This is the first in a series of stories about how our students coped with COVID, and the stresses of learning from a distance, during the past year.
In the comic book world, it takes a nuclear accident to transform an ordinary person into a superhero. But for 34-year-old Mercy College senior Kerlisha Mason Broomes, a spiky microorganism and a year of near-isolation did the trick, boosting her determination to astronomical levels.
The journey there, though, was tough.
“I was raising my daughter, running a cleaning business, holding another full-time job, and maintaining a heavy course load towards my psychology degree before the pandemic,” says Mason Broomes.
Keeping all those plates spinning required the right combination of time and geography.
“I’d study when things were slow at my administrative job, take notes longhand in class because it helped me remember things, and I’d try to never, ever bring work home,” she recalls.
The formula worked when life was predictable. But by March 2020, it was anything but.
Suddenly, the family was trapped at home – along with the rest of the world. Kerlisha and daughter Kiana, 5, became virtual students. Husband Samuel watched his professional painting assignments end. The couple’s second job, running an overnight cleaning service, endured COVID cutbacks. And there were unrelated family disasters.
“My niece was shot in the head, then my brother had a major car accident, emergency surgery, and suffered two brain embolisms. Both survived, but it was an unbelievable time,” says Mason Broomes.
Her mother Yvette, a retired Grenadian schoolteacher, had always been a source of support. But her current home in Brooklyn may as well have been in Grenada. Nothing was accessible, her remaining siblings were scattered far and wide, and life seemed shaky.
“I was finding it hard to fully concentrate on my studies and grasp certain concepts. It seemed to take more time to get things done,” she recalls.
As a Mercy College peer counselor, a licensed mediator and an orientation guide, Mason Broomes had always guided others through tough periods. Now, she was the one who needed bolstering.
She corralled her Mercy mentors, including a PACT counselor and a valued professor, for advice. They listened to her concerns, soothed her fears and helped her devise a new approach. The plan called for establishing specific times during the day for study, work, childcare and even relaxation. It was precise, unbreachable and required rock-solid commitment.
“Every day I had to literally motivate myself to act like I was going to work and to class,” recalls Mason Broomes, “So I’d wake up early, have breakfast, get dressed, find a reasonable spot to concentrate and stay away from the couch or the television. If I let my guard down and didn’t follow the schedule, the program would fail.”
As the ritual morphed into a habit, things began to fall into place.
“When you keep doing something over and over again, it becomes easier to adapt to it. And then it becomes natural, just a part of who you are,” she adds.
Weeks into her new regimen, she began to see powerful benefits.
“I developed a greater ability to be present and, in the moment, than ever before.” That ability alone cultivated self-confidence.
Years after having started and left two previous colleges, she is about to graduate in May with her dream degree – during the worst pandemic in a century. Starting immediately, she plans to pursue her master’s degree in psychology from Mercy College. After that, she will begin a lifelong career as a behavioral psychologist; one devoted to helping others acquire similar determination and self-knowledge. She’s still not sure whether her new skills were sharpened because of COVID, or in spite of it.
“I think this year taught me that believing in myself and being as disciplined as possible were incredible skills, and I could guide others to validate and believe in themselves, too” says Mason Broomes.
“With the right combination of belief in yourself, support from others and discipline, you can succeed in whatever you commit to,” she concludes. Pandemic or not.