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by Rachel Halpern | April 16, 2020

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As college students across the U.S. pass the one-month mark of COVID-19 quarantine, it’s worth reflecting on how we’ve been dealing with our new realities. Some of us may have settled into a routine of work-from-home, while others may still be struggling to adjust to online classes, lacking motivation or experiencing other mental barriers. For almost all of us, COVID-19 has derailed life, and there’s no denying that it’s generated a lot of loss.

I’m a sophomore in college, and can’t help but feel that I’m losing precious time away from a campus and people I love. I think of how rapidly the institutional policies changed with the spread of the virus. First we moved to online classes and were told we could remain on campus after Spring Break. But then we were told we couldn’t come back to campus and had to move out as soon as possible. Seniors scrambled to secure graduation photos in their robes as students wheeled suitcases out of empty dorm rooms. Zoom was suddenly all over my social media feeds, and soon I was tuning into lectures from the comfort of a spare bedroom in the house I grew up in.

Shortly after moving to online classes, my university adopted a mandatory Pass/Fail policy. Initially, I was frustrated with the “mandatory” condition. I felt I'd put in a lot of effort this semester, and was counting on my semester grades to factor into my GPA to strengthen a potential future application to law school. But after reading several Facebook posts and tweets from my peers, I came to support the mandatory policy, believing it was the most equitable solution. There was one tweet in particular that drew me to the bigger picture: “like what kind of doctors and lawyers were y’all trying to be exactly that your priority is getting an A in a class over your classmates’ wellbeing.”

If you attend a school that implemented a similar grading policy and have mixed feelings about it, try to think about your motivations behind your feelings, and see if you can gain perspective from that. Also, keep in mind that graduate schools and employers will see that your university implemented a mandatory Pass/Fail policy as opposed to an optional one (anyway, it might seem suspicious if your university has an optional Pass/Fail policy and you only pass the “harder” classes).

The reality of taking classes online under a Pass/Fail system creates an odd dynamic my friends and I have picked up on. Under Pass/Fail, work still has to be done. It doesn’t necessarily have to be done well, but it has to be done. Similarly, school might feel kind of optional right now, but it’s really not. For me, this dynamic has invoked greater procrastination and less time devoted to studying outside of completing assignments. I feel like I’m learning less, simply because I’m not in an environment where I’m motivated to attend to my studies. It’s difficult for me to find motivation without an immediate assignment due, when there are so many distractions in my house and so much uncertainty about the future.

However, with time, I’ve found it’s been especially helpful, right before lecture, to read the portion of my textbook that will be covered in lecture. That way, I’m in the mindset for lecture and have a slight familiarity with what my professor will be talking about. Also, taking notes on the anticipated material focuses my mind for lecture in the same way that walking into a lecture hall full of my peers would. Because lectures are now typically recorded, there’s less incentive to listen to them live. I find that doing some extra preparation before live lectures gives me that incentive to listen in and reinforce what I’ve just seen.

When I prime myself with the material before lecture, I’m more engaged with the material, and thus more motivated to understand the material for the sake of knowledge and curiosity, instead of understanding it for the purpose of an assignment or an exam. This can help make up for a general lack of motivation felt in quarantine. If you have a friend in your class, it can also be helpful to talk to them over the phone about the class material, to hold both of you accountable.

In addition to schoolwork, COVID-19 has also affected social relationships. In this time of social distancing, you might be feeling lonely and isolated. I certainly did when I first returned home from campus, and I still do. But I’ve been combating these feelings by spending time outside when weather permits, and by keeping in touch with my friends over the phone. This includes going for runs and walks, both by myself and with friends from high school (six feet apart). I sit out in the front lawn with my dogs, and chat with my neighbor across the street.

FaceTime has been a great way to catch up with friends from school and to hear about their lives in quarantine. Instead of meeting one of my friends at the library to work on computer science together, we call each other and talk as if we were at school together. Last week, my parents and I had a happy hour with a family friend over WhatsApp video call, and later this week I’m planning to watch a movie with one of my best friends from high school over Netflix Party.

We know social media allows for broader opportunities for connection, and COVID-19 has only enhanced that. Facebook groups have developed to bring students together, whether it’s a new meme group: “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens”; a themed dating/friendship community: “MeetJew University”; or even a Greek Life chapter: “Zeta Omicron Omicron Mu.” Real relationships between students from all over the country have formed from some of these groups, relationships that otherwise probably never would have formed.

Additionally, college students have mobilized to start various online initiatives, like organizing groups of students to virtually tutor children of healthcare workers in New York City. There are virtual hack-a-thons through both universities and companies, and often, with these hack-a-thons, come free online workshops in programming languages and graphic design. In my hometown Facebook group, musicians have been offering virtual lessons to kids and adults who have their own instruments at home. With an excess of free time and energy, people have found it rewarding to offer their services to those in need. Just because we have to social distance doesn’t mean we can’t still connect with and learn from each other.

Ultimately, throughout all this turmoil, I’ve found that the most comforting thing for me has been to remind myself that it’s important to keep perspective, but it’s also important not to invalidate my feelings. My situation could always be worse, but it’s upsetting to be away from school and my friends, and that’s okay.

Rachel is a sophomore at Barnard College, Columbia University, studying computer science and law. When she’s not watching her Zoom lectures, she enjoys reading, running, and watching "Law & Order: SVU" reruns.

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