A month ago, everyone in America’s life was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison never returned from their spring break, and classes have remained online ever since.
Many students were scattered over the country in their hometowns. Others elected to stay at apartments in Madison they would be paying rent for anyway. But students from foreign countries studying at the University of Wisconsin did not have a choice.
Interstate travel is strongly discouraged and international travel is a near impossibility. Students intent on returning to their homes in other countries were suddenly stranded in Madison, sometimes a world away from where they’re from.
The housing situation has been relatively stable for most international students. Jeff Otieno, a sophomore and finance major from Kenya, has been staying safe and sheltering in place at his apartment in Madison, so little has changed for him as far as housing.
When in-person classes ended, most students in University Housing had to go home. International students in University Housing were the largest exception, and additional accommodations were made. “I think we have been fairly accommodated, especially due to the generous Emergency Aid,” said Farai Chinamo, a sophomore from Zimbabwe who lives in a residence hall.
Critiques of the university lie mostly in the online education system. “In general, the university tried its best, but as for individual professors, some of them are just being really inconsiderate,” said Willie Zhou, a sophomore from Guangdong, China. It’s not all bad in his eyes, though: “I am quite enjoying the fact that I get to sleep more than 8 hours every day.”
Concerns lie largely with their families abroad. “I do worry [about my family,] but keeping in contact helps and knowing that they’re taking safety measures offers some comfort,” said Otieno.
Chinamo echoed this sentiment. “I worried for my grandmother and grandfather because they all have illnesses.” Being far from home is nothing new for international students, but it adds another layer of stress in an already uncertain time. “It’s been hard to think of the effect the pandemic is having back home,” Chinamo added.
Concerns over misinformation are also very real. “I am more worried about my grandparents than my parents because they always believe in rumors or false information spread on the internet,” said Zhou. “This would make them either downplay the virus or use the wrong way to protect themselves from the virus.” In a country hit hard by the virus like China, this can be especially dangerous.
International students also look forward to the day when travel restrictions relax. Like everyone, most cannot wait until travel restrictions are relaxed and we can all socialize more freely. “I’m really hoping I can spend more time out in the summer and hang out more with friends once it is safe to do so,” said Otieno. He even looks forward to hopefully seeing his family in Kenya later this year. Otieno is, “looking forward to possibly spending Christmas together if it’s safe then.”
Even visiting home when travel becomes possible again is not so simple though. “Monopoly and limited flights between China and the US really gave these giant airline companies opportunities to rip us off,” said Zhou. “Unless the market returns to normal or there is a mandatory evacuation paid by my government, I will stay in my bed.”
Many students feel isolated and separated from family during the nationwide shutdown but international students have the additional problem of being oceans away from family. Uncertainty abounds for us all in these times, and for international students the world can be that much more uncertain.
In a matter of months, COVID-19 went from a dangerous but relatively distant virus to an active threat that changed the way we live our lives.
Though the world at large has been significantly impacted by the virus and measures implemented to prevent its spread, some people have had to significantly or even completely change their life plans on account of COVID-19. Notably, students at colleges and universities with jobs or internships have had their career plans markedly altered.
According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China in December of 2019. The virus was declared a public health emergency in January of 2020, and a few short months later the world began practicing social distancing in an effort to curb the outbreak — forcing people to avoid face-to-face contact with one another.
As a result of these social distancing measures, many people quickly saw their jobs or careers change drastically. Students workers were no different, as many were forced into temporary unemployment.
“I got an email a couple weeks ago that hourly interns are not considered essential,” College of Agricultural & Life Sciences research fellowship intern Collin Klaubauf said. “So, basically, the university was not allowed to hire hourly interns, which would include me.”
These students were not given an indication that their jobs were in danger prior to losing them, as for many it was simply a matter of receiving an unexpected email or being abruptly told that they were not allowed to come back to work. This is a sentiment voiced by Four Lakes Dining Hall supervisor Blake Bomski.
“We definitely weren’t expecting… to just be told you are now unemployed,” Bomski said.
