in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology on a project about Amish communities, and we happened to start seeing some similar political issues arise in our data. I immediately thought that the Amish are not supposed to be politically mobilized. They aren’t supposed to be politically active. Yet, it is happening. How does a closed community become politically mobilized? That’s really where my research has shifted. The political mobilization has been the thing that ties everything together. 

What is your favorite aspect of grad school so far?

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is the mentorship. My advisers, Rachel Stein and Katie Corcoran, have been incredible mentors not just in research but in general. I’ve worked with Dr. Stein a lot on teaching and how to become a better instructor. It’s been helpful to build those relationships with people I look up to and who are great researchers, teachers and mentors. Modeling strong mentorship is really helpful, and I hope I can someday provide that same mentorship to students. Having that connection has been my favorite part of graduate school.

What challenges have you faced since the start of the pandemic?

Everything about my research felt focused and ready to move forward. Then the pandemic began. I couldn’t wait around to figure out when I could enter the communities and do interviews and research them the way I needed to, and that changed my entire research path. That’s probably for the better, but it was a big shift.

What resources have helped you navigate and overcome those challenges?

I’m lucky because I’m a fourth-year student. I already have a community and connections that I’ve built the last four years. I have a strong connection with my cohort. I have a strong connection with the cohorts above and below me. It’s really easy to stay in communication.

The pandemic has greatly affected the younger students just starting their graduate work. They haven’t had that same chance to build community on campus. We try to reach out to them, but there’s something about being in the same hallway and knocking on an older student’s door to grab a cup of coffee and just talk. The hardest adjustment has been missing out on the chance to sit and chat face to face. It’s something everyone is missing.

To help maintain some of that connection, I’ve been coordinating Zoom trivia nights and happy hours. Even though we can’t all be together, we can still have camaraderie. Just trying to set those up has made life feel a little more normal. 

What advice would you share with other students who may be facing similar challenges? 

Personally, I’ve heavily leaned on the Carruth Center. I encourage everyone I interact with to do that. It is good to talk about these things because grad school is stressful enough. Grad school during a pandemic – no one is prepared for that type of stress. 

What have you learned about yourself since the pandemic began?

I’ve learned to not take myself too seriously and stay flexible and open to opportunities. I think about how something may change, but that’s OK because you can still make sure you are on the path you need to be on to get to your end goal. 

How have you found resilience during these difficult times? What have been your keys to getting by?

I have spent an absurd amount of time outside hiking with my dog, Rudy!

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