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The New-New-Normal: How Has Graduation Changed?

An interview with Jin Xia on her experience as a student in the class of ‘21—working on a thesis during lockdown and graduating remotely

The ways in which the pandemic has changed our lives are too many to count, but a very obvious one that comes to mind is major life events—weddings, birthdays, and all types of cultural ceremonies and celebrations have had to be adapted to a new reality. Some found alternative formats, going online one way or another; some have been pushed aside, waiting for less complicated times; still, others were completely forgotten, skipped for good.

As another academic year draws to an end, and with it another year of living alongside Covid-19, it’s interesting to see how it’s affected one of those significant life events: graduation.

The class of 2020 was the first to deal with the implications of the pandemic in an academic setting, facing uncertainty and changed circumstances for their final year and thesis project. But what about the class of 2021? A year into this “new new-normal,” were they a year smarter and more prepared?

In trying to understand how this year’s reality manifested in the lives of graduating students, we chatted to Jin Xia—MFA Illustration Practice graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art, and a Wix Playground Academy alum—about her recent graduation experience.

Xia’s thesis. Us And Them, combines illustration and web design to explore conflicting narratives covered in the US and Chinese media during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wix Playground: Tell us a bit about the process of choosing the topic for your thesis. Obviously it addresses the pandemic, did you know from the start that you want to take on this subject?

Jin Xia: The way it works at MIC, is that at the end of our first year, we have one month to design a self-directed project, which is intended to help us get into thinking about our thesis. At first, I was working on a really personal narrative about childhood, but then as the pandemic happened and changed everything, it also changed my chosen topic.

Personally for me, coming from China and reading all the news in both American and Chinese media outlets, I could really see the differences in reporting and sense the tension between the two countries. The more I got into it, the more I thought this was something worth exploring, and a year long project as my thesis seemed appropriate.

I was in a unique position as a bilingual person, being able to see the different narratives and divided views. It was such an interesting phenomenon to me, and I also knew that most people were not aware of it. I wanted to reveal these two sides, while finding my personal way to tell the story. It ended up as a combination of editorial illustration and web design.

WP: How did the new circumstances affect your work process? The self-isolation, the online remote work—was getting feedback and receiving help and advice different than usual?

JX: All in all, I felt quite supported in the process, having weekly one-on-one meetings with my mentor, who was really supportive and gave great feedback and advice even through online meetings.

The silver-lining of self-isolation, for me, was that I got to have more time at home, meaning more time to work on the thesis uninterrupted, which I appreciated. I felt it provided me with the opportunity for extra research and learning things I was not necessarily so fluent in, such as journalism and media.

WP: How was your motivation impacted? Was it harder to find energy and inspiration during these times, to cultivate creativity?

JX: In terms of creativity, yes, it was a harder time to keep motivated by yourself. I was lucky that our program was such that we have a very supportive community. We organized picnics and walks, so that we could provide mental support for each other and share our thoughts and struggles. It was definitely something we talked about amongst the students.

We also had an Instagram chat group, where we shared creative ideas and inspiration to keep us going. Whenever I felt bad or unmotivated those little things really helped. It makes you realize your peers feel the same way, and so you don't feel so alone in those emotions.

WP: Let’s talk about the final outcome and presenting your project. Did you have an actual exhibition?

JX: We had a virtual grad show on the school website, nothing offline in the real world. Since last year’s graduates also had a virtual-only exhibition, we were already expecting it and were prepared for it, so it wasn’t a disappointment. In that sense, I guess it felt much better than last year, which had to accommodate the new reality in a very rushed way. We already knew what to expect. I really don’t envy the graduates of 2020...that must have been so hard to be the first year to go through this and try and figure out how to make it all work.

It was a bit disappointing of course, not seeing each other's works in the physical world. But we did have a celebration, the school organized a party for us with a screen showing our works in an open space. We all got tested beforehand and got to enjoy this part at least.

WP: The pandemic practicalities and restrictions meant most of the school’s facilities were not available for use. Did you approach the project differently, knowing you were restricted in the way you were going to work on it, or the fact that it would be presented in a digital format? Did it impact your choices, or make you compromise something in the process?

JX: The format I chose was digital in part because of the restrictions. I knew we were headed for another year of showing our graduation thesis in an online format and I wanted it to be presented in the best possible way. In addition to that, I also really wanted to experiment with online editorial design, so going for a digital format served that goal as well.

And yes, knowing I wasn’t going to have access to printers or scanners in school made a printed project seem much harder to produce, adding a lot of pressure and uncertainty.

Some of my friends did create books though, and made mockups, so I’d say that it wasn’t as if the pandemic and the new restrictions and show format influenced everyone—for me it was a combination of that and my personal inclination to go for a digital project. Honestly, I think I would have made a website anyway.

WP: Recently, the term languishing made headlines in a New York Times article by Adam Grant that went viral, describing that in-between feeling, neither depleted nor energized, a feeling of stagnation and emptiness that so many of us feel as we emerge from lockdown into life.

Does that sound like a familiar feeling, describing how you felt while working on your thesis and during graduation?

JX: It actually really resonates with me. I guess my creative experience anyway is one where I would have these ups and downs, feeling pulled in different directions emotionally and creatively. And then the pandemic just made it worse. I guess this year also made me much more aware of my emotional state—there was no escaping from it—you paid attention to how you feel all day and every day.

I also think that as students, we are so used to being around people all day, being surrounded by our classmates and peers. So working alone in my room automatically made me feel less energetic and have those dips in my motivation.

All the emotions were definitely heightened by the pandemic and the fact I was working on such an important project during those times. It’s hard to tell though what would have been better, maybe having such an important thing to work on has actually pulled me through, knowing it was so important I just had to do it and go ahead.

Thank you to Jin for sharing your experience and thoughts, and stay tuned as we go on to explore graduation in 2021—keep your eye on this space.


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