A COVID-Era Thesis Defence

"Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon." My heartbeat pulses through my temples as I click the "Join Meeting" button. That Zoom screen is so daunting. It's a little hard to believe that my thesis defence is about to begin because it seemed like something that would never happen. Then again, I never thought I'd partake in virtual schooling and write a thesis without my academic cohort, but COVID had something to say about that. Yet, here I am, sitting behind my periwinkle laptop, awaiting the biggest presentation of my life. I frantically scan the dozens of post-it notes scattered behind my desk one last time. All year, I'd been fretting about the scenario in which I didn't know the answer to a question posed by someone much smarter than me. Would I be doomed to fail? I tell myself, "Deep breath. Just do your best, that's all you can do. Also, try not to blush." A grey wheel starts spinning on my screen. This defence is about to happen. And I'm as pink as a peeled grapefruit. As I enter my virtual room, I see half a dozen boxes arranged in a grid. I recognize my two supervisors while meeting my two evaluators for the first time. I've read their work and know them by name, but seeing their faces suddenly makes this more real. These are REAL people conducting REAL research, and they've read my work. That's slightly terrifying. "Welcome, Shayna, to your master's defence," our departmental director greets me. "How are you feeling?" Gulp. "Well, I won't lie, I'm a little nervous, but I'm looking forward to getting started." More like I'm looking forward to finishing, but that seems a bit too brazen to admit upfront. "I imagine so," the director graciously acknowledges, "but try not to worry too much. We're all looking forward to engaging in a rigorous conversation about your work." As the director outlines the format of the defence, my attention is partially directed towards a notification on my screen: "Wishing you all the best for your defence today. Love you!" I smile. I would never be in this position without my loved ones. I know my worth isn't determined by my work, but it helps to know that I'll have a wonderful community of supporters regardless of how everything turns out. "Unless you have further questions, let's proceed with your presentation," the director concludes his opening remarks. "That sounds great," I concur. My hand trembles above my laptop's touchpad as I share my 12-slide presentation through my screen. I also say a quick prayer to allow the Wi-Fi connection to work seamlessly for the next two hours. So far, so good. As five pairs of eyes orient themselves towards mine, I begin to speak. I've rehearsed this presentation enough times to know that I can comfortably land within my 15- to 20-minute time slot. Once I finish up my piece, my examiners and supervisors take turns posing questions related to their field of inquiry. I had prepared answers to some of the questions, so those were no problem. But for others, I try to formulate an on-the-spot opinion based on my research. I just hope it's enough. The director speaks again. "Thank you, Shayna. We'll place you in the waiting room for a few minutes as we deliberate and let you back in shortly." Once I'm booted out of the meeting, I exhale more air than I've ever let out in my life. My part is over. Now, I wait. Two minutes pass by in a flash as I try to regain my breath. Then three minutes... Five... Eight... Okay, so I'm definitely going to have to make changes, but whatever. I just want to rip the band-aid off and know what they are. Ten... Eleven... I'm about to pass out. Twelve... Thirteen... Fourteen minutes later, I'm brought back into the meeting. Everyone is wearing the same half-smile, which feels like the most difficult expression to dissect. "Hi, Shayna," the director says. "How are you feeling?" Like my head is about to explode. "A little relieved, but also happy it happened." "Well, I have some good news... We've decided to accept your thesis as is, without any changes." No... That can't be right. Is this for real? "Congratulations, Shayna." I guess so. We exchange a few more pleasantries, but I have no idea what's coming out of my mouth. I'm still fixated on not having to make revisions to a project that consumed my life for the past COVID-ridden year that I can barely hear any voices outside of my head. I fold my laptop to a close, and it takes all of three seconds before I start sobbing at my desk. It's over. My degree is finished. But it's not really my degree—it's the combined effort of several intelligent and loving individuals who helped me at every stage of this journey. My shoulders feel all the weight of that moment as I sit at my desk by myself, soaking up the reality of being free from this defence. Plus, I could finally satisfy my day-long craving for an Oreo McFlurry. Best McFlurry I ever had.

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