These students are not the only ones facing sudden economic challenges thanks to COVID-19. According to the Congressional Research Service, the virus could lower economic growth worldwide by 2% for every month that current preventative measures are in place. The virus could also lower global trade anywhere from 13-52%
Students also worry that they may find challenges beyond these economic struggles should social distancing protocols remain in place, as the quarantine may begin to interfere with their future plans. For instance, students who were planning to take advantage of their school’s co-op programs — where they can gain real-world experience with an employer in their chosen career path for a semester— may be forced to put such plans on hold.
“I sincerely hope that all this coronavirus stuff is done by next semester,” Bomski said in response to his plans to take a co-op program. Bomski faces an especially difficult situation with his co-op program, as he had already set plans in place — notably leasing a new apartment — for this co-op prior to the quarantine.
Other students have similarly found their future plans changed thanks to the virus, as they have been forced to find alternative means of income in response to measures forced upon them by the virus.
“[My friend] hooked me up with a job… which is still happening as of right now,” Klaubauf said.
However, even with more firm summer plans, the future careers of students remain uncertain, as the dangers posed by COVID-19 remain largely unpredictable. Even Klaubauf, who already had to plan around his research fellowship falling through, remains at risk of economic struggles thanks to the virus.
“If my [new] job gets cancelled, which is a very real thing, I’ll probably have to find another job,” Klaubauf said.
Though they have many factors working against them, these student workers are not completely without help. According to the New York Times, there is approximately $2 trillion available in relief funding for those facing unemployment on account of the virus. Additionally, for some college workers in particular, weekly salaries are still provided in order to satisfy the economic needs of these students.
As one of these student workers, Bomski has been afforded a few weeks worth of salary from his job to make up for the money he would have earned otherwise.
“It definitely shows some extension on the university’s part to assist students who are dependent on that job for income,” Bomski said. “It definitely meant a lot to me and I’m sure it meant a lot to other people.”
While the times are certainly challenging, most student workers seem to have a grasp on their situation, and have found ways around the issues posed by COVID-19. These students understand that the problems they are currently facing are not permanent, and that they will find a way out of their troubles.
“It’s really easy to get down on the situation, but there’s a lot of positive going on within the negative,” Klaubauf said. “We have to remember that this will be over at some point. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
UW Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Cadets have had to adapt to a new form of training after COVID-19 caused the university to suspend all in-person classes on March 11. A normal day for the Cadets would involve crawling through the woods on campus and conducting Physical Training (PT) together, but now they must rely on communicating everything through a computer screen.
When Alice McLoughlin woke up on the morning of Feb. 29, she checked her phone to see she had received an email from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s study abroad program.
The Italy study abroad program had been canceled, and students were to return to the U.S. as soon as possible.
“It straight-up sucked,” laughed Alice in our interview. “[Study abroad] was the one thing that I really, really wanted to do in college. I’d been looking forward to study abroad for like ten years and that was kinda my only chance.”
UW-Madison’s International Academic Program has over 200 programs in 68 countries, with approximately 1,200 students enrolled in the spring semester according to John Lucas, UW-Madison’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of University Communications.
When the programs were canceled in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of stories like Alice’s played out through late February and early March across the world.
Alice, a sophomore at UW-Madison majoring in political science and psychology, was studying in Rome for the spring semester. Though she’d heard about the spread of COVID-19 back in early February, Alice said she had been told that she wouldn’t have to return to the U.S.
“There was like a whole week where my program, CIEE, they were like, ‘you can stay, we’re not going to cancel,’” Alice recalled.
But the situation quickly changed.
“One day, there was no cases in Italy, and then it was like there was a thousand, and then it kept doubling overnight,” Alice said. “I really didn’t think it was going to affect my life that much until all of a sudden I woke up and I had to go home.”
The Monday after receiving the email, Alice was on a plane back to the US.
“It was kinda just really sad because it was this big life dream of mine,” Alice said. “I understand why it got canceled, it kinda had to be done because it was starting to turn into a dangerous situation, but it was really disappointing.”
