Stories from the pandemic: A UNC grad student shares her experiences, hopes and fears

Stories from the pandemic: A UNC grad student shares her experiences, hopes and fears

Lucía Mock Muñoz de Luna is a fourth-year doctoral student in Cultural Studies and Literacies in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.

Like many others, I’ve spent the past few weeks in a state of constant worry: I’m afraid for my parents’ health, and that of my friends and family across the world. I’m afraid of a now-more-than-ever uncertain future.

I work as a teaching assistant at the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, and in the classes I co-teach we’ve spent most of these past two semesters discussing themes of (in)justice and (in)equity in schools and society. We have also worked to critically examine the structures that uphold white supremacy and sacrifice the well-being of some in the service of others. We are seeing these same oppressive structures and narratives being brought into stark relief as people are being forced to work in unsafe conditions to keep our country afloat; and we are seeing it in who is disproportionately getting sick, and how some are able to access the medical care they need, while are not.

It’s impossible to maintain any semblance of normalcy in teaching in a university setting at this point. In the course I am currently co-teaching with my advisor (Dr. Alison LaGarry-Cahoon), titled, “Art, Education, and Social Change” we have radically altered the structure and purpose of the course in the face of this crisis. We’ve modified assignments by including flexibility with deadlines and grading, moved all of our teaching to asynchronous with optional office hours, and modified the content of the course to focus on students sharing their own experiences and reflections on this crisis.

Dr. LaGarry-Cahoon and I have taken these steps in an intentional effort to refocus the course so that it provides a community of care that serves as a support for our students, not an added burden or expectation. As they have done throughout this semester, our students have responded with extraordinary openness, enthusiasm and brilliant insight into the changing world around them.

In addition to being an instructor, I am also a student and researcher. Now in my fourth year of my doctoral studies in education, my research focuses on dismantling Western-imposed structures and theories of education — and the related humanitarian aid funding apparatuses — in refugee communities. My work is particularly focused in Beirut, Lebanon, with a community school called the Nour Center. This school, founded and staffed entirely by Palestinian and Syrian community members, has provided learning opportunities for young people in Burj al Barajneh refugee camp for the past seven years.

Started in 2013, amidst the worst of the Syrian refugee crisis, this community of Palestinian refugees, already living in poverty and precarity, has opened its arms to newly arriving Syrian and Palestinian children and youth who cannot access formal schooling. As the director of the Nour Center—and my dear friend—Mariam al Shaar often reminds me, the mission of the school above all else is, “to let students know they are cared for.”

I am terrified about what this pandemic will mean for the Nour Center and the people in Burj al Barajneh camp. While the entire world is being ravaged by this virus, communities that are already marginalized will suffer the worst, and refugee camps such as this one — already overcrowded and unable to access the medical and financial resources they need to survive — will be devastated. I am afraid for my friends there. Selfishly, I am also mourning that I will most likely not be able to travel back to Lebanon this summer or fall to be with them, and to finish my dissertation alongside the people that are my partners in this project.

As I see my own School of Education touting resources for how to remain academically successful during this transition to online learning  — but remaining silent on how they are supporting undergraduate and graduate students that have been displaced, lost family members, are without jobs, etc.— I am bitterly disappointed that we seem desperate to cling to a sense of normalcy and its accompanying systems and practices that maintain so much harm, and that view some lives as disposable.

In my position as an educator, a student and a scholar, I am realizing that the lessons the Nour Center has to teach me, and us, about learning and mutual aid may be more important now than ever. In a community whose everyday reality encompasses an ongoing disaster, schools and learning take on a different meaning. They have less concern with standardized measures of success or how to regulate student behavior; instead they have imagined schools as places of radical caring and community-building.

They understand that the future of their people is dependent on the well-being of every child and family—this regard for safety, shared joy, the ability to care for each other freely and without borders is the foundation of their conception of schooling. It is from this space of possibility and practice that I wish our communities could be redefined and rebuilt in the wake of this moment. I am heartened that, in some ways, this re-imagining is already happening—both in the work of the students and staff of the Nour Center, and the students I am lucky enough to be in conversation with at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Lucía Mock Muñoz de Luna is a fourth-year doctoral student in Cultural Studies and Literacies in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.