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Students adapt as pandemic continues to affect higher learning

They’re giving it more than the old college try.

College students throughout the country have in many ways been robbed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students returned home and avoided campus, either taking a gap year or continuing their degree from home. Students who remained on campus had to be rather isolated. All students missed the one-on-one instruction with professors and the feeling of finding a new friend in class. And for the time being, bar nights are rare, and dancing in crowded, sweaty basements, along with other kinds of larger gatherings, is a fantasy from yesteryear.

Researchers have found that COVID-19 has increased the depression rate among college students. That’s not to mention the physical health threat of the coronavirus. According to Connecticut College’s COVID-19 dashboard, a website that tracks coronavirus statistics at the college, 48,753 tests were performed on students and employees between Aug. 17, 2020, and Jan. 31 of this year. There were 67 positive tests among students and 46 among employees. In February of this year, six more students and six more employees tested positive.

Students have been resilient in adapting, whether it’s to their new routines, new friend groups, COVID-19 safety protocols or classes. They are hopeful for the future. And they’ve complimented their respective institutions for staying open and keeping students safe.

Anna Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore English and environmental studies major at Connecticut College, said even if she wanted to stay home, she had to go back to school because she needs a quiet learning environment. She spoke candidly about how the pandemic has affected her college experience.

“I really didn’t want to go back to school, and I know this is sad, but I don’t really wanna be here, I just feel like I have to be here for my education,” she said. “I live in a small house in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where if I turn my camera on, or I unmute, someone’s going to be yelling in the background. I just can’t do school from home, so I have to be here, but socially it’s very bizarre.”

The pandemic has twisted and sometimes ended the college relationships students value. Smith said she lives in a pod, a group of people she has limited contact with in her dorm, and she only has “real human interaction” with one person: her freshman year roommate, who lives next door.

“You get disconnected from everyone you were friends with or developing relationships with last year. I have one person,” Smith said. “We were instantly best friends. I love her to death, we’re really great friends, but it’s just us. This is the first time we’ve ever gotten — we don’t get in fights, but we definitely get annoyed with each other because it’s just me and her for the first time.”

Sam Crockford, a 21-year-old Conn junior studying government and architectural studies, had about a year and a half of college before the pandemic.

“Things are obviously way different. It’s not the same, it’s not the college experience I had before this,” he said. “College is so much about meeting new people and socializing. Except for a very small group of friends, I don’t really interact with anyone else in any meaningful way. A lot of my friends decided not to come back, whether they were just going online for the whole year or they actually took the year off. I have quite a few friends who because of the pandemic have just kind of lost touch.”

Crockford said students are only allowed to be in another person’s room while wearing a mask. The number of people who can gather depends on the size of the room.

“Conn’s a really close-knit community,” he said, describing what social life was like before the pandemic. “There are definitely bar nights here, but mostly it was just pretty good-natured gatherings of various sizes at houses or dorms. The big difference is going out used to be meeting new people, and that just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Students acknowledge the toll of the pandemic before admitting that the classic college experience, with nightlife and adventure and freedom, has for the moment disappeared, replaced by something less exciting.

“I just want to be a 21-year-old,” Crockford said. “It’s selfish, I know, because there are a lot of people who are dealing with a lot worse things, but I think a lot of people in our generation are frustrated. Being young is a time when you’re social, and I’ve seen a lot of people become very insular and isolated, and we’re kind of forced to. I’m very glad to be back on campus and privileged to go to Conn, which can afford all the safety measures, but it’s been such a drag to have to literally let go of your social life.”

Smith said she’s not an avid partier but hopes college becomes “more about being social and having fun again.”

“Right now it’s all about my education, which is important and is the real reason I’m here, but I’ve lost sight of the social part of it while spending so much time in my room here alone,” she said. “I want to actually be able to go to college parties. I feel like so many people recall their best memories being really just fun crazy nights you had in college. I only had a couple of those because it was my freshman year, and most of the time we can’t even get into parties as freshmen."

Yalissa Rodriguez of New London, a 19-year-old sophomore at Wesleyan University studying neuroscience, also spoke of isolation and missing friends who decided to be away from campus. She was at Wesleyan for about half a school year before the pandemic.