Karissa Niederkorn, a fellow UW-Madison sophomore majoring in community non-profit leadership, was studying in Ireland when President Trump announced the European travel ban on March 11. Echoing Alice’s experiences less than two weeks prior, Karissa said the situation changed suddenly.
“It all happened so fast. It went from not a problem at all … to book a flight home as soon as possible,” Karissa said.
She’d been planning a trip to Belgium that week, and was actually headed to the airport when she got the news.
“Instead, I booked my flight home and started packing, and I was home two days later. It was kinda hectic,” Karissa said.
But other students weren’t quite so lucky.
“A few of my roommates went to London a few hours before the travel ban was announced, so they had to stay there for a few days,” Karissa said. “The airports got really crazy, so people were waiting like six hours to get through customs.”
Karissa’s reflection on the situation matched Alice’s closely.
“It kinda sucks, just cause you plan out study abroad, and it’s kinda like your one chance to go around Europe,” Karissa said. “And so then to have a 48-hour notice and be on a plane back home kinda sucks.”
Now, both are back in the U.S., under quarantine and coping with all the difficulties that come with it. Alice is in New York, and although she isn’t in a virus hotspot, she’s been stuck indoors for most of the last few months.
“My mom’s a nurse, so she works at a hospital, so she sees Coronavirus patients everyday, so I can’t leave the house,” Alice said. “I haven’t seen anybody except my parents in six weeks.”
She said she’s been doing paint-by-numbers to fill the time.
“I’m going insane,” she joked.
Karissa has also been stuck indoors with her family, but isn’t home quite yet.
“My mom has breast cancer, so she’s going through radiation treatment, so I’m staying at my grandparent’s for a while, just until she’s completely safe,” Karissa said.
Karissa is looking forward to when quarantine ends and she can finally see her friends and go outside again.
“My friends and I are all going to hang out, and we were thinking of going camping,” she said.
Alice, after spending so much time with her family in New York, said she would like to “see someone besides my parents or get a burrito from Chipotle. Or visit Wisconsin.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic constantly changing, the future of the study abroad program remains in the air. Although all summer programs have been canceled, UW Study Abroad has held off a decision for the 2020 fall semester.
“Due to the dynamic and varied circumstances with COVID-19, we will continue to review each individual location in assessing risks,” UW Study Abroad said in a statement to students.
Despite how the program was cut short, Karissa talked fondly about one especially fun day back in Ireland.
“It was raining a lot every day. So there was one day where it was really nice outside, and we just went and sat outside at the water and just hung out,” Karissa recalled. “And everyone from the university was there. No one went to class that day cause it was so nice.
After thinking for a moment, Karissa continued.
“And that was the same week that I flew home,” she said. “Which is crazy to think about, because it seemed like such a normal day.”
When the announcement was made on March 11 that classes were shifting to online instruction, the University of Wisconsin was initially hoping to return to in-person classes as early as April 10. Then, in-person classes were canceled for the rest of the spring semester. Now, all summer courses have been moved online. Could the university eventually make a decision to move the beginning of fall instruction online?
The university has yet to discuss their plans for the fall semester, but with a mid-April report claiming that normal life may not return until at least 2022, it’s safe to wonder when in-person classes will be allowed to resume around the country.
The School of Journalism and Mass Communication is one department with unique classes that are greatly affected when the course isn’t able to meet in person.
Faculty associate Pat Hastings taught Long-Form Video this spring, and there were several obstacles she had to overcome while transitioning her class to online instruction.
“A lot of the techniques we use [are] really no longer possible,” Hastings said. “I had to rethink how to scale these projects down to make them doable but yet not lose the concepts.”
When the decision to suspend in-person classes was announced, Hastings and her students had to make several drastic changes to their final project, which involved filming an 8-10 minute documentary.
“For the long-form class, we had to change a lot,” Hastings said. “Most people changed their projects after already having their first one at least halfway done.”
Hastings is scheduled to teach Video Journalism in the fall, which teaches strategies for working in television journalism and allows students to develop their own newscast. Despite the challenges she faced from a lack of in-person classes this spring, Hastings isn’t too concerned about the possibility of online classes in the fall.
