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Fatemeh Shayesteh: 'Maybe the world is gonna end'

Fatemeh ShayestehPh.D. student Fatemeh Shayesteh’s biggest challenge with adapting to the changes on campus amid the coronavirus is not being able to work in the school with her colleagues and peers. Being an international student, the only way she could see other people was going to the School of Journalism. Her biggest support system is her professors and peers in classes and with COVID-19 her ability to connect with them in person has been lost. 

Going back to March, at the beginning of the pandemic, Shayesteh was shocked that a virus could circulate throughout the world and nobody knew how to prevent it. She feels the School of Journalism has done a good job responding to the pandemic and has been helpful in reaching out to students who need financial help throughout this time.


► Listen to the audio version here.


Kara Daneck: This is Kara Daneck. Today is Nov, 11, 2020. I am interviewing Fatemeh Shayesteh for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. Going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: At the time, I was at home, and I was working on a project. I was working on the research that I wanted to submit for a conference. I had the deadline, so I mean, to be honest at the beginning, I felt like, OK. I mean, class will still get started in a week, and I may still have one extra week to focus on my research. So it's not all bad. I mean, for a few minutes, it just came to my mind that I have extra time to focus on my research, but I mean, after a few days, I mean -- and then I realized that it takes more than a week, that we are going to be online. And I mean, they just extended it for the rest of the semester, and it's made me kind of anxious and feeling like, what if it takes longer? What if it's never -- what if they could never find the solution for this problem? What if they could never find the vaccine, and all of that? So for a few days, I just feel like maybe the world is gonna end. I mean, maybe now it sounds like, what did they call it? But it was my thoughts at the time.

Kara Daneck: How has this semester been different comparing spring semester with the pandemic to fall semester with the pandemic?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: At some point, it was kind of shocking knowing that we are not able to have our class in a normal way in the spring. So in this way, it was like a little more challenging in the spring. But I mean, in fall, people are getting used to it and getting themselves familiar with all of this stuff in terms of technology and how different things work. But at the same time, we were still fresh in the spring and had more hopes that it’s temporary, but right now people are worried. And like, they are kind of tired of these long times, not seeing other people and not being able to participate in in-person classes and all of that. So there's kind of frustration this semester, but I mean, it's still -- things are like kind of new normal. People are getting used to this new normal, but it was like more shocking and surprising in the spring.

Kara Daneck: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: I mean, personally for me as an international student, I could say this school is, I mean, going to a school and seeing people, including my professors and like my peers is the big portion of my support system. So I could see people, talk to people because I don't have like this group of friends and all of that, I mean, in my life, right? So the school is the only way that I could see other people. And I mean, I lost that portion. So it's just me. I mean, I believe it's the biggest challenge that I'm encountering right now. And at the same time going to school makes it much easier for me to talk with other people research-wise. So if you have an idea or so you could talk with people like in a really informal way, you could see them.

Fatemeh Shayesteh: And I mean, at the time you are talking, I mean, you could bring up research ideas and all of that, it's really helpful. But when it's like -- when you are not able to see people, everything that you did in an informal way, now you need to arrange for that being in a much more formal way if that makes sense. Like, you need to ask them for a meeting and set a time and everything. So many times, you just decide not to follow on that. So, I mean, it's hard for you to approach people, like for every small thing, saying that let's see each other and let's set a meeting, so you just don't do that. So this way, you are like missing a lot of opportunities. So I think that’s the main issue that I'm facing.

Kara Daneck: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: I would say in spring it was really overwhelming with not knowing how we could manage all of this new normal. In terms of, for example, I'm teaching, I'm a GTA. So they had to figure it out in terms of technology, how we should work with this technology. How could we familiarize students with that? Like which platform works better and still we are struggling with this. But I mean, it was really hard to do this transition in the spring, having like the half of semester going on in-person and then transitioning to online classes. It was really challenging for us. And in addition to that, now that everything is online, we need to record some classes. So it takes time because you would record and then you’re like, no, it's not, it's not good enough. And then you would record it again and again and again.

So, and then you need to spend some time editing it and all of that. So it takes time compared to like, in-person classes that you just do some preparation and then go to class, but now you need to do preparation, and then recording, and edit and everything. And in addition to that, I personally spent a lot of time responding to emails both my students and like my colleagues and my professors. So everything like that -- it really takes time. And I mean, it's really challenging for me today is responding to all of these emails.

Kara Daneck: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: So, as I said, like at the beginning, I guess for a month, it was like I was sure that the world is going to end and I mean, everything is ending. And it was really shocking to me because I mean, I always think that we are at a good place in terms of all these like technologies, medical developments and everything. I mean, I was kind of confident that the human beings knowledge is able to like solve any problem in terms of like medical issues. I never thought that we could see a day that one virus could interrupt our life entirely. So I mean, at this point, I have better ideas that how fragile our knowledge is, so that's the way my perception has changed. And in terms of coping strategies, I would say I can not -- I mean, honestly, I was hoping to kind of replace online communication instead of in-person communication, like seeing my friends, like I said, they are my support system, online instead of in person, but it really didn't work out.

