My Master's program flew by, but when I look back on all I accomplished during my time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I can't help but marvel at all that happened during those two brief years.
My experience, like many others during this time, was shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic. Just over six months after arriving in Illinois, classes, extracurricular activities, and recreation came to a sudden halt. While part of me is saddened about the experiences I missed out on, I am actually grateful for the timing of the pandemic.
I am thankful that I was able to finish my undergrad, my senior year and all the experiences that go with it, prior to the pandemic.
I am thankful that I got to meet many of my classmates and colleagues in the Fall of 2019, forming friendships that carried me through the pandemic and allowed me to retain some sense of community. Before the pandemic hit, I was able to explore some of the surroundings and culture of the area. I visited the Arthur Cheese Festival, witnessing my first cheese-curd spitting contest, sampling flavored cheeses and desserts, and even winning an "Amish Strong" competition, where I competed in challenges including lifting milk barrels above my head, tugging a weighted buggy down the street, deadlifting barbells with wagon wheels attached, and flipping tire tractors. I also attended the Urbana Sweet Corn Festival, the Japanese Matsuri festival, and the Ellnora Guitar Festival. I picked apples at Curtis Apple Orchard, cheered my roommate on at the Chicago Marathon, and watched a performance of the Champaign Women's Amateur Wrestling (CLAW) club. I can only imagine what other adventures I could have had with a little more time in central Illinois.
I am grateful that the classes and research that I worked on during the pandemic allowed me to work entirely remotely. Because of this, I was able to spend more time with loved ones. I spent weeks at a time with my (now) fiancé in Alabama, taking a car-load of electronics with me on each visit, so that I could have my full at-home office setup. I worked from the road with my roommate as he explored the southwest, searching for the next city he wanted to live in. Although 2020 was a year of little travel for most people, I actually spent a fair amount of it away from home, following all safety procedures and with limited interactions of course.
I am thankful for the way that the University of Illinois handled the pandemic. Researchers at the university developed a rapid saliva test, which the university mandated weekly or more use of for all faculty, staff, and students on campus and in the area. Although it sometimes felt silly that the only reason I ever went to campus was to be tested, the extra sense of security that it brought to know that I and the people I interacted with continued to test negative relieved some stress during a stressful year.
One of the reasons I picked UIUC was so that I would be able to continue pursuing my duel interests in power and cybersecurity. I am so grateful that my classes and research supported this goal. I got to take basic and advanced classes in cybersecurity, and even had my first introduction to a machine learning through an ML for systems, networks, and security class. On the flip side, I took classes in control theory, dynamic system reliability, and large-scale system analysis techniques. I sincerely enjoyed taking class from all of my professors, and each class challenged me in new ways. I expanded on both my technical and applied skills, as well as my theoretical understanding of a variety of topics. I'm sure I would have learned what I needed to if I had decided to enter the workforce directly after undergrad, but looking back on all of the papers I read, presentations I gave, and projects worked on, I feel like I have a much more advanced skill set since I started grad school.
Outside of classes and research, I really enjoyed being a part of a variety of student groups on campus. I took on leadership roles for the Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE), the ECE Graduate Student Advancement Committee (GradSAC), and the IEEE Power and Energy Society. Each of these groups allowed me to meet people beyond my close circle of colleagues and classmates and appreciate the larger communities that I was a part of on campus.
I will be forever grateful to my advisors, research mentors, professors, co-workers, and classmates for all the experiences I had in grad school. I learned and developed so much in such a short time, and I can't wait to see how the skills I learned and the connections I made continue to support me throughout my career.