“I’m not worried if we are quarantined in the fall,” Hastings said. “The TV news class will be a challenge, but I think I have ways around that.”
Other professors in the journalism department, such as Professor Katy Culver, were prepared for the possibility of having to move classes online this spring.
“Before the UW called off face-to-face classes, I had a strong sense that that was going to be coming, so I started testing some different approaches in my class a week before so that we were kind of ready to go when it hit,” Culver said.
Culver’s class, Law of Mass Communication, relies on a unique mixture of lecturing and group discussions during class. As a result, Culver teaches her lectures synchronously and uses the university’s preferred video chatting platform, Blackboard Collaborate, to split the class into groups.
Junior Johnny Bildings is in Culver’s class, and he discussed the benefits of live lecturing even in a virtual setting.
“Katy Culver does a great job making sure we rely on Blackboard Collaborate to keep interacting with group members in real time, answer her lecture questions and keeping us engaged,” Bildings said. “Although it’s strange not seeing friendly faces, I would say the class structure and quality has been a pretty straightforward transition.”
Professor Kathryn McGarr used live lectures for one of her classes while she pre-recorded lectures for another. From a teaching standpoint, she discussed the shortfalls of being unable to connect with her students when lectures are pre-recorded.
“It’s just hard to know when students are getting it or when I’m going too fast or when I’m not explaining something well because they can’t stop me or give me a confused look, and I can’t stop the lecture and ask them for questions,” McGarr said.
In addition to having some uncertainty regarding students’ understanding of the course material, professors are also tasked with checking in on their students’ overall well-being. Professor Lucas Graves emphasized the importance of keeping track of their students during this period of uncertainty.
“Suddenly you’re really thinking about everyone’s well-being in a way that you might not be normally,” Graves said. “We’re always thinking about students’ well-being, but right now it’s front and center. It’s at the forefront of our minds. We’ve just tried to be really thoughtful about being aware of the challenges that different people are facing.”
Graves currently teaches a discussion-based course focused around how mass media affects political behavior. However, he’s tasked with teaching Mass Communication Practices in the fall, a six-credit course that all journalism students are required to take upon acceptance into the department.
“[Mass Communication Practices] is such an important class, it’s really the foundation for all of the work that students who are majoring in journalism and in strategic communication will do through the rest of their time in the J-School,” Graves said. “It depends so much on the work done in lab, and even on the collaboration and conversations that happen during lecture when everyone is seated together at the same table, and that’s very hard to recreate in an online environment.”
While students were able to build relationships with their professors and classmates in an in-person environment during the spring semester, part of the challenge of the fall semester potentially beginning online would be the inability to cultivate those types of relationships.
Even if the fall semester does begin with in-person courses, Graves stressed how there would still be a large amount of uncertainty at universities, both nationwide and around the world.
“Even if there are in-person classes in the fall, we’re not sure what the impact would be on enrollment,” Graves said. “Universities are a really large, complicated, interconnected engine, and this crisis hits almost every part of it, so there’s a lot of uncertainty right now, but I really hope that we’re teaching in-person in the fall and that we can begin the process of re-establishing normal routine. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think a lot of us are anxious to start to work on that.”
It’s unclear when normal life will resume or what exactly it will look like, but students and professors are both eager to begin that process.
Senior year at the University of Wisconsin is usually filled with activities like making memories on the Memorial Union Terrace and sitting on Abraham Lincoln’s lap.
However, the announcement that in-person classes had been canceled for the remainder of the semester brought those plans to a halt. Instead, students were left scrambling to sort out their post-graduation employment plans while finishing their college experience in quarantine. Many employers are freezing their hiring process as they deal with the financial fallout that the suspension of everyday life has carried.
Pam Garcia-Rivera, Media, Information and Communication Career Advisor
with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, helps students with connections and advice as they work to find internships and jobs after graduation. That process has become more difficult due to COVID-19 since there are fewer professional development and networking events and fewer job opportunities in general.
Garcia-Rivera worked with SuccessWorks, a career advising service through the College of Letters and Science at UW-Madison, during the financial crisis in 2008. She was able to draw some comparisons between that period and what students are experiencing now.
