Dhyan Adler-Belendez, Ed.M.’18
Founder | Grad Guru | Mexico City
On the morning of March 26, my business partner and I read the news that Mexico City, our largest client base region, had just been declared a “red zone.” We hunched around our work computer, scrolling through the details. The term roughly translates to do not leave your home unless strictly necessary. Mexico City, like many other cities around the world, was entering a lockdown amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Luis and I, both graduates from the Ed School, started the ed tech company, Grad Guru, to support and encourage Latin American students to pursue their graduate studies abroad. We remember how intimidating the graduate admissions process was for us, from writing the statement of purpose to the mental marathon called the GRE. On several occasions, we doubted ourselves. There were so many requirements to get through, all of which seemed likely to lead to an unforgettable email rejection. But we managed to stay committed, often working through the weekends on vocabulary decks or divisibility problems, printing many revisions of our statement of purpose, and before we knew it, we were walking on Appian way towards class.
On March 26, when Mexico City entered its lockdown, we saw how quickly our website traffic plummeted. This was no surprise. Lockdown was not simply a physical phenomenon. It was also psychological. Pursuing graduate school abroad when the whole world was shutting down and immigration offices could change their travel restrictions from one day to the next became less of a priority. At the same time, our inbox became flooded with questions from our test prep students who were concerned about how they would take the standardized tests, and if they would be able to travel to and from graduate school abroad.
During this time, we helped our students make sense of what was going on, and to plan ahead for different possibilities. One of the qualities that students liked about our program is that we were always available to them. We could answer questions about prime factorization or how to format a resume at almost any time of day. But we had entered a situation in which our knowledge about how things would unfold was often no more accurate than tossing a pair of dice. Would ETS cancel their test centers? Would specific programs offer remote or in-person instruction? Would the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office change their travel restrictions the following month?
Entering a red zone also meant that we were no longer able to meet with students in person. Luis and I both enjoyed offering our students coffee sessions, in which we would meet to go over TOEFL or GRE questions and give them constructive feedback on their essays. We had already experimented with teaching a portion of our courses online, but the pandemic forced us to switch to fully remote services.
As the weeks passed and the total number of infected cases kept rising, many of our students started postponing their application plans. Some of them had lost their job or had their wages significantly reduced. Many questioned whether Zoom sessions from home would justify the high tuition costs.
Three weeks after Mexico was declared a red zone, we paused our marketing campaigns and instead focused on rebuilding our services online. We applied instructional design principles we had learned at HGSE to improve our virtual courses and our content materials. We have gradually become more knowledgeable about tools to engage and support our students.
As devastating as it has been, this pandemic has forced educators worldwide to move out of their comfort zones. For us, this has been a great opportunity to reinvent the way we were teaching and to improve the educational services we provide to our clients. We have learned the hard way that online courses cannot simply be a replication of what we were doing in the classroom. Due to many unexpected challenges — like interacting with students whose faces we couldn’t see — we had no choice but to innovate our teaching practice to stay relevant to our learners. Throughout this process, student feedback has been our most powerful tool.
It’s been 19 weeks since Mexico City was declared a red zone, and we have started to welcome new students remotely. Yesterday, a woman from Colombia sent us an email sharing her personal story and her frustration with the GRE. She was seriously considering giving up on her dream schools because she thought she wasn’t “smart enough” for a test like the GRE. We beg to differ. This morning, we sent her a link to connect via Zoom for our first meeting, in which we plan to begin by restoring a sense of self-efficacy and confidence in her ability to beat the test. Like her, many bright Latin American people feel that top graduate schools in the United States are out of reach. Luis and I have both been there, and we know how important it is to have someone who is constantly reminding you to trust yourself, to believe in your ability to learn and grow every time you make a mistake, and to appreciate even the smallest steps forward. This is the experience we want to give to our students, and we are not letting this pandemic stop us from achieving that.
Dhyan Adler-Belendez, Ed.M.’18, has worked as an instructional designer in Mexico. He is co-founder of Grad Guru and is currently building online guides to teach engineering skills to underrepresented youth. Adler-Belendez is planning to pursue a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology in the nearby future. Her business partner, Luis De la Viña, Ed.M.’xx, is co-founder of Grad Guru. For the last six years, he has been teaching at Universidad Anáhuac Querétaro (México) where he also coordinates the undergraduate program in psychology.