Students at the University of Richmond have adapted academically, socially and emotionally to a strange and volatile fall semester. Policies formed to stop the spread of COVID-19 have had the necessary impact of making students more isolated and have removed typical avenues via which students find friendship and connection.
First-year orientation was largely virtual. Many classes were at least partially virtual this semester. Students could not sit and eat freely with friends in the Heilman Dining Center or elsewhere.
Counseling and Psychological Services saw the potential need for more mental health resources coming since March, Director of CAPS Peter LeViness said. CAPS implemented a new system that has allowed students to make an appointment to meet with a CAPS counselor on the same day and also offered more online modules that cater to specific needs, including anxiety treatment, depression treatment and stress management.
Despite all this preparation, LeViness said, CAPS had seen about the same number of clients as they would in a normal semester, and numbers had been decreased for the first two weeks. But LeViness still said he was concerned about students' mental health and relationship building, particularly for younger students, such as first-years, who did not already have a rooted group of friends on campus entering this semester.
“We’ve had quite a few [students] talk about how hard it is to get to know their classmates,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘How do I meet anybody?’”
Getting out to run has proved important in his life these past several months, LeViness said. Physical exercise can be a way to help people who are feeling isolated or depressed.
Laura Knouse, the chair of UR’s psychology department and a clinical psychologist, expressed similar concerns about underclassmen not having the opportunity to build strong social support networks this semester. Knouse works with first-year students through the Richmond Scholars program, which rewards 25 students with an academic scholarship and aims to build community between those incoming students.
“Social support and rich support networks are the number one buffer against depression and helping people cope with adversity,” she said. “Those students who didn’t have nice strong social ties before — and also first-years .... That’s one of my biggest concerns, is having proper social support.”
Students not seeking out help for themselves is also a concern during this time of increased isolation, she said. Knouse created YouTube videos early on during the pandemic to try to teach students ways to cope and make daily goals for themselves, Knouse said.
Ryan Evans, a first-year, said he had still been able to meet other students, sometimes just by walking around campus at night or by eating outside. Evans had considered schools other than UR and waited until the final days of the university decision deadline in the spring to choose, he said. In the end, he was happy with his decision considering how UR has handled COVID-19 related policies, he said.
“It's definitely more lenient than I expected,” Evans said. “Because I had a friend go to Colgate. And they legitimately were not allowed out of the dorms for the first two weeks. ... [UR is] not in a city or anything, so we can be a little more lenient. It was really nice, because I got to meet some people the first couple nights, which I don't think I would have been able to do if I thought was at a different school.”
The other way he has been able to find friends, Evans said, is by playing soccer on the intramural fields on Friday nights.
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Chris Mitchell, a first-year football player, said he had similarly created community among his teammates.
“All summer, you know, with COVID[-19] and everything, there's no real access,” Mitchell said. “If you didn't have a home gym or something like that, it was really hard to get into the gym."
Now at UR, Mitchell has to wake up early for football workouts, which gives him a different schedule from his roommate, who is not a varsity athlete.
"Some mornings, I'll wake up, I'll see [my roommate], and I'll be angry. Like, ‘How dare you still get to rest?’ But once I'm there, once I'm in it, it's like a breath of fresh air and then when you get out you still have your whole day. You just feel refreshed.”
But Mitchell said the academic side of things had been hard in at least one course, physics, which he originally thought he might major in.
“I took it through VCU in high school,” he said. “So, I thought I was going to come in with a good understanding. And you know, they completely changed my mind. I was like, ‘This is not enjoyable at all.’”
Mitchell spent two weeks in isolation in October. He mostly passed the time playing video games, watching shows or even playing with a foam ball CAPS gave him. Surprisingly, he did not feel too isolated during those two weeks, because he had his roommate in the room next to his, he said. They were able to hang out because their rooms were connected, Mitchell said.
But he felt worse immediately afterward.
“It felt isolating once I got out and I was able to talk to everybody again,” he said.
The contrast between time in isolation and then seeing his usual friends made him feel it more, he said.
First-year Claire Blankenship also spent time in quarantine after possible exposure to COVID-19.
“I had been exposed to someone who had tested positive,” Blankenship said. “Which was honestly another strain on my mental health, because I hadn’t left campus. And I hadn’t really made as many friends as I would have if I hadn’t been as careful as I have been. So, it was like, ‘I haven't done anything, but I still got put in here.’”
Blankenship said she had not come into the semester thinking UR would make it all the way through the fall semester's in-person classes up until Thanksgiving break. She packed light, without many winter clothes.
Blankenship struggles with her own mental health issues, including depression, and has sought out CAPS for help, she said. She did so partially because mental health services often cannot cross state lines. The help she would typically receive back home in Tennessee is not available in the same way now that she is in Virginia, she said. Blankenship said she has found CAPS services helpful this semester, even though she cannot see her usual doctor.
Blankenship noted that it could be hard to find a place to have the virtual counselor meetings, though, especially if her roommate was in their room. For one session, she even went to a bathroom to maintain privacy beacuse the two private lounges in her dorm were occupied. So, although virtual counseling can be convenient for some because CAPS can offer same-day services, there are still obstacles in play, such as trying to find private space for meetings or having the technological capability for meetings.
“With having depression, It's really hard to motivate myself,” Blankenship said. “[I’ll] try and get out of things or I'll just lay in bed for a long time and just think these terrible thoughts. So, I guess, next semester [the goal] is to try and pull myself to get more stuff done.”
Students also said that the lack of formal breaks in the schedule, like the usual long weekend for fall break in October, contributed to stress. Anna Fortunato, a sophomore, said she's had a tough time keeping up with some classes because of lack of time off along with any additional stress COVID or the election caused.
"Two [of my] classes [are] math classes, so they can't really stop or give a break," Fortunato said. "And a lot of professors will like say like, 'Oh, take a break and find some time.' But there's still work to do. It's hard to take a break. And if you do that, you're gonna get punished."
Knouse didn't do much in class teaching this semester, instead she led independent studies with students this fall, she said. But she was already planning how to fit her curriculum to a spring semester that would likely have similar social and physical restrictions to this one.
"I'm glad the break is longer because I'll have a little bit longer to figure out, 'What is the course going to look like?'" Knouse said. "One thing is ... going back to the core mission of your course, so, 'what are the skills students need to get out of this class? What are the key topics that they really need to know?' And maybe focusing more on that stuff instead of trying to cover all of the content."
Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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