“I remember then it got really quiet, students were very quiet. I think they sort of gave up, and I think that’s sort of what happens, is people get frustrated. It’s like, ‘well, there are no jobs out there, so I’m not going to look,’” Garcia-Rivera said. “I think students who continue to keep their eyes open, keep looking, try and stay positive, make connections, are going to be in a better place when things start to come back.”
In addition to having fewer opportunities to work with, Garcia-Rivera also said students have been reaching out less for career advice.
“I think students have been a little bit more quiet because there’s nothing really happening and maybe they can’t really think of what to reach out to me for,” Garcia-Rivera said.
UW senior Eric Anderson is double majoring in marketing and management/human resources and was far along in the process of applying for a pair of jobs in Chicago when the companies froze their hiring operations. Anderson’s original plan was to work for approximately four years after graduation prior to applying to graduate school. As a result of the uncertainty surrounding his employment, he now plans to study for his GMAT, the exam required for admission to many MBA programs, during the summer with the hope of attending graduate school one year after graduation.
“I’ve had this future plan for a while. Ever since my sophomore year, I’ve always wanted to have employment right out of college, work for three or four years, go to grad school, and now that that whole thing’s flipped upside down. It sucks,” Anderson said. “It’s caused me a bunch of distress about the future because what used to be really nice and predictable is now kind of flipped upside down.”
Amanda Scharenbrock is also a senior at UW-Madison majoring in genetics with a certificate in gender and women’s studies. She was planning on working in her research lab on campus for approximately two years before applying to graduate schools. She expressed optimism that she would still be able to work in the lab, although there’s some uncertainty regarding when she’ll be able to return.
“I know I’m going off of grant money, so I probably could get hired right away because it’s a little different,” Scharenbrock said. “Even if I did get hired on right away, I wouldn’t have anything due and I couldn’t go into [the] lab.”
Both Anderson and Scharenbrock expressed disappointment about having their in-person commencement postponed. Both said that they knew the measure was necessary, but they had been looking forward to the in-person event.
The university announced plans for an alternate in-person event at a later date, but it’s unclear what that event could look like. Although both Anderson and Scharenbrock were appreciative of the gesture, Anderson was disappointed that he wouldn’t get to have a moment of closure with some of the friends he had made during college.
“For me, the biggest thing that I feel like the pandemic really took away is not being able to have a formal goodbye with some of those people you don’t necessarily see on an everyday basis that you get close with,” Anderson said.
Kathleen Culver is a journalism professor at UW-Madison who is helping to plan a virtual tribute to the graduating seniors. She remembered words of encouragement from an alumnus who graduated approximately 25 years ago who said that he didn’t remember his commencement ceremony, but he did remember the connections he’d made during college and the memories that they had.
While the coronavirus has had immediate impacts for seniors in their second semester, other students late in their college experience have also been deeply impacted.
Trevor Suess is a junior at the University of Minnesota studying elementary education who was completing required in-person practicum hours during the spring semester. As a result of the suspension of in-person classes, he’s unsure whether he’ll require more years of schooling in order to complete his practicum hours.
“[The elementary education program] is currently talking with the governor of Minnesota to see if they can get in-class hours waived so that we don’t have to make up the in-class hours that we lost because of this,” Suess said. “I’m worried for the sake that working with kids is something that, it helps to have a lot of person-to-person experience, and that’s not happening right now.”
Suess was planning on staying in Minneapolis over the summer while working in a child-care program or interacting with children through the parks and recreation department. He still plans on remaining in Minneapolis over the summer, but he’s unsure whether he’ll be able to secure employment, especially in his field.
Elizabeth Somsen is in her first semester of her senior year at UW-Madison, studying genetics and genomics. She intended to intern with the National Institutes of Health in Maryland over the summer, but the internship program was canceled as a result of COVID-19. If fall classes were online, she said she’d likely delay her graduation plans as a result.
“If we were going to go all online for the fall semester, I would seriously think about dropping that semester and finishing in the spring,” Somsen said. “I’m missing out on the things that I would have learned, and I just don’t want that. I’d rather just be able to learn all of the things.”
