Campus News

‘In the red zone’

Meredith Tozzer thought the shutdown would last a few weeks. She had no idea of the challenges she and her family would face.

Meredith Tozzer and her husband working from home while their son stayed home from daycare with them during the pandemic. (Image courtesy of Meredith Tozzer)
Meredith Tozzer and her husband worked from home while their son stayed home from daycare with them during the pandemic. (Image courtesy of Meredith Tozzer)

Meredith Tozzer is a former Carolina employee and a recent graduate of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA program. Her story is part of The Well’s COVID Diaries, an occasional series exploring the physical, mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on members of the Carolina community. If you have a story to share, email us at thewell@unc.edu with COVID DIARIES in the subject line.

Have you ever had that thunderclap moment, where suddenly you are fully aware that you have hit a point where something has to give? I had that moment last summer in the middle of a team meeting during my MBA internship with Cisco, the network hardware company. I was halfway through getting my MBA at Carolina. I had decided to go back to school at 33, with a husband and a toddler, well before the global COVID-19 pandemic. But I couldn’t have prepared for how COVID would impact my MBA experience, and my family.

I was sitting in a team meeting, and someone had introduced the idea of doing a “green, yellow, red” stand up. You go around the room and categorize your workload — like a green is, “I’m good and can help out as needed.” A yellow is more like, “My workload is heavy, but I’ll be OK if I can accomplish these five tasks today.” A red is, “I can’t take on anymore and I need help.” I just started crying because I thought, I’m at a red, and I don’t even know what help looks like. I was trying to do school, trying to be a parent, trying to work with my classmates on addressing the social and racial injustices happening around us and trying to support other students amplifying their needs with the school’s administration. I was burnt out.

Something had to give.

A few years earlier, I had the honor of working with Laurie Mesibov from the University Ombud’s Office. She must have seen something in me, because she had asked “So, what are your next plans?”

I’d been working at Carolina since 2011. I’d graduated during the financial crisis with a degree in history and art history, and honestly at the time I had just been excited to find a stable job with good hours and a reasonable salary. But I also got to come back home to UNC. I’m one of eight Carolina alums in my immediate family. Not only that, but my husband, Josh, is also a Tar Heel. Together we’d seen how a Carolina education can change lives. Being a part of that mission has been so important to me and working here was so much fun. Every day was different.

But when Laurie asked about my long-term plan, I had no idea. I was over 30, had a baby and I kind of thought this was my best. I had never been given permission that, as a mom, I could ever do anything else. But Laurie told me about how she had gone back to school to get her law degree at 35, with two kids, and hearing that made me think about my future in a way that I’d never thought was possible.

In spring of 2019 I was accepted into the MBA program at Kenan-Flagler Business School. My colleagues at Carolina were incredibly supportive; they burst into cheers when I got the good news. Even though it meant I was leaving my job, they wanted the best for me.

My husband and I decided to sell our house and move into a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment to be closer to campus. It was half the size of our house, but I was no longer earning an income, and the sacrifice in space was worth being in walking distance of my son’s daycare and a five-minute bike ride to Kenan-Flagler.

The first semester and a half were idyllic. I love learning and I got to spend my days digging into books and course work. I would go to class and study on campus, ride my bike home and then walk over to pick up my then four-year-old son, Jojo. We’d walk up to Franklin Street to have dinner or swing by Merritt’s because it was so close.

The MBA program focuses your core classes in the first semester so that you have more freedom to choose electives for the remaining time. Kenan-Flagler operates on a quarterly schedule they call mods, and at the end of February 2020 I had just wrapped my final core classes in Mod 3. I was excited to start the elective courses I’d chosen and relax during our two-week spring break.

Then I started seeing news of the shutdowns happening in Italy and hearing from friends and family in California. I told my husband, “I think we need to prepare to go into a shutdown.” Instead of relaxing and planning for the next mod, I spent spring break cleaning the house and stocking up on supplies. I had a feeling that things were about to get wild.

My husband works at Duke, and they announced they were going remote. Then the business school went remote.

My son’s daycare was open, but there are a lot of children of essential workers there, and so we thought, Well, we’ll do our part and keep him home so that the people who have to work on the frontlines can keep their childcare.

We thought the shutdown would last a few weeks. We had no idea.

My plans flew out the window. I completely reworked my class schedule in an attempt to strike a balance with my husband’s full-time work schedule. We created shifts where his meetings would be, so instead of the classes I wanted to take, I was taking the classes that fit into a schedule that worked for all of us. We bought a tiny desk for our bedroom so that we could have a room with a door that shut for important meetings and classes that couldn’t be interrupted by a rambunctious 4-year-old. And I was really regretting the whole “one bathroom” thing.

It was one of the toughest transitions our family has ever had, especially for Jojo. Before, when we’d been together as a family, we could focus our attention on him. Suddenly, we were trying to work, learn and live all together in 900 square-feet. It was just a completely different life experience. He couldn’t see his grandparents or his friends, and his parents had to do stuff during the day. He wasn’t used to seeing us go into a room and shut the door. He didn’t understand why we couldn’t pay attention to him or play with him. Sometimes he’d come in and sit in my lap while I was in class to see the people inside my computer. We joked he was getting his pre-k MBA.