“A lot of students did not come fall semester. I would say it seemed like less than half of all students were on campus,” Rodriguez said. “The campus is really lonely. In a sense it kind of matches how fall usually is where like it’s dark and gloomy, but the isolation on top of that makes it harder.”

She said students can’t interact with one another the way they used to. “In 2019, you wouldn’t have a single thought about hanging out or going to someone’s room,” she said. “Since COVID, you have to rethink and reconsider, ‘What’s the most considerate thing I can do that keeps you, your friends and your families safe?’ Even wearing masks all the time, too, it's kind of hard to recognize people, to have that connection.”

Despite the difficulties, Rodriguez said she and other students have matured through experiencing the pandemic together and are finding ways to be social and positive. One such respite has been the outdoors.

Everyone is walking and running outside, sometimes multiple times a day, she said. The Foss Hill area with an expansive green at the heart of campus has been a saving grace.

“Wesleyan students, we’re outside, that’s something that can’t be taken from us,” Rodriguez said. “We’re reading books outside, you see everyone running as a way to get out of their rooms. Since we’re taking classes in our room, we’re sleeping in our room, we’re hanging out in our room, there’s no separation between schoolwork and being in your room anymore. The desperation to get out of your room was tough. Wesleyan students went outside.”

Crockford said whenever it’s warm enough, Conn students also go outside. He’s found some solace in going to the library and studying in pairs.

Smith said it’s been important for her to find a way to have a routine. She misses the normalcy of eating with people for every meal, of getting up, dressed and ready to start the day. That’s not something she thought about pre-pandemic.

Smith adopted an emotional support guinea pig, which has become quite popular on campus. She also got a job at the coffee shop on campus. “It’s given me something to do that I didn’t have last year. It’s given me something to get ready for,” she said. “It’s only a couple times a week, but it’s nice. At least I get to do something, and I haven’t been able to do really any jobs since the pandemic. It’s nice to get paid too.”

Crockford is currently working on a project focused on mapping patterns of stress-related deaths from 1999 to 2019 that he wouldn’t have been working on without the pandemic. He had an internship lined up for this past summer. That fell through because of COVID-19, so he applied for a research grant from the school because “I was kind of panicking.”

“Luckily the school gave me funding,” he said. "If I hadn’t been galvanized into having to figure out a research proposal or project, I never would’ve done that. The school was really helpful in encouraging that. That’s something positive that came out of the pandemic: I got a lot of work done.”

The students praised their professors for being flexible and for making an effort to keep everyone engaged.

“The pandemic’s been hard on everyone, but I’ve already had mental health issues my whole life,” Smith said. “When the pandemic hit, I had to try new medications because it got worse, and the professors have been so great and understanding about that. If I email my professor, ‘Hey, I’m having a hard time right now, could I have a couple days more on my essay?’ They say, ‘Take as much time as you need.’”

Rodriguez said she’s glad to be back in an in-person class. Most professors have decided to do online classes, but that’s slowly starting to change. “Right now, my spring semester, I had my first in-person class, which is my Italian class,” she said. “To sit back almost an entire year after COVID hit and have an in-person class again of about 10 students, with everyone wearing masks and spaced apart, it’s very surreal and feels a little bit like this is what it will be like going forward.”

Smith said the school has been diligent in testing and in letting students know if there are positive cases of COVID-19. Crockford in particular said Conn testing students twice a week made him feel safe about coming back to campus. There has been some confusion about whether students need an appointment to get tested, though, Smith said.

Students said their peers were, for the most part, being careful and not holding large gatherings. But there are certain rules they observe their counterparts regularly flouting, such as not wearing masks when in rooms with friends or having gatherings with two or three more people than the limit.

All three students looked forward to a world, and a college experience, less impacted by COVID.

“Even though COVID has been unpredictable, I’m still hopeful that I can do what I have to do and graduate, achieve that goal and still meet amazing people,” Rodriguez said. “Living through a pandemic and being a mini-adult or a young adult, I feel like after this, what’s next? I’m ready for what’s next.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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