Self-care days still hit grad students who teach unequally


A “self-care day” for Alison Mahoney means a day for her to tend to her mental health, and not worry about income. It means having some time to work on specific research related to her academic interests or spending time with her family. 

Instead, Mahoney, a graduate student in the Department of Theatre Arts, spent her self-care day on March 24 writing a funding application for the summer, since financial support isn’t guaranteed. 

“I think one day in the middle of the week for self-care is sort of a difficult thing to take advantage of, because it comes in the middle of a busy week,” she said.

Pitt’s self-care days have been getting mixed reactions from the Pitt community, especially from graduate students.

The days, first implemented in the fall 2020 semester, are a result of Pitt adjusting its academic calendar, designed to help limit student travel and the potential spread of COVID-19. They were created to give students some time to rest and recharge since they would not have their Thanksgiving and spring breaks during the semester.

The first student self-care day took place on Oct. 14. The spring semester had more self-care days on Feb. 23 and March 24. Faculty and staff also were given the March day off this week.

Mahoney said overall, she’s had a positive experience with self-care days so far, and that her department has encouraged its students to take care of themselves.

However, Mahoney also said her peers have had a hard time taking the day off.

Following the October self-care day, Morgan Pierce, the vice president of committees for the Graduate & Professional Student Government, heard a range of issues from graduate students.

Some were unhappy with how the days have been implemented, and some were not able to participate because they had to do classwork and some professors didn’t accommodate for the day.

In some student government meetings, Pierce said, graduate students said they were confused with the messaging surrounding the days. 

Even Pierce, who was a teaching assistant in the fall 2020 semester, wasn’t sure if she had the day off from classroom duties. Regardless, the intention behind the days is extremely important, she said.

“I think that the self-care days are really not just actively useful for students in that they can take a mental, emotional, physical break, but also in symbolically, from the University, saying, ‘Hey, we care about you. We care about your health. We care about your mental health, your physical health, your emotional and spiritual health. We want to recognize that and give you a day for yourself to take care of those things,’” Pierce said.

Pierce drafted the “Self-Care for All” resolution, which called for the self-care days in the spring to be University-wide academic holidays. GPSG members adopted the resolution on Jan. 27.

Life as a student is already stressful, Peirce said, and the pandemic and recent incidents of racial injustice have exacerbated these feelings.

“Even these self-care days aren’t fully sufficient for all of us,” Pierce said. “We are all going through a really difficult time. It’s not just the pandemic. As a country, we’re having a reckoning with systemic racism in a way that we haven’t seen, really, since the Civil Rights Movement, at least in popularity and popular discourse. I think it’s really important to recognize the insanity of this moment and to symbolically and actually say, ‘We care about you.’ ”

Emilee Ruhland, a graduate student assistant in the English department, said at first, she was skeptical of the self-care days. 

She, nor her undergraduate students, even knew what a “self-care” day was. To her, the day was a random and weak attempt to compensate for the adjusted academic calendar. The University just didn’t go far enough.

“I think it’s kind of problematic to introduce a self-care day, but not actually have any sort of voice about what that looks like for the students and for the teachers,” Ruhland said, adding that her undergraduate students said that they had exams or tests on that day or soon after.

Ruhland said it was frustrating that “there just weren’t many resources to make that a manageable process” for self-care days. 

Even though she enjoys her position, she wasn’t able to participate in the self-care day on Feb. 28.

“I don’t think the University took into account what this kind of self-care day looks like for someone who isn’t simply a student,” Ruhland said. “I couldn’t really take, without feeling really guilty for leaving behind a lot of things I had to do ... a self-care day on a randomly prescribed (day). … So, I didn’t take a self-care day, I worked throughout the day.”

Several of her peers had similar experiences, she added. 

Mahoney echoed Ruhland’s struggles of feeling guilt for actually taking the day off. Both Ruhland and Mahoney are affiliated with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee where Pitt graduate students are in an ongoing unionization effort.

“So many people are sort of feeling guilty for taking the day to take care of themselves because they have all of this other work to do,” Mahoney said. “Grads who teach too are held accountable to their undergrad students, so having the extra day doesn’t feel like a day for themselves, but a day to catch up on work that they may have fallen behind on.

"Self-care days aren’t an adequate substitute for longer, more substantial breaks during the semester,” Mahoney added.

Sreemoyee Dasgupta, a doctoral student in the English department and part-time faculty member, agrees that a single day in the middle of the week is not the most effective way to encourage self-care, especially since graduate students are incredibly busy most of the time.

“A grad student’s research never really stops,” said Dasgupta, who also is affiliated with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee.

She was happy with the self-care day programming and resources offered by the University Counseling Center, but they weren’t advertised well, she said. Students in her classes didn’t know about the programming 

“I feel like just offering those was not enough,” Dasgupta said.

For her, catching up on work also can be a form of self-care. A self-care day frees up time for her to get some work done, or to simply rest and recharge. It gives her a choice, but she’s not sure if everyone has that choice.

John Stoner, a co-chair for the Senate Educational Policies committee was concerned with posts on Pitt’s Reddit page where graduate students detailed their negative experiences with the self-care day in the fall.

Vice Provost for Graduate Studies Amanda Godley said in a Senate Educational Policies committee meeting on March 15 that some graduate programs were given leeway for the self-care day, but not every school and its students could participate. For example, some schools couldn’t because of their unique academic schedules and accreditation purposes or because clinical labs couldn’t be rescheduled.

Godley said the incidents where self-care days weren’t observed were primarily confined to graduate students.  

“I think we’re hearing pockets here and there. And we don’t want that to be the case, but I didn’t get the sense that it was equally widespread across programs,” Godley said. 

Godley said it can be difficult to address specific issues and instances since Pitt’s academic departments have different demands of their graduate students.

“It’s very hard to address those specific issues,” Godley said. “But I do think in general, we heard that at the graduate level, there was not as much observation of that day as we had hoped.”

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Joe McCarthy said communication and participation in the self-care days have gotten better since the first one in the fall semester.

For example, the University Center for Teaching and Learning gave faculty tips on how to accommodate students in a blog post on Feb. 1.

“I know that there were even entire schools that didn’t recognize what they were supposed to do with self-care day in the fall,” McCarthy said. “And we certainly had nipped that in the bud through very diligent communication. Are there going to be students that were upset? Yeah. And I’m sure that the students will be very vocal about it. But I think overall, there was much better adherence to the self-care day and the spirit of the self-care day, this time than there was in the fall.”

Senate Council President Chris Bonneau that he’s gotten fewer requests from students to intervene and get faculty to accommodate for the self-care days.

He said he got roughly 10 requests in the fall, but in the spring so far, he’s only gotten one.

“So that’s not necessarily representative data, but it did seem to go a little better. I’m not sure why some faculty members are fighting this, I apologize to the provost’s office on behalf of some of them, but I just don’t know what the hardship is here. It’s one day. Figure it out.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905. 


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