What Is It Like To Graduate College During A Pandemic?

This May, college students across the globe will "cross the virtual stage" in a live-streamed commencement ceremony if they're lucky. Then, they will receive their diploma in the mail and the undergrad life will be in the rearview mirror. There are no giant graduation parties, night out at the bars with friends or *relatively* happy hangovers the next morning. This is the reality forged by the novel coronavirus. Now, obviously, everyone is hurting, but university students are certainly enduring astronomical amounts of stress.

For Kent State students, the fear started rising when those studying abroad in Florence were abruptly flown back to the U.S. after the CDC declared a Level 3 Travel Health Notice. In less than a month, Kent State canceled all face-to-face classes through the second session of summer teaching, opting for remote learning and sending all students home. Many graduating students in Kent and beyond did not get the satisfying sense of closure that comes with all the "lasts" from their undergraduate college careers. Instead, their final days in class were spent on a Zoom call with their teachers and fellow students. In fact, the internet did not sleep on the opportunity to create Zoom U merch

Photo by Christin Hume from Unsplash While at home, many students admitted they felt a loss of motivation to do schoolwork and needed to prioritize caring for immunocompromised friends and family members, as well as themselves. Watching video lectures became a second thought to getting groceries and making masks. Some teachers adapted well with understanding, while some were unwavering in changing their course syllabus. Additionally, many students were appalled to hear that they would be left out of the stimulus bill, followed up by no rent freezes and unclear legislation on student loan forgiveness in the middle of a recession bearing unemployment rates comparable to that of the Great Depression. Splendid. 

Let's admit it, the world kind of sucks right now, and being a young person today is wild. However, there are a few silver linings. For one, Flashes really did step up to take care of other Flashes, such as in the case of this grocery service and these students who stepped up to donate masks. Also, some students across the nation have been insanely creative with their graduation ceremonies by building their school virtually in Minecraft and by celebrating on Animal Crossing. 

Photo by Felipe Vieira on Unsplash

When separated, it's easy to feel alone and like no one understands the pain you're going through. Her Campus had the chance to talk to a few graduating seniors from Kent State University across several disciplines to see how their year ended, what their job search is looking like and advice they may have for high schoolers who are navigating college life in, perhaps and hopefully, the weirdest time we will all live through. Just remember– you are not alone. These Kent students feel your pain, too, and have their stories to share about looking ahead with uncertainty. (The students' names will remain anonymous due to the nature of the questions.)

 

1. How did going online for your senior year impact you mentally, emotionally and physically? 

Film major: Going online for me was strange. First off, just when the virus hit, there was all this uncertainty and fear that was really hard to cope with. I remember it was hard to focus on anything without staring at the COVID numbers or talking about it. I had to be high or drunk to get by most of the days just cause my anxiety levels were so high, I ended up not being sober for the first 6 or 7 days after school closed. That definitely didn't make it easy during classes. I remember I was drunk during my first Zoom conference, and day drinking isn't a normal occurrence for me. I suppose I just needed something from thinking about everything too much, especially with my parents being in the prime demographic for the virus. I'd say that all had a negative effect on my mental and emotional health... while also helping in a super unhealthy way. Online classes have never been something I've engaged with, so it was difficult. My GPA definitely dropped due to the second half of this semester. Senioritis coupled with a growing cloud of anxiety/depression turned class into an afterthought. I passed though! I'm also in a lot better headspace than I was a month ago.

Fashion major: I already had the majority of my classes online this semester, but going completely online was a hard shift. Suddenly, I had to come to terms with the fact I would never be on campus again, never got a chance to say "goodbye" to my friends, never be in the radio station again. To say I was upset would be an understatement. It impacted my schoolwork as well, as I wasn't in the right mind to think my classes were important among the fear and depression I was going through. I didn't finish as well as I would have normally.

Public Relations major: Going online takes a lot out of you; it took a lot out of me. Mentally and emotionally I was exhausted. I never felt energized or motivated, which is very unlike me. I slipped into a routine of "just getting by" and "doing the bare minimum" for classes. It was so hard to focus in class because I have a dog who doesn't understand that being home does not mean we have time to play. He cries and whines and barks to get our attention, so I usually had to mute my speaker and video and either play with him or find ways to distract him, which in turn distracted me from my classes too. I found things that I liked doing, like cooking and baking, but these hobbies started to get expensive and I started getting worried about financials. It's like this horrible fall down a mountain and you just keep going faster and faster. There are some good days with Zoom calls and socially distant visits with friends and family, but I think about all the memories I would be making with graduation, like walking at graduation and celebrating the end of the semester downtown with friends, Fake Patty's Day, friends' birthdays, last moments with my friends before they moved states. I know I shouldn't focus on those things, you can't change it, but it hits me every once and I while what I've been robbed of.

