College students have gone through a hell of a lot in the past several months, forced to leave the place we called home without a chance to pack our bags, parting ways with our closest friends, having everything we’ve known about what “school” means completely reconstructed. Our lives have been turned on their heads and our futures are suddenly even more uncertain than before. Developmentally speaking, this is happening as we navigate the newly defined life stage of “emerging adulthood,” an age of “in betweenness,” as psychologist Jeffrey Arnett puts it, characterized by heightened uncertainty about the future and one’s place in it.
A new state of “in between” separates worlds before and after the coronavirus, and millions of students and young people are at risk of feeling even more lost and alone. I reached out to a group of fellow university students and asked them to join me in a focus group centered around student struggles amid COVID-19. I asked students to share their experiences navigating recent times and how they coped with and now continue to manage the upheaval of daily life and uncertainty about the future.
Names have been replaced with pseudonyms to allow students to speak candidly. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Indian SCENE: How did you feel leaving campus so suddenly? Did you think that you would be back soon?
Richa: With [my university], the way they shut down everything was really terrible. They said initially that only the week before spring break and the week after would be online, and we’ll go from there. Then, that first Friday they said we’d go through April 19 for online classes, but at that point people had already left campus for spring break and brought home only the stuff they needed for spring break. Then the first Monday of spring break they said we’re done for the semester and you only have 24 hours to come get all your stuff from the dorms, but a ton of out-of-state and international students were stuck either on campus or at home without their stuff. Luckily, I had packed up all my stuff when they first announced online classes, but it took me 2 days to pack everything and I had no help which was really hard. I knew things were going to get bad really fast, and I knew already things were going to be worse than what the school was saying.
But even now, a lot of people still don’t have their stuff and a lot of it was packed and sent to some central holding place. So anyone who didn’t pack up their stuff or go back and get their stuff is probably like “that’s the end of that.”
Rohan: I actually commute to campus from my parents’ house every day with the bus. So when this whole outbreak happened, it wasn’t such a big change for me. It was kinda like, so now instead of going to campus, I just have to do all my work from home. There was no real big moving out process, but I did have one friend who lives in Qatar and she had to get a flight out immediately. It’s kinda hard for me to understand what that must have been like; I definitely got lucky with my situation.
Ria: As soon as [university administration] started telling people that we’d be online, most of my friends started going home immediately. But I just didn’t want to go home because I knew I would be home for a while. I wanted to stay on campus as long as I could, so my roommate and I stayed for an extra week and just spent time together and packed everything up together. I could tell that for a lot of people who lived farther away it was really difficult to pack all their stuff in a car, knowing they couldn’t come back, so they had to get everything in there. Three days before we had to move out we were on spring break, and everyone was out of the country for spring break. So it was really chaotic because a lot of people thought they got the virus while abroad and we were all trying to move out; it was all just crazy.
The Indian SCENE: What’s one fun thing you’ve been doing over quarantine that you hadn’t had time to do before?
Richa: I’ve been doing a lot of baking- I haven’t really baked from scratch before, but i’ve been trying my hand at it”
Rohan: I’ve been playing ping pong! I haven’t played ping pong since middle school, but I’ve been doing that with my dad, so that’s been kinda fun to do
Ankit: Something I’ve been doing in quarantine is sketching a lot
Ria: One thing that I’ve been doing is Doordash driving. And it’s been really fun; I’ve just been driving around all over Michigan and it’s a good way for me to get out of the house.
IS: How has living at home been different from living on campus? What have been the hardest things to get accustomed to?
Rohan: When the email about things going online first went out, people were honestly happy with the news initially. My friends were like, ‘Yay online classes we all get to go home!’ But then I found out the NBA was canceled and I was like what am I going to do now? Stare at a wall or something? The first week living at home was honestly just really boring. My parents wouldn’t even let me go outside for walks; they were just like ‘No, you’re not leaving the house.’ But now, I think I’ve been able to find things to keep me more busy, without those things I’d probably go insane.