So like, it's always hard to find the time that works for both of you and you just like, give up. So, at least I did. So, I mean, I could say I really lost this support system that I had. But instead I tried to focus more on my physical and mental health. So doing workouts really helped me to just go through this. I mean, I do yoga, I do, I mean, all of this kind of stuff to just try to get my head clear and focus on my work. So meditation really helps me. And yeah, as I said, like doing some exercises, sometimes I run and all of these help me to feel like healthier and being stronger..

Kara Daneck: How do you feel professors have handled the pandemic?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: I believe they are also like human beings as well. I mean, I follow a few professors on social media and seeing that they are also like dealing with all these difficulties as we are. I mean, it generally made me feel like a little better when I realized that they are dealing with the same issues. It doesn't mean that I'm glad that they are dealing with these difficulties, but it means that it's normal. I mean, where for a while I was thinking that I'm not doing well. Like I'm behind on things or I'm not doing good enough in terms of research and all of that. But I mean, as I said, I follow a few professors on some social media and they share their thoughts there. And I realized that they are, in terms of the efficiency, they are also saying that they are not efficient as they used to be.

So it makes me feel like, OK, it seems it's normal and you should, I mean, I try not to be a perfectionist anymore and just accept this. That it's part of the fact when everything is not normal. It’s OK if you don't work hard, if you don't like -- if you're not efficient enough. So, I mean, I believe they are also dealing with some difficulties in terms of workload. And also some people are not able to focus and work at home office and specifically those that have kids. So they have additional problems with that as well.

Kara Daneck: How do you feel about the School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: I believe that J-School did good. I mean, they did good work in terms of reaching out to students, specifically at the beginning of the pandemic. They sent emails to students and try to get to know what they are doing. So it was really good. I mean I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, we received multiple emails specifically from the dean saying that if you have any problems, if your students are having issues, just reach out and let us know. And I received an email from a student saying that she has financial issues and I mean, in the class, I said, everyone feels like they have problems, please reach out to a dean or Dr. Scott. And one student reached out to me saying that I'm not comfortable asking them, but I'm going to have these financial issues. So I emailed the dean and she asked me about the details. And I said everything. And the day after that, I received an email from the dean saying that the student could receive the gift card in her mail.

And then I received an email from the student thanking me and saying that I received the gift card and it really helped me out. So I guess it was great that they think of the students and try to solve their problems. And also in terms of teaching, as I said, I'm GTA. And so when they are planning for our teaching, I reached out and said that I would like online classes and they immediately changed my course from in-person to online. So they really collaborate, try to help out, and arrange things the way that is still in line with people's priorities. And it was really helpful.

Kara Daneck: How has the pandemic changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: I mean the J-School, they renewed everything. And they were so excited to like go to school and seeing the new building and everything. But I mean, at that point, we missed that part. I mean, not being able to go to school, it has changed a lot. I mean, it has changed the school a lot. I mean, I haven't been at school since March, but I still have seen some pictures and videos from people in there saying that like, we all are not able to hang out in J-School like they used to do. And I believe at one point it also changed some programs that they expected to have, like there were a few, I would say, like kind of seminars, things that they had in the School of Journalism and workshops and all of that, that we are not able to join those kinds of meetings and workshops and all of that anymore.

I used to go to media lab, like for doing experiments but we’re not able to join the lab anymore and have our regular meetings. So I believe it also would affect in terms of productivity of professors and students because they are not able to see each other and collaborate and do research and all of that. So, I mean, I believe it really affects the quality of books and research published in the school and university. I mean, in higher education in general.

Kara Daneck: How do you think KU you will be better from everything that's happened?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: I believe we as human beings and KU as a university were not ready for a pandemic. I mean, we didn’t plan in advance of what would we do if something unexpected would happen. So, I mean, I see some kind of inconsistency from KU over the past few months in terms of, I mean, different issues, including how classes will be held in terms of online or in person. So we see like all kinds of different policies, but we receive so many emails that they would change the policies over and over again. I mean, before classes start during the summer, I received plenty of emails that, like, it was not clear if you're going to have online classes or in-person classes, and how they want to manage all of that. And also I remember that they mentioned that students wanted classes to be held in person. And then it turns out that they haven't done any surveys. So it also decreased the credibility of University of Kansas, claiming something without having any evidence and doing any research and all of that.

Kara Daneck: What advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Fatemeh Shayesteh: I would say like always be prepared for something unexpected. Like, don't be confident. I mean, we were so confident that nothing would happen in our time and that we are at the good place in terms of human beings, like technological improvements, medical and all of that. So always consider this as a possibility. And if something like this happened, make sure that you are prepared and you plan everything out in advance. I mean, I remember like the shock. I mean, it was just -- it was so bad when I was shocked because I had no idea what the plan would be. And I just didn't consider this as a possibility. And after that, when I went and did some research and read all of those articles that people talk about pandemics, I mean, right now, I mean, there has been done some research talking about pandemics and what they need to do if something happens, but it wasn't communicated well. I mean, it's not like you see like the media talk about pandemic, the possible pandemic, what the life would look like. So I would say, make yourself educated and be informed about what would happen if something like a pandemic happens in your time.

Kara Daneck: Thank you for Fatemeh. This is the conclusion of this oral history.


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