Physically, I lost more than I chose to accept. I had a road trip planned for this summer hiking some of the hardest hikes in Utah and Colorado, and this semester I had monthly goals to increase my endurance and muscle mass so I could rock climb. I was going to climbing gyms, swimming weekly, running a couple of times weekly and working out almost daily to make the most out of my summer vacation. I have, unfortunately, lost a large sum of my muscle mass and my endurance, and I gained weight. I know it is partially my fault for not pushing myself, but with all the emotional and mental stress I've been under I have had no energy to work out.

Theater major: I feel like shifting to online classes made it harder for me to actually absorb any information. I'm so used to the tools of discussion, and the loss of traditional structure made it really hard for me to maintain focus on my assignments with any real sense of continuity. That being said, having more freedom to determine how and when I did things was a nice degree of freedom, but when you weigh it against the loss of human contact, the cons outweigh the pros.

Photo major: I suddenly no longer had access to the photo studios or the endless amount of equipment and it felt impossible to see any of my projects through. To keep it short, this last semester kept throwing obstacle after obstacle at us and this one was huge. I had no motivation or passion to continue creating when this felt like the final blow. Doing one task a day felt extremely exhausting. And I felt like the work I was creating did not matter in the grand scheme of things.

Coronavirus Unsplash

2. What were your plans after graduation before the pandemic ensued, and how did they change to now?

Film major: My plans post-graduation have mostly remained the same. I wasn't planning on moving to any cities. I think my long-term plans are what shifted most: there is no certainty about if film festivals will still open, which has the biggest effect on me right now as I figure out what I'm going to do with my senior project film. I planned on having a big rollout of my film to festivals but now I'm sort of just keeping an eye on everything so as to not waste my money.

Fashion major: I had a really promising job prospect right when the shutdown occurred. I was waiting to officially hear my acceptance when they called to tell me they canceled the position instead. Now, I don't really have any plans beyond working at my local Target.

Public Relations major: I'm fortunate enough to have plans that didn't change too much yet. I plan to attend the University of Cincinnati School of Law and that has not changed yet. However, there are rumors of universities not reopening in the fall and that scares me. I don't think I will survive law school online because of how difficult the transition is. I also don't know where to live because I don't know if I need to be there or save my money and stay home if the classes are virtual. My boyfriend of 2 1/2 years also could not find a job in his related field due to a hiring freeze in a majority of engineering companies. He has to go home to Illinois and we have to be long-distance for the first time in 2 years. 

Theater major: My plans before the pandemic were to move to Chicago in the fall and to try and forge connections in the arts scene there. That's still my plan for the time being, and it looks like everything should still happen in the same timeframe, but I'm about to enter an industry filled with whispered anxieties about the possibility of going under. If it was hard to enter the arts scene before a pandemic, it's going to be even harder now, especially with the aftershocks of a significant economic recession. The arts are already so underfunded in America - especially compared to other countries like Germany and the UK, our government spending on art and culture is frankly pitiful. I'm worried that people are going to point to this recession as a reason to continue to underfund arts initiatives.

Photo major: I had interviews and multiple opportunities that vanished when everyone suddenly was on a hiring freeze because of all the uncertainty. I currently don’t have a set plan, and I’ve found comfort in not having a plan at all and going with the flow. It’s impossible to plan anything because nothing is guaranteed. I’ve stopped beating myself up about it and remind myself that an insane amount of people are going through the same thing and its OKAY.

3. How is your job, grad school, etc. search going at the moment? 

Film major: Nearly non-existent. I suppose it hasn't always been my goal to seek out a job immediately, I can definitely say as a producer/director for media there aren't a lot to find anyways. A lot of my work will be self-produced, and that is what's most difficult. You can't shoot anything right now unless it's on an iPhone at home -- which is great. It's important to keep practicing your craft, but it's not entirely the same experience-wise.

Fashion major: It's not. The fashion industry is in shambles right now so I'm not actively looking for a full-time job.