Ankit: For me, I hadn’t left the house in about 4 weeks or so until this past weekend. It’s been kinda hard to adjust to everything. The freedom thing is something I really relate to as well, because living with other people, things aren’t really as flexible as they were in college. Also, not being able to be active has been a big adjustment for me as well.
Ria: It definitely feels like high school again. Like I just went to college and now it feels like I’m back in high school doing work at home with my family. I’m the kind of person that can’t do work in my house, but now I’m being forced to do work at my house. Because of that, I’ve been trying to spend as much time as possible outside which is definitely keeping me sane during all of this. At school, even when I was stressed out I could look forward to the weekend, but now I don’t even know what day of the week it is. So, yeah, going outside, even going for a walk is something I can look forward to and keeps me sane. At first the hardest thing was figuring out what I’d do each day, but now that I have more of a routine I feel a lot better.
IS: Now let’s talk about academics — how did your study/school routine change after you left campus?
Richa: For me, what changed the most was the actual class dynamic. I’m in a small, discussion-based seminar for one of my classes, and when we were on campus everyone seemed to participate and be engaged. But now, over Zoom, everyone has their cameras off and participation has been a lot less. Because cameras were off too, the professor seemed kind of uncomfortable because he was talking to no one really. Barely like 2 or 3 people talk per class, so that makes it really hard to keep the conversation going.
Ankit: Most of my classes were lecture-based, so going online wasn’t that bad for me. I really liked that since a lot of them were recorded lectures, I could just watch them whenever I wanted and didn’t have to wake up early, which is nice. The only negative thing I’d say was that you really can’t replicate interactive activities in lab classes like dissections through Zoom. I really missed learning those things in person.
IS: What is your mental health like right now? Do you feel more or less stressed now at home than you did at school? What are you more stressed about now and what are you less stressed about now?
Richa: I feel less immediately stressed about things happening right now, but way more stressed about what’s happening in general and in the future. I’m really uncertain about a lot of the things I had planned for the future. So even though I’m not doing a lot of things that are causing me stress and I don’t have any deadlines, I’m just dealing with a lot of general panic about the future in general.
Rohan: I feel like I’m more stressed. During school, I would go to the gym 3 to 4 times a week, and since I’m such an energetic person, it was nice to expand my energy there. In quarantine, I was trying at first to do at-home workouts, but it’s just not the same. Because of that, I feel like I’ve been more jittery and anxious because I really have to expend my energy physically somewhere. And since I haven’t really been able to do that, and on top of schoolwork and everything else, I feel more stressed. Even though the load might actually be less, the huge change in physical routine I think makes me more stressed.”
Ria: I think I’m more stressed out just because everything is so uncertain. At school at least I know what’s going on; I have a routine and know when we end, when we go back, etc. But now, I just feel like I don’t know anything. Even when we go back to school, I know things will be so different and that stresses me out because I don’t like when things aren’t the same. I’m just stressed out about not knowing.
IS: What are 3 things that you are feeling right now and why?
Richa: One thing I’m feeling is frustrated– not necessarily with the situation, but more so with the people who aren’t doing the things we need to do to make it better. Like not wearing masks and all. Also, I think I feel a bit alone, not really lonely as I’m with my family all the time, just more disconnected from my friends. The third thing I’m feeling is definitely more reflective. During this time, I feel like everything has taken a break and I’m looking back more on the last few years and thinking about myself and my relationships and realizing that I might not really be living the life I want.
Rohan: First, I think I feel stressed and anxious because of schoolwork and not really having a routine like I did on campus. Obviously gratitude, not only for my parents for taking care of me, but also for all the opportunities I’ve had recently to give back. Lastly, I’d say I feel nostalgic looking back on all the memories I’ve made and time spent with my friends and family.
Ankit: For myself, I’ve definitely had a lot of anxiety. At the same time, I’m also really grateful for my home and my family. Also, I feel like I’ve been really creative recently, being bored has definitely given me more time to think about different things.
Ria: I’m definitely tired. I feel tired all the time because I have nothing to do. I feel more appreciative now of all the friends I’ve met at college, while I feel like I took them more for granted when I was at school. Lastly, I think I’m more motivated too; this has been a really good time for me to reflect and process a lot of personal stuff in my life.