Cross-Country Graduate School: An Interview with Alyse O’Hara

by Alex Mika ’21 (CLAS)

When she received her letter of acceptance from UConn’s PhD program in the early spring of 2020, Alyse O’Hara was ready to move across the country to begin the next chapter of her academic journey. As spring turned to summer and summer looked to fall, however, it became increasingly clear that she would be spending her first year at UConn in Texas.

New Beginnings

O’Hara began her undergraduate career in the sciences. When she was introduced to early modern British literature, particularly the work of John Donne, however, she was drawn in and switched majors. After completing her Master’s degree in Texas in 2018, O’Hara taught a first-year writing course for two years. “I kind of knew all along that I wanted to go back to school,” O’Hara recalls. “I wanted to get my PhD and teach the British literature that I love so much. So, when I got into UConn, it was kind of a clear decision for me. The faculty that we have are great, and I have family in New York, so I’d be only two and a half hours away from my parents.”

Maintaining a Sense of Community

O’Hara currently plans on moving up this summer. “I’d really like to be on campus,” she says. “I miss the sense of community. I was hoping to move over the winter break, but I realized pretty quickly that it was just not enough time and the pandemic wasn’t over.” In the meantime, O’Hara and her cohort—many of whom are in a similar situation—have developed strategies for getting to know one another remotely.

One member of the group came up with the idea to create a WhatsApp chat. “We could all vent to each other and go through the process of starting school together, and that made a huge difference. No question was too stupid for that group. You could just say, ‘I’m experiencing this, is anybody else?’ I don’t know that we would have had that if we didn’t need it during this time. So, I almost feel like we’re more connected because of it than we otherwise would have been.”

Maintaining a Sense of Space and Time

Since her living space also became her working space and her learning space, O’Hara knew
that she would have to create both physical and personal boundaries. One decision that she
found to be useful was to divide up her apartment into various areas: “I set up a space for
myself in my apartment to have a place for my work life, and made it separate from the spaces
that I enjoy my time, because I wouldn’t be going outside as much.” She found that she was
able to focus much better when in her working space, and found it easier to leave that working
mindset at the end of the day.

Although online education was an adjustment for O’Hara, she soon came to realize that it was
the time between classes that would require the most adaptation. “I’m not really good at
defending my time,” O’Hara confesses. “I will just read and read and read and read and read. I
tried a little bit more regimented, but time management—especially doing my own work as a
student—has been a little bit harder. You keep doing your work until you feel like you have to go
to sleep, and then wake up the next day and do the same thing. That side of it has been a little
bit harder to adjust to than the physical classroom space becoming virtual. That weird sense of
timelessness is maybe the hardest part of being a student right now.”

Teaching through a Screen

Although teaching entirely online is a daunting task, O’Hara had “gotten [her] feet wet” in the
spring, when she had to switch her in-person classes to an online format. In the absence of
face-to-face interaction, she tries to be available for her students by responding to their emails
as quickly as possible, keeping virtual office hours, and, with the introduction of an optional
synchronous portion of her class in the spring, encouraging her students to attend and turn their
cameras on. By seeing one another and engaging in interactions, O’Hara hopes to create a
sense of connection. She remarks, “I miss that in-classroom experience where you get
immediate feedback. You can see the light bulbs turning on when you’re teaching something,
and you don’t get that with the screen. So, It’s tough, but I think having little things, like sending
a silly email with gifs of dancing animals goes a long way. They probably think their instructor is
cheesy, but hopefully it makes things feel more human and a little less distant.”

Cathartic Literature

For those people like O’Hara, who will “read and read and read and read and read,” she highly
recommends Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. “I read it before,” she says, “but when the
pandemic hit, I reread it because it’s this really great post-apocalyptic novel.” This timely novel is
set in a period when the Georgia flu sweeps across the world. O’Hara recalls: “It was a
comforting read because there’s this traveling troupe that puts on Shakespeare plays. In the
aftermath of a pandemic, they found a way to keep art and literature alive.”

Image of Alyse O'HaraAlyse O’Hara is a Ph.D. student specializing in early modern British literature. She spent her first
year attending classes and teaching virtually from West Texas, and she looks forward to
relocating to Connecticut over the summer.