Public Relations major: See above, that sums up my feelings about that :)

Theater major: Uh, pretty bad! It's going pretty badly. I've already sent in so many applications to all these minimum wage places, you know, gas stations and fast food joints and convenience stores, and I'm getting absolutely nothing. I think the only thing more frustrating than working an underpaid, underappreciated service gig is not even being able to work an underpaid, underappreciated service gig. It makes me really mad! You know, I don't get a stimulus check - a lot of people our age aren't getting anything from the government, so if no one's hiring, and the government won't give us the money we need, what are we supposed to do? I'm applying for unemployment benefits, but those services are just so overwhelmed because our society isn't built for this kind of thing. I think American capitalism really relies on best-case scenarios, and now we're seeing what happens when that train completely jumps the track.

Photo major: I’ve stopped searching and decided to take this time to create for myself and focus on me. I am trying to move to Cleveland where I have solid connections for when things do open back up snd the job search begins again. I intend to start off by freelancing and assisting and just going from there!

4. How do you think universities can/should help students should the fall semester go remote as well? 

Film major: I think most professors need to realize that consistency is important. When you aren't meeting every day in person, it's difficult to track assignments and due dates -- especially through Blackboard. Professors need to email reminders for assignment due dates. They need to take the extra step and remind and remind again when assignments are due because that is the hardest part about online classes. Schools should also make sure to adapt the free therapy they offer to an online setting.

Fashion major: Being more lenient and understanding in these crazy times is the biggest thing. Revising the attendance policy and grading scales to reflect the fact that we are all traumatized and emotional turmoil takes a lot to deal with. Making mental health care more accessible (maybe even free!). Majors in the arts that have really suffered due to not being able to have hands-on learning should be fully refunded.

Public Relations major: As I mentioned, I am horrified by the idea of virtual classes in the fall. I know, for me, I am not disciplined enough or have a quiet space to teach myself completely new material (which I was lucky enough not to worry about with this last semester). You can't do law school online, no one has ever offered law as an online degree for a reason. It's too much. And I feel that there is a certain amount of truth in this for other difficult classes like maths and sciences with labs and clinicals. For these hands-on courses, and first-year students in grad, undergraduate, law school and med school programs, I don't know if universities can make up for this. There will be a significant increase in drop out because these students are learning or retaining these practical and/or new experiences.  

However, for other courses, I think universities need to increase the amount of writing and specialized tutors and TA's for courses that can aid in giving specialized help per class and keep students on track. They need to make sure students are asking questions and critically thinking about questions that may need to replace how discussions open people's thoughts and see other views. Tutors and patience are going to be two major keys, I think.

Theater major: I think the biggest thing universities can do to help students is just to be empathetic and understanding. Online learning isn't conducive to everyone's learning styles, myself included, but I was really lucky to have professors who were completely patient and understanding if I couldn't get an assignment in before the deadline. I think you really have to go easy on your students - we're going through this moment of collective societal trauma, and not everyone is going to be able to keep up at the same pace. I've heard a lot of horror stories about professors who have gone the opposite direction and gotten stricter with their demands and frankly, I don't think there's evidence that it helps students to learn more effectively. If anything, it actively harms them. I also think that Kent State specifically, although plenty of other universities have had these problems too, has historically had a bad track record with accessible mental health services, and I think in an era of isolation, we need those resources to be widely available more so now than any other time. I think that, as schools are planning how to make classes work more effectively, they should make a game plan to ensure mental wellness treatments work effectively. Like I said, it's a moment of collective societal trauma.

Photo major: Universities should prioritize the mental health of their students. Remote learning is not easy and everyone has a different living environment. Some are not ideal or adequate for learning. Communicating resources and honestly just keeping in touch and checking in does wonders. I don’t know how I would have finished this semester if I didn’t have professors who reached out to me and expressed that they believed in me.​

Anna Schultz-Girl On Computer Stress Anna Schultz / Her Campus

5. Do you have any advice for high-schoolers entering Kent State in 2020? 

Film major: Don't go into college trivially, which is to say, don't do just because you think you should. In times of economic downturn, getting a higher education is a great option, just be sure you're doing it for the right reasons. Especially if you're not sure how you'd handle online classes, be very wary of jumping into this headfirst. If you're going to do it though, I would say stay focused. The BS college classes you have to take are going to be difficult, but you have to keep the end goal in mind. I was in Digital Media Production, and in this major, self-motivation is the #1 most important thing to have. You can teach yourself so much with YouTube and other online resources. You need to reinforce what you are taught in class with extracurricular studies– especially if everything is taught online.

Fashion major: Honestly, freshmen should really reconsider going to college in the fall unless the institution has confirmed that they can be on campus. If it's just going to be remote teaching, they're better off taking classes at their local community college: they won't be missing much and it's cheaper and they'll get those credits out of the way. Then once the campus reopens they will be able to enjoy what college has to offer beyond the classroom!