Despite the uncertainty in the middle of her senior year, she recognized how important the safety measures were for protecting public health.
“I think that we all have to not lose the perspective of the situation which we had at the beginning, which is that this is a virus that kills people,” Somsen said.
Seniors in quarantine face disappointment and uncertainty, but many are remaining hopeful for their futures following commencement.
Silence drowns the halls of campus buildings once buzzing with creative chatter. Table saws silenced, woodshops locked, work benches cleared. Kilns sit empty and cold, ceramic wheels left stilled. Mirrors reflect the motionless studios in Lathrop Hall, void of their daily dance entertainment.
For studio-based art students, going online has ultimately halted their education.
“I think for the most part, online art classes aren’t really art classes,” junior graphic design BFA student Ellie Braun said. “It is hard to recreate that experience, if you think about painting students or screen printing students, they are not getting the education they signed up for, they are not able to gain those skills because it is such a hands-on thing.”
The skills for their tactile professions adjourned for the rest of the semester, forcing graduating seniors out of the nest sooner than anticipated.
“I feel like I graduated early. I was just shoved into the real world way sooner than I expected,” senior BFA woodworking student Lauren Newby said.
“Being cheated out of our last months of undergraduate is a huge deal and I feel like no one is talking about that,” senior BFA dance student Alice Svetic said. “I have given my heart and soul to this dance department for the past four years, that is all I have cared about.”
Not to mention how spring break unintentionally marked the end of the in-person semester, leaving incomplete projects stranded in the studios.
“But there wasn’t really much we could do, especially the way it coincided with spring break…it was like ope, now everyone is locked out,” Newby said.
Even for students not graduating, going online has resulted in longing and disappointment.
“I am quite bummed out because I had so many ideas for projects I wanted to do…outside of class. And now I don’t get any of the opportunity, but I am still paying for it…” Braun said.
Paying for classes that do not have the same effect online has spurred even more animosity. Especially when professors have taken their own liberty in enforcing varying levels of involvement.
“It is hard because it is so individualized, how is everyone having a similar experience…when I can basically dance full out and other people I know are not having that but we are all paying the same amount of money,” Svetic said. “My ballet class, I am getting zero personal instruction and we’re still going to have to pay.”
“I feel the implications because you can’t get help as much, you can’t interact with your classmates as much. So I think it [going online] has a huge impact, the whole art department is online and the vast majority of those classes have to be taught in person,” Braun said.
“A lot of technique classes for dance are actually lab courses, not lectures; they are actually in the studio hands-on so how are we supposed to do lab courses when we are not in the studio, when we’re not face-to-face, so give me my money back please,” Svetic said.
Students struggling with their mental health in this especially unstable time has added another dimension to navigating online classes.
“There are individuals with severe mental health problems, and they don’t know from day to day; [one day] they could be able to have their video on and be super present, but the next day they are just unable to do that, so they can’t show up for class, so then how are we all expected to have the same experience…” Svetic said.
Cabinets left cuts away from completion, pieces choreographed without a showcase, skills on a potters wheel left unknown.
“We didn’t really even get to make anything on the wheel. I got one pinch pot out of the entire class,” Braun said about her ceramics class.
“I won’t end up with two [cabinets] which was ultimately the plan. But it is okay, I think we have all come to terms with it,” Newby said.
Still those creative minds constantly need stimulus, with some student’s appreciating the structure and taste of normalcy classes offer.
“Honestly this [having classes via video] is the only thing keeping me sane, having a scheduled dance class and having that embodied practice in my schedule,” Svetic said. “I am thankful for these online classes and the teachers making us do the most because that is giving me just a little taste of normalcy.”
Some even find the extra time nifty.
“It is a nice way to scour the internet for opportunities, as a senior especially; it is giving you so much time to really contemplate where you want to be and what you want to do and to research opportunities which I do not think I really gave myself time to do before,” Newby said. “Giving yourself something to look forward to and keeping your name out there.”
Others find classes a burden to their creative flow.