I think we underestimate how traumatic this experience has been. It’s not even the fear that we’re going to get sick or the economic stuff. It’s just the disruption of our everyday routines. And that is magnified greatly for young kids, who thrive on routine.

Jojo turned five in May of 2020. He’s a social kid and he took being away from his friends hard. We tried to make the best of it, organizing a Zoom birthday party for him. It ended up being heartbreaking. He came to me and said, “Mommy, can we just have them come over? I promise I’ll stay 6 feet apart.” It made him really sad to see his friends and not be able to be with them. That was the hardest. I’m an adult. I can deal with my feelings. But seeing Jojo sad about losing his friends was tough.

I had a couple of professors and administrators who really didn’t understand the challenges of being a parent with a small human sitting on you during your classes. The MBA is very interactive. Participation is a huge part of class and can be upwards of 30-40% of your grade. And they really weren’t prepared to make accommodations.

The pandemic highlighted a lot of spaces where nontraditional students like me face different challenges. Often, in normal times, people adjust to make their own accommodations so that they don’t have to identify their differences. But with the pandemic that isn’t possible. Everyone is in your house, and it’s harder to have your differences fly under the radar. People see where you live, who you live with. Or maybe you can’t keep your camera on because there’s not enough internet bandwidth and you can’t afford more.

So, after a wild spring quarter, building the plane as we flew, I started my remote internship with Cisco. I was a bit apprehensive, but they did a great job building a meaningful experience for us. They set up weekly small group meetings for us with the internship coordinator and would rotate the groups so that you had an opportunity to interact with all the other interns. It was a chance for us to get to know each other more intimately, but it was also a chance to get together and say, “This whole thing is bonkers, right?”

My thunderclap moment came in the middle of my internship. George Floyd had been murdered in May, and protests had erupted around the world. Earlier in the year, I’d been elected the MBA Student Association vice president of diversity, equity & inclusion, which meant that my student position that was supposed to be low-key during the summer had a lot more responsibilities than I anticipated. Our student group knew that something had to be said, but we didn’t really know what to say. We, as leaders, were dealing with the same difficult conversations as those with much more experience — and even they were unsure of how to engage and talk about the reality of racial violence and systemic racism in our country.

In the midst of all of that, along with my personal challenges being a parent and student and partner in a pandemic, I broke down crying in the middle of a meeting with my intern cohort. I realized I was in the red zone.

I felt like I was trying to strike a balance in a time that had no balance. Balance had gone off the rails. Cisco gave me the confidence to ask for help. Vulnerability is a strength, they said. So I was vulnerable and reached out for support. I started therapy. And I learned to create better boundaries, to not always say yes, even though I might really want to.

We ended up taking Jojo back to daycare. It was too much having both of us trying to work from home. On top of that, he was sad, he was irritable and he missed his friends. If we did a play date at a park, he would completely melt down at the end, because he’d gone so long without seeing his friends and didn’t know when he’d see them again. In his mind, he left daycare on a Friday in March and then didn’t see his friends for months. Going back to daycare gave him back some structure and let Josh and I get our work done.

In August, Jojo started kindergarten. Remote. On an iPad. In our living room. He’s in a Spanish immersion program, so that was kind of scary. I had no idea how that would work. But his teachers were amazing. Can you imagine kindergarten on an iPad with 12 small humans? These teachers have the patience of saints and should be paid way more.

Over the next few months, I witnessed my son’s life in a way I never would have during normal times. We started each day with circle time and songs. I watched him learn to read, sounding things out one letter at a time. I got to see how he was with his friends, how he interacted with them. It was exciting to see him enjoy school, even under these circumstances. Remote kindergarten gave us all a sense of routine that had been lost during the pandemic.

We hadn’t seen our families over the course of the pandemic. But we made plans with my in-laws to have Christmas Eve together. The last time we’d seen them was for Jojo’s birthday back in May. They’d driven an hour from their home in Virginia but hadn’t gotten out of the car, because we knew if they did, Jojo would want to hug them.

A few days before Christmas, my father-in-law called and said he had a sniffle. We decided that they shouldn’t come, which was really disappointing. A week later, he was in the hospital with COVID. They actually transported him here to UNC and put him on a ventilator. The doctors called Josh and told him to prepare for the worst. They didn’t think he was going to make it.

Like everyone, we were eager for 2020 to end. The new year would be a new start, we thought. Things would get better. But instead, 2021 felt a lot more stressful. My father-in-law was in the ICU for two and a half weeks. And then school started back up. I was looking towards graduation and wondering, What’s the next shoe to drop?

Spring semester felt like the end of a marathon where you’ve hit the wall, but you know you must finish. I felt like that person clawing my way across the finish line. In the end, I watched Commencement from my living room wearing a silly crown I’d bought on Amazon. And then we turned off the computer and went to my son’s soccer game. The pandemic had shifted my priorities, and it was more important to me to spend time with my family and friends that were here to support me. I didn’t miss sitting in those hot robes in the middle of Kenan Stadium.

Today, I’m at a green (sometimes a yellow). I accepted a full-time position with Cisco and will start in August. The position is fully remote, and we are staying in Chapel Hill. Our new place has a big yard, TWO bathrooms — and an extra room for an office.