A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, students reflect on university and state responses
BY MADDIE GIERBER STAFF WRITER
Nearly a year after the campus first shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mason students are still coming to terms with the struggle of the past year’s situation, which many did not anticipate would last so long.
“I’m real tired of it,” freshman Melanie Boschen said. “I lost the last few months of my senior year in high school. I’m experiencing a very weird first year of college.”
Boschen is currently positive for COVID-19 and has spent the past week isolated in her dorm. For her and others who transitioned to Mason mid-pandemic, the online classes and lack of campus activities made starting the semester less momentous than expected.
“It sort of still feels like an extension of what high school was,” said freshman Alejandra Cortes-Camargo, whose senior year of high school was also disrupted by the pandemic. “Like I was going back into high school, not exactly college. Every day has just been a blur.”
Despite the blur of the past year, students expressed satisfaction with Mason’s response to the pandemic and believe they are less likely to contract the virus on campus than amid the general public. The daily health checks, low volume of students on campus and sanitation protocols instituted by President Washington are credited with keeping Mason’s positive case numbers lower than some other Virginia universities.
“I think Mason did a better job than a few other schools,” said Boschen, who described the extensive sanitation protocols required for her in-person music practice. “Being a Music major, we have a bunch of precautions in place for that so it’s very well managed. They’re still doing what they can to make it so we can play.”
Smaller class sizes, social distancing and sanitation procedures adapted for musical instruments have allowed Boschen to practice her French horn in person.
Not all students felt supported by the university’s initial response, though.
“At the beginning it was awful,” senior Anika Maan said. Maan was studying abroad in England when the pandemic began. “I mean, they left us in another country.”
Maan said that she and the 11 other students staying at Oxford received minimal communication from the university after their advisor returned to the United States without telling them.
“There were three emails we got and then they stopped communicating with us,” said Maan. “Our university was shutting down and we were still in the dark. There was no communication there at the very end.”
Unsure if they were allowed to leave the country because their class was not completed, she and the others remained in England for almost two weeks before flying home, still without having received clear instructions from the university. Mason later reimbursed them for the cost of their plane fare.
The state response makes students feel less than optimistic about returning to normal. Without confidence in efficient vaccine distribution, some fear that reaching any degree of ‘normal’ is nonexistent for the foreseeable future.
“I think we’ll at least be stuck in this boat for the rest of the year,” said junior Joseph Stokes, who described the vaccine rollout as “a bungled mess.” With what he feels is little improvement in the past year, Stokes is considering taking time off from university.
With social distancing guidelines still in place, he finds it difficult to achieve the typical college experience he expected. “I feel like I’ve been robbed of the full experience of college,” he said, citing the poor government response and lack of vaccine access as responsible for the recent rise in cases. “Now we’re approaching a full year of it and I don’t have a lot of optimism.”
Maan also feels the government should have responded to the situation more efficiently.
“A year later and we’re still struggling and people are still dying,” said Maan, who is concerned about the safety of her parents and grandparents.
“There are so many initiatives we could have done from the very beginning to curb all this — that’s kind of where I’m disappointed. That’s what should have been handled better,” she said. Unsure of when vaccines will be widely available, Maan believes returning to normal is dependent on their accessibility.
Students reported isolation and mental health struggles as their biggest challenges during the pandemic.
“It’s been really difficult,” said Stokes, who is frustrated by the lack of interaction provided by online classes. Despite Discord chats and Zoom meetings with friends, the continued stress of isolation has taken its toll.
“I just feel really lonely,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of difficulty finding the motivation to get my work done.”
Cortes-Camargo described a similar struggle.
“At first, I didn’t manage it too well. That was a very difficult couple of months,” she said. “I’m an extrovert and having friends around me constantly is something I need in life. I get happiness by talking to new people and meeting them, so not being able to do that was really difficult.”
Reconnecting with high school friends and organizing socially-distanced meetups helped her fill the socialization gap.
Although students try to maintain social ties virtually, the lack of face-to-face interaction makes it difficult to extend and receive support.
“A lot of people I know are just struggling with their mental health,” said Maan. She feels young people are often pressured to “bounce back” and be resilient despite challenges, but the pandemic has created an entirely new form of stress and anxiety for students forced to adapt to campus closures, online classes, job loss and even moving back in with their parents.
Without a clear end to look forward to, many are overwhelmed at what feels like constantly increasing pressure to adapt and cope — often while isolated.
“How can you help someone else or be there for someone else when you’re also having a tough time?” Maan asked.