Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
In 2020, my default response to the question “How are you?” has been a series of sighs in solidarity, acknowledgements of the atrocious year, and the added qualification “but I am OK.” At this point in the pandemic, though, I must admit that I am both anxious and jaded. Life has been virtually the same for me since March, when Melbourne, Australia initially went into lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Today we are still in a strict lockdown where in-person life exists only in a three-mile bubble and only for food shopping, healthcare, exercise, or tending to the sick. Public and private gatherings of more than five people are now deemed unlawful, with penalties for this violation recently tripling to almost $5,000.
In the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is situated, the government has prioritised public health concerns for COVID-19, implementing unusually strict safety measures. The government’s serious commitment to ensuring the control of the coronavirus is comforting, especially when compared with many other countries that are currently opening up both their economies and virus transmission. Yet, regardless of the measures taken to protect us from the coronavirus, the pandemic control is causing significant damage to the mental health of people in Melbourne.
This year has been extremely difficult for everyone in the world, especially those grieving the loss of loved ones and people with pre-existing medical conditions. In Melbourne, international students are emerging as one of the most vulnerable groups within the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these non-Australian students are unable to reunite with their families, pay for their housing, or support themselves financially, which is leading to strained family relationships, increased student homelessness, and a rise in soup kitchens. These international students have very minimal support from the Australian government, despite it providing generous financial support for its own citizens, and those specifically enrolled in the University of Melbourne can only receive up to $7,500 in total for this whole year if they can prove financial hardship. Anyway, this money was initially offered early in 2020 only as an incentive for Chinese students to return to Melbourne.
Such circumstances make me wonder: In the midst of COVID-19, is “Zoom University” worth it? What is the value of a college education when classes are all online via Zoom?
While these questions themselves are very hard to answer, many students are struggling even to meet the expenses of enrolling in the Zoom experience, since student jobs are quickly vanishing. We are spiraling into a global recession, with overall unemployment skyrocketing, which produces corollary harm on health and well-being. Young people are taking leaves of absences and dropping out of college increasingly this year to help support their families, find more work, and protect their health. Across many American public and community colleges, enrollment is decreasing at an alarming rate; for instance, at Miami Dade College, fall enrollment is down almost 18 percent, with a 20 percent decline among Black students. Residing on campus has often created the illusion of equality, or even equity, in our living arrangements, but through our “Zoom University” experiences, we are learning that not all students have access to the internet or a quiet “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf famously terms the base requirement for a writer. And through conversations with friends and reading various articles on the experiences of college students, we are learning about the disparate financial backgrounds of students and how different students are facing varying levels of hardship this year.
To study in the midst of this pandemic is a privilege. Admittedly, as my parents are still able to financially support my education, I am one of the extremely lucky ones in that I can direct most of my attention to college classes. The space to think critically about the society that we live in, the time to read books that expand my mind, and the opportunity to have discussions with professors and peers who challenge the way I see the world — all of these are nourishing me. However, online learning is not a substitute for the in-person college experience. “Zoom University” is a sub-standard offering for those who have the privilege to study and have the choice of attending.
Earlier in the year, administrators and educators scrambled to shift college courses online and the quality of education dipped the most during the first few months of the pandemic as frequent technical issues prevented students from accessing content and attending classes. And while lecturers are now better trained and prepared to adapt to the online classroom environment, “Zoom University” is proving to be a poor temporary substitute for immersive in-person learning. Virtual classes continuously face technical issues of internet connections and software problems and even diminish the level of communication that people would normally have during discussions. Body language and non-verbal messages are lost as we are suspended on Zoom and reduced to floating two-dimensional faces in rectangles, or black boxes for those who have chosen to turn off their webcams.
