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Support and Space: CLIR’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program Responds to the Pandemic

A conversation with Dr. Jodi Reeves Eyre, CLIR program officer, reflecting back on one year ago, when COVID-19 established itself as a global pandemic. Nicole Kang Ferraiolo, CLIR’s director of global strategic initiatives, interviews Reeves Eyre about what the pandemic meant for CLIR’s postdoctoral fellowship program and how the program responded.


Can you tell me about your experience working with CLIR’s postdoc program in the initial months of the COVID-19 lockdown? What were some of the immediate changes you implemented in the program?

In February of 2020, we were preparing to go to San Diego for the CNI membership meeting with our 2019 fellows, and one of the fellows sent me an email saying, “There’s a confirmed case in San Diego. Probably something to pay attention to.”

I went from one day saying we’re monitoring the situation to letting fellows and supervisors know that CNI is canceled, so we’re postponing our program meeting and will reschedule as soon as possible. It’s been a year now, and we haven’t had an in-person meeting with fellows, which has been challenging. We’ve tried to find creative ways to help them  feel supported and connected. For instance, over the summer, we sent out care packages to fellows who weren’t able to attend their initial summer seminar like previous cohorts. So this was a way for them to feel welcomed into the program.

Early on, we asked ourselves, “how do we meet our obligations to our fellows, supervisors, and funders while giving people space to deal with what’s going on?” And that has continued to be a thread in every decision we make. We started having optional social events for current fellows and fellowship alumni because some people need that. One of our 2020 fellows has hosted a couple of craft sessions and will host another in May. And then others need space.

A lot of people are worried about jobs. Work in higher education is a complex topic, and the cracks are showing even more now. The pandemic and continued racist violence highlight for many how Black people and other marginalized people are treated. So a lot of the fellows are dealing with that and figuring out their next career move. They need the space. They don’t always need another meeting. And so, for those fellows, we try to promote their work without adding to their plate.

I also try to be aware of my own capacity. Like many people, including several of our fellows, I lost childcare and was afraid for at-risk family members. As the sole staff member working full-time on the program, there’s no one if I burn out (at least not without adding an unreasonable amount to my colleagues’ workloads). So, it’s a balance of meeting our deliverables, being creative, supporting the fellows and our supervisors, and supporting ourselves.


What were your biggest concerns for the program when COVID started to spread?

My initial biggest concern in terms of the program was what will happen to our 2018 fellows. Many of their fellowships ended in June and July 2020. It was a horrible time to be on the job market. And so we looked to see: What funds do we have left? How can we extend positions? We worked with host institutions and fellows to see if that met their needs. Another considerable concern was for the health of fellows and their family members. We have many people in the program who have family overseas in countries also hit hard by COVID. And so we tried reaching out and keeping an eye on them without adding too much.

I mentioned to one of the fellows recently that they could write the next great American novel about what they went through to start their positions in the summer of 2020. It hasn’t only been COVID. Our 2020 fellows dealt with extreme weather events like tornadoes and snowstorms. They dealt with issues around immigration. Several current fellows do community work. It’s been even more demanding and more emotionally draining than that type of work would normally be. It’s been a year of a lot of stuff.


What have you learned from both the fellows’ experiences and your own over the past year that you’d like to pass on to others in the field?

Be open about your expectations. There’s a tension: what we need right now is clarity about how we work and what is expected of us but it’s hard to commit to anything. I think that we benefit when we’re more open. I have cried in so many Zoom meetings in the past year and have been uncomfortable in other ways. Every time it happens, I find it more acceptable to myself. If we all work to be open to sharing difficulties and focus less on getting things perfect, it fosters an environment that could be healthier for everybody involved. It’s tough to say that you’re wrong about something, but I think it’s also compelling to be able to do that.

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