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My Story: Grad School and Chronic Illness

October 17, 2019

Stories from our graduate students, in their own words.

By Alterra Sanchez

My time at UMD can be described, in every sense of the word, as dynamic. I have had a diverse set of experiences. I started as a research technician during my gap year - studying DDT contamination in old, apple-orchard soil, while also learning environmental chemistry techniques (came to the dark side from biology).

For my first year as a PhD student I taught a cellular biology lab course and even taught a lab for non-science majors. I came from a background in marine biology (i.e., not the biology that makes money), but somehow I figured out how to teach these concepts (a challenge I learned many grad students face)! Then finally during my first summer I began research on microplastics and pharmaceuticals and personal care product compounds (think: Off spray and Benadryl!); which eventually led to me creating the first standardized method for making microplastics for toxicology tests.

Now, four years since leaving San Diego, CA, and after being forged in the crucible of graduate school, I am a PhD candidate close to graduating; and to my own surprise, on the hunt for potential employers. However, like any dynamic system, the last four years have had their dark seasons. As amazing as all the above was – is – they weren’t the parts of life that challenged my values and, frankly, tested me wholly as a person and forced me to grow.

I received the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship the spring before my fall 2016 enrollment in MEES1, and I was excited about starting on the path towards my doctorate. At the same time though, a loved one of mine’s health was starting to decline, and about a month before my very first day of class they were diagnosed with an incurable autoimmune disease. This disease, known as idiopathic cholinergic urticaria, caused them to break out in extremely painful hives any time their internal body temperature rose: getting frustrated in line, hives; stuck in traffic, hives; exercise, hives! It’s easy to imagine how debilitating this was for them. I was also struggling: the lab courses I was teaching did not offer (what I felt was) adequate support, and my first courses were so much harder than I was anticipating (normal, I know… now). Additionally, this all was forcing me to finally acknowledge that I had a learning disability (auditory comprehension), and that I was both dyslexic and dyscalculic. It is not exaggerating to say that my loved one and I were both hurting for support, but neither of us were in a place to give it.

Graduate school is an interesting time. In a way, it is incredibly selfish. I was at work for long hours during the day (and night), sometimes 6-7 days a week. I needed a lot of personal space, and I had zero emotional energy. I’ll be the first to admit that because my loved one was able to be home all the time, I believed I had the “more difficult” position and therefore deserved more of their energy then they of mine. Anyone who has raised a family, got married, had a long-term business partner, basically an invested relationship with another human being, is probably having a sensible chuckle right about now.

The thing is with relationships, and graduate school funnily enough, is that neither endeavors care about what you’re going through: if you don’t give them the attention and respect they deserve, things start to fall apart.

I  am happy to report, and beyond grateful, that my family member has fully recovered and managing their illness. We both still value our friendship and have learned to take better care of ourselves. I have also accepted and learned how to, not just manage, but succeed with my learning disabilities (which is a whole another topic that I could write more about!).

So, how did I survive life and academia, and live to tell the tale? Well, it would have been almost impossible without the understanding and patience of my husband, mentors2, MEES staff3, and grad student friends. Equally as important are some of the tools and bits of wisdom I have discovered; I hope they serve you as well:

In these tips I speak mostly of chronic illness, however, I use many to manage my learning disabilities (and life in general). I also learned of them through the chronic illness community.

1. When a family member or yourself develops a chronic illness, your priorities will change. That's ok! We only have so many "spoons" of energy; accepting that you'll do less work than before is a start to creating a balanced schedule. But what are "spoons"?

Image result for spoon theory diagram christine miserando 

Figure 1. Spoon theory was developed and applied to people with physical disabilities, generally, but it is actually really helpful for anyone who feels they may be doing a little too much (a.k.a. grad students). How many spoons did you use yesterday?

2. Now that you know about Energy Spoons, let's talk about the reality of caring for someone with a chronic illness, or yourself, and what that means for school work: you will not be capable of as much as you think or as much as you did before.

  • Contact your advisor(s) and professors for classes EARLY! Be honest and let them know what's going on. You don't have to be specific, but letting them know you might be a little late one day or need extra time on a project saves so much stress later.

– In my case, all of my instructors were very understanding.

3. If you are helping to take care of a loved one, then a significant part of your free time may be taken over with the physical/emotional labor of managing their illness. However, you probably also depend on them, after all, this is grad school. This can put a lot of strain on the relationship as they are trying to focus on healing themselves.

  • To help relieve this strain (and honestly, this is critical advice for anyone in grad school), create a support system that goes far and wide. Your loved one will not be capable of giving you 100% of the support they normally would (remember they have limited spoons too!). By making friends, finding committee members that will be part of your "care" team, and even teachers who understand, will help supplement the support you need. This will also help your loved one by easing some of the expectations on them, while also knowing that you are being taken care of.
  • When your loved one is sick, it is OK TO GO HAVE FUN! I can't say this enough. The urge to feel guilty about "leaving them at home" will be strong, but know that you have to take care of yourself also. I would say this is one of the most important things for surviving this struggle.

– From personal experience, my family liked it when I went out with my friends. They noticed I was not only happier, but it also made them feel better knowing their illness wasn't stopping me from living.

If you are a UMCP grad student and in need of more support, I find other graduate students to be the best, or at least one of the best, sources for advice and commiseration. Inspired by others and my own experiences, I began organizing “community building meetups” about 3 years ago. Here, UMCP grads meet up for food and drinks, and to vent. Come join us at the next meetup on October 25th at Town Center Market in Riverdale, MD!

The above tips were part of a #TwitterTakeover I did about managing a chronic illness over at @AcademicChatter, an account where graduate students discuss experiences and offer support. I highly recommend the account, as it’s where I first got the courage to speak up about my experiences.

Information on Alterra Sanchez can be found here: alterraocean.com
1Marine-Estuarine Environmental Science Program (MEES)
2Professors Lance Yonkos, Michael Gonsior, and Alba Torrents.
3Specifically, Assistant MEES Director Sandra Davis.

Contact Information

The Graduate School
University of Maryland

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7809 Regents Drive
College Park, MD 20742

301-405-3644
gradschool@umd.edu