On Zoom, my attention and participation in classes are sporadic, with my mind often distracted when working on assignments, especially when I can’t go out for a walk to get fresh air whenever I want a break. Concentration operates differently in a pandemic, I’m discovering. Time is all the more weird in 2020. The sameness and monotony of every single day, as the hours, days, weeks, and months blur into each other, are making our experiences of time strange, consequently affecting how we envision and experience our quarter or semester. Gone are the lovely fleeting moments of informal contact in corridors or hallways with academics we admire; no more bumping into cute T.A.s or other students we vaguely know but want to be closer with; and farewell to the incredibly awkward, but pleasantly hilarious, greetings with lecturers in our college gyms. Even instances of collective stupidity and joy that evoke a shared sense of humanity are largely missing — as ridiculous as it is, I miss the occasional cacophony of me and my friends (rather embarrassingly) cackling at our inside jokes, even if or especially when the sounds would echo on campus, to which one of us would be startled by and tell the rest of us to shush for our obnoxiously loud laughter. Thinking about the number of close friends I met by chance on campus also makes me wonder, how many more people could I have befriended this year if the pandemic never occurred? These dear friends are so different to me too, making me realise that meeting people in college can really foster relationships between people from vastly different backgrounds. Online college spaces regrettably cannot facilitate meeting fellow students from our beautifully diverse cohorts in the same way.
“Zoom University” is tough. Much like the mental health of millions of students, mine has declined this year. Still, I am coping. Now in my second semester of “Zoom University,” I am writing essays, listening to pre-recorded lectures, talking to friends (when my Zoom fatigue wanes), and reminding myself to go on walks (while social distancing and wearing a mask). Frankly, I do not know how I am functioning in this climate of heightened anxiety and continuous string of global disasters… Perhaps coping in this pandemic is not about thriving in lockdown, but about finding, or at least trying to find, a balance between working productively and caring for oneself. This notion of balance in itself is maybe even a naïve, myopic, and unattainable goal as the world is evidently ever-evolving and extremely unpredictable. Even though the scale of the pandemic makes our everyday worries seem relatively minuscule, our lives are not put on hold. Our education still matters. Our self-growth still matters. Talking to people, seeing nature, eating well, and exercising, even in the form of a home workout in front of a screen (ahhh) — they all matter.
The global toll for coronavirus-related deaths is past one million, and I neither have words of encouragement to offer, nor believe that a turn to blissfully ignorant positivity is appropriate during this difficult time. The vast scope of the waste of human life is hard to comprehend, especially as the coronavirus has swept through nursing homes and has had a significant impact on health-care workers and on those with already vulnerable health. What lies ahead is still unknown, though it will certainly involve many more deaths and very considerable suffering for many people. Hope is certainly powerful, especially in times of adversity, but it is very different from the relentless positive thinking or boosterism that have become too common today.
Although college life has suffered considerably, the Melbourne lockdown has been effective in preserving lives and ensuring the safety of people. Some university administrators involved in economic management, however, have advocated for the opening up of colleges more quickly and extensively. Vice Chancellor Duncan Maskell, the head of the University of Melbourne, suggested callously that we should think about pandemic responses in terms of the different values of human lives, asking “[W]hat is the value of a 90-year-old’s life versus the value of the continuing livelihood and happiness of a 25-year-old?”. It is horrifying to read of one’s own university leaders advocating for the economic interests of the university by suggesting that a greater number of elderly people’s lives should be sacrificed for the well-being of young people and for the university’s annual budget surplus.
To students who have decided or are still unsure about continuing college this semester, my genuine wish is for everyone to make choices this year based on our most pressing needs, be it physical, emotional, or financial, and prioritise our survival and well-being. The uncertainty of what lies ahead is unsettling, perhaps even frightening or dreadful, since the college experience is not as prioritised as it was previously by universities. “Zoom University” is diminishing the quality and intensity of college education; yet, discussions of a move to online education are becoming more prominent. How should young people react to the changing conditions of higher education? And nevertheless, the reality for many of us is that we still have papers to write, problem sets to do, and art to create. Even our grades still count. Remember though that external and self-imposed pressures to perform at our best and continue our college education are not rooted in the realities of 2020, but the fantasies of a pre-COVID world.
In a pandemic, wisdom may well be defined by making decisions based on the primary concerns of the present moment. Regardless of whether we pause or resume our studies, may we all show each other and ourselves compassion when prioritising our health, livelihood, and loved ones. Let’s have the strength to acknowledge our suffering and do the best we can to survive.
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