After a Year of College in COVID-19, Students Take Time to Reflect
By Madyson Fitzgerald
With spring college graduation coming to a close, many students are taking the time to reflect on completing a full year of school during a pandemic.
The origins of the coronavirus disease in the United States are still widely debated — even the first death that occurred in Seattle on Feb. 28 may have been one in a series. Evidence from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that COVID-19 could have been spreading in the U.S. as early as Nov. 2019.
Wherever it began, by March 2020, the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic. What later ensued was a shift in higher education that had been considered for years: remote learning. As students fled home mid-semester, professors prepared for Zoom lectures and asynchronous learning.
As for returning to campus in the fall, students were welcomed with strict social distancing rules and mask mandates while witnessing some of the steepest increases in COVID-19 cases of the entire pandemic.
It was a long, tumultuous school year, with canceled spring breaks and frightening outbreaks. As Anemona Hartocollis, a national correspondent covering higher education for The New York Times, wrote in a recent article: “It was the year of college without the college experience.”
In spite of it all, many students are realizing that they learned about more than just calculus and Shakespeare. Brandee Branche, who received her M.D. from VCU’s School of Medicine and served as the Class of 2021 speaker at their graduation, said that the event made her think about “all of the events we have endured since our time here.”
“I am inspired by all those who gather here today,” Branche said during the ceremony, “as we are unified by academic achievement that will forward our positions in this life to reach our greatest potential and impact others along the way.”
Isaiah King, a VCU graduate from Harrisonburg, Virginia, joined Black Men in Medicine when he first came to campus his freshman year. The purpose of the group was to encourage minority students to pursue careers in science and medicine.
King majored in biology and minored in chemistry, and later became the group’s co-president, which strongly influenced his time at the University. “I brought my own chair to the table, getting mentoring, shadowing doctors and enjoying extracurricular experiences,” King told VCU News. “I was given the freedom to pursue my own path.”
For some students, focusing on mental health became a larger priority. Cricket Snyder, a rising sophomore at the University of Richmond, said she took the spring semester off because her severe anxiety had been interfering with her ability to work.
Snyder plans to return to the University in the fall. “Something that I’m both nervous and excited about is jumping back into classes. After having a semester off to avoid bringing COVID-19 to my high-risk family, I am used to a much more relaxed pace,” Snyder said,” but I think that it will be a positive change in my life. I’m definitely looking forward to it as much as I’m worried about it.”
“After learning more about my mental health, I know now that I need to resource myself whenever I feel stressed instead of just trying to work through it,” Snyder continued. “My mental illness was exacerbated by the isolation of the pandemic, and I know that I’m not alone in that. We need to take care of ourselves not just as students, but as people who deal with stress in different ways.”
Colleges and universities learned a thing or two as well. After the onset of the pandemic, thousands of schools reported that they would shift to a “test optional” admissions process. This allows students to determine if their tests scores accurately represent their ability to perform academically. Instead, GPA, essays and extracurricular activities become a larger determining factor for admissions officers.
As a result, elite universities, like Cornell and Yale, have reported a more diverse pool of applicants, according to a New York Times report. Students of color are less likely to have access to test preparation resources, resulting in lower test scores. The test-optional scenario allows these students to share their academic prowess in other avenues.
Despite the odds, thousands of Virginia college students found a way to finish out one of the hardest school years to date.