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Mental health, learning challenges make campus return a promising prospect

After Virginia Commonwealth University closed in March, Monroe Park campus was empty. Students...
After Virginia Commonwealth University closed in March, Monroe Park campus was empty. Students are slated to return in August with social distancing guidelines and mask requirements.(Georgia Geen, Capital News Service)
Updated: May. 14, 2021 at 5:29 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. -- Devastated. Drained. Depressed. Those are just a few words college students used to describe the past 15 months since the pandemic hit.

This past year has been a mixed bag of hybrid and online learning, but many college campuses in Virginia are completely reopening in the fall. Students had different reactions to online learning, but many are excited to transition back to in-person instruction.

Students said their mental health suffered during the two and a half semesters of online learning. Many said it was worse during the first semester when the pandemic hit. Jamareya Thomas, a fashion merchandising and marketing major at Virginia State University in Petersburg, said that her mental health declined as her coursework grew more difficult.

“It definitely went down some, especially when I started taking harder classes,” she said. “This semester has actually been pretty good on my mental health. Last semester it was terrible, but this semester I was a lot more calm and collected.”

A survey of over 1,000 Virginia college students by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that 76% reported challenges to their mental health during the first months of the pandemic. Another survey of more than 2,000 students at Texas A&M University showed that 71% reported increased stress and anxiety levels. Only 43% said they were able to cope with this stress.

Amiya Brady, a nursing major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, said she endured a lot more stress from virtual learning as opposed to in person.

“I was drained and tired because of the excessive workload,” she said. “We didn’t have as much work in person as we did online, so it was kind of overwhelming at times.”

Nyasia Dozier, a criminal justice major at VSU, said there are merits to both in-person and virtual learning, but she “had a hard time adjusting” to virtual learning. She said she was devastated when classes moved online last spring.

“I’m more of a hands-on learner, so I need to be in class learning versus at home,” Dozier said. “When I’m at home, I’ll be lazy and I forget about my work. I’m not nearly as focused now as I was on campus.”

Julie Bernardez, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said virtual learning made the transition between high school and college more difficult.

“The hardest part is trying to figure out what’s OK and what’s not OK,” she said. “When classes are in person, you can raise your hand and go to the bathroom whenever you want, but people aren’t really taught online etiquette.”

Bernardez said tasks that were simple with in-person learning, such as contacting teachers or hearing the lecture, are now much harder.

“There’s a lot of issues that happen with online stuff that throws me off,” she said, “whether it’s trying to get a hold of teachers or Zoom technology, the video or the sound, isn’t working.”

Grana Ali, a biology major at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, stated in an email that while her mental health wasn’t affected too negatively, it was still difficult to adjust to a COVID-19 world.

“I was a bit unmotivated to do things and felt isolated,” she said. “It’s depressing seeing all the horrible things happening in the world around you, and it definitely takes a toll on a person mentally, but I feel like I’m doing pretty OK so far.”

Clinical depression increased 90% among college-aged young adults in the first few months of the pandemic, according to a recently published study. The students’ screen time more than doubled, socialization decreased by over half, and average steps taken declined from 10,000 to 4,600 per day.

Despite the struggles that virtual learning brings, students said that they have ways of boosting their mental health and motivation.

“Sitting in Monroe Park has helped a lot, just relaxing and breathing the fresh air,” Bernardez said. “I’ll go grab a smoothie and just sit on the bench with my phone put away.”

Other students take a break from school, but not from computer screens.

“I watch a quick 30 minute show, get a little TV time in, or even just play on my phone for a while to get a break from school,” Brady said.

Ali said Netflix is her go-to for entertainment, but she has also taken up reading more.

“I’ve really enjoyed it and used it as a way to escape from the realities of the world,” she said.

The isolation and struggles are why so many students anticipate returning to campus.

Many colleges and universities are still finalizing plans for the fall semester but have announced plans to be on campus with safety policies in place. A growing list of higher education institutions around the U.S. have announced a COVID-19 vaccine policy for students and employees, including some colleges in Virginia—though many of the state’s major colleges have not made a final determination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that vaccinated individuals don’t have to wear masks or social distance unless a law or regulation requires it.

Many college students are excited to return to campus in the fall, while others aren’t sure it’s the best course of action. Ali will likely return to campus.

“A lot of people have been getting vaccinated and abiding by the COVID safety rules,” Ali said. “I’ll most likely be returning to campus and as long as people are aware that COVID is still a risk and continue to do their part in stopping it from spreading.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.