Public Relations major: To keep it plain and simple, don't give up. It is easy to feel upset and give up on learning, but the most important thing to remember is that education makes you better and it helps you grow as a person. Continue to learn about yourself and your passions through your studies so you can appreciate the college experiences you'll have when campus reopens. Try and look to the future and think about the long run and all you want to achieve when this is over because, one day, it will be over. 

Theater major: My advice for high schoolers depends very much on whether we're in person or on campus in the fall. If we're in person, my advice would be not to take a SINGLE thing for granted, and to really appreciate where you are and who's around you. On the other hand, if we're still in remote classes, let me warn you, incoming freshmen, this'll probably suck. Just being frank. The expectations are going to be different, but you're probably still going to be at home, so you won't be able to experience the really amazing differences between college life and high school. Just be patient with yourself. You have four years - don't try to rush any of it. And keep in mind that it isn't always going to feel this way. Some day, you're going to have it all.  

Photo majors: Know that you’re in wonderful hands. I am so proud to be a Golden Flash and have been so taken care of by a university who truly cares for its students. They too are continuously adapting to these situations as more information comes in and will not have all the answers immediately. No one really has the answers. But I can guarantee they will be working as hard as they cant to problem solve and offer creative solutions with your needs as a priority.​

6. Have your goals changed at all in this short amount of time? If so, how?

Film major: My goals haven't changed much in this time, though I think my values have a bit. I think I've realized my breaking point, and it's made me realize the value of relaxing. Surely you can be too  relaxed to the point of laziness, but the opposite end of the spectrum is just as bad. Overworking yourself is the worst thing you can do because it ultimately will hurt your work! There is a value to not scrolling through Twitter every chance you get. There's value in positivity. Cynicism is a trap that a lot of college students fall into, and it's one of the worst things for you creatively and emotionally. It can be useful in small doses, but cynicism leads to a lack of caring, and that's the worst thing for someone pursuing a career. That's what you're doing at college, pursuing a career, something you're not just supposed to care about, but something you're passionate about. Passion is something that will carry you far and attract like-minded people to you. Humility too, don't be an arrogant asshole either. No one likes a snotty film major. That's about all I have to say.

Fashion major: My long term goals still remain the same, but in the short term I really just want myself and my loved ones to stay healthy. The goal is to get to the other side of this without anything else getting worse!  

Public Relations major: I think I have begun to focus on myself and made a lot of goals to learn more about my hobbies and passions. Without hanging with friends and school work I get to understand more about who I am and what I like to do alone. My goals are to volunteer more, create delicious cookie recipes and focus on my physical health, like running a 10-minute mile (because me and cardio are NOT friends).

Theater major: My goals have actually changed in a couple of really positive ways since all this happened. I've shifted my artistic focus more towards writing - I finished my first freelance job a couple weeks ago, and I'm about to publish my first book, and all of that helped me realize how much I love writing and how consistent writing can be as opposed to other forms of art which depend more on environment or circumstance. Writing can be very private, and very inward, and it can be very cathartic in times like this, where those private, inward parts of yourself are the only world you can explore without fear. The other thing that's changed is that I've gotten a lot better at being alone. I used to really depend on the approval and validation of others, and I'd let these people-pleasing behaviors affect the way I made my art, and the way I made my life decisions. I used to feel sometimes like I was living for an audience, and I still feel that way sometimes, but I think I've gotten to know myself in a way that makes it easier for me to be more honest and genuine. And so, I'd say that my goals have shifted away from trying to impress people, or get people to like me, or live how I think people think I ought to live, and my goals have shifted a lot more towards finding what makes me feel content on a personal level. I've had to learn how to find happiness within myself, and I hope I can continue to do that after all this is over. It's really freeing.

Photo major: The idea goal of having a job right after commencement has vanished, but I’m okay with that. A lot of my personal goals have changed because I tend to be way too hard on myself but the situation of this pandemic has really forced me to take it easy. Not holding myself to an insane standard of what I should be accomplishing with all this extra “free time” has been great to be kinder to myself

a hand holds a pen writing on sheets of paper on a wooden desk. there's a coffee cup and a notebook in front of it. Free-Photos | Pixabay (Self-isolation and quarantine are linked to mental health deterioration. If you or a person in your life needs extra care right now, refer to resources here. Stay safe, read trustworthy news outlets, watch health experts and stay in touch with loved ones. We will get through this. Congratulations Class of 2020. You'll change the world!)