“I feel like I have so much homework where I cannot even do the projects that I want to do which is frustrating because I don’t care about these [school] projects anymore…Keeping motivation to produce work that I care about is just different when you are not around your classmates, and you’re not able to see what they’re doing,” Braun said. “I think it is hard to create the atmosphere of art classes where you are not commenting on each other’s stuff as the process goes along and able to ask for help from your classmates.”
With creativity at the core of their identity, going online will never match the communities these art students have built themselves upon.
“If not a dancer, I don’t really know who I am. Yes I can dance a little bit in my house, and make these silly dance projects, but it’s just not the same…When literally all of your identity is based off this thing you cannot do anymore…I don’t understand how I am supposed to access that kind of sense of self,” Svetic said.
Going online impairs art students’ opportunity to their education, and even to their sense of self, something the university is going to have to consider moving forward.
With COVID-19 forcing classes to move online, students to move home and most of the country to #stayathome, many things have changed in the last few months. For University of Wisconsin sophomore Audrey Swanson, the biggest change has been to her mental health.
“I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since like before I can remember,” Swanson said. “So I mean, it’s definitely had its ups and downs in college, but now it’s kind of down. It’s not the worst it’s ever been, but I can definitely tell that there’s a lot I need to work on.”
Swanson said since she has struggled with her mental health for so many years, she notices when it is better and when it is worse. Swanson said she noticed such a change because her mental health was actually the best it has ever been this semester, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
And Swanson is not alone in noticing an increase in anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
According to Mental Health America, there was a 34% increase in people screened per day for severe anxiety in the first two weeks of March alone. Because of this, the number of “excess severe anxiety” results associated with the coronavirus rose to over 1,000 on March 15, and has grown since.
Expert on adolescent mental health and Associate Professor in the UW School of Social Work, Tally Moses said this increase has been particularly noticeable among her students.
“This period is causing a lot of people to suffer — whether they have a history of mental health conditions or not,” Moses said. “As we know, rates of anxiety — depression too — but in particular rates of severe anxiety has been going up with recent cohorts.”
Moses said college students may be more prone to anxiety during this time, as rates of young adult anxiety were already really high before the pandemic happened. Moses credits this trend to young adults having grown up with social media and greater social pressures surrounding them.
While the uncertainty of the pandemic can be anxiety-inducing enough, Moses said the anxiety students are facing is different for different people.
For students with more privilege, anxiety comes more from the ambiguity of what will happen with the pandemic, coping with new living situations and struggles of social isolation while in quarantine, Moses said.
“The other piece of it has to do with the social isolation during an age and a developmental stage where it is sort of expected and developmentally desirable to be with your peers,” Moses said. “And not being able to do that and having that monotony in most routines and not really having a lot of social stimulation I think is, is just putting fuel to the fire.”
However, for less privileged students, anxiety comes from worries of financial insecurity, what their next meal will be and having a secure place to complete school work, along with those other anxieties.
Moses added she has noticed many of her students struggle with motivation and being able to focus on school work — a problem Swanson said she has been noticing in herself.
Swanson said while her anxiety can keep her motivated to complete classwork, she has noticed a lack of motivation to exercise and get out of the house during quarantine.
“For things like working out, since the gyms are closed, I can’t motivate myself to do that at home,” Swanson said. “So I haven’t exercised since quarantine started. So that’s the big thing that I haven’t been doing.”
Swanson, who was in Madison for the first half of quarantine and is now quarantining at home with her parents in Florida, said she gauges her mental health on what time she gets out of bed in the morning. And while it has been better at home with her family, Swanson said she often doesn’t get out of bed until 2 p.m. in quarantine.
“I had classes to get me out of bed this semester and it was great because some of them were earlier and some of them a little bit later,” Swanson said. “But mostly I was able to get all of them in the morning, which was great because that is kind of how I gauge how I’m doing mental health wise, is how easy it is to get out of bed in the morning. And I was doing really well before quarantine, and now it’s just so bad. So if I can get up before 11, it’s great.”
Moses said this kind of regression is ok during this time and should not be something students beat themselves up over.
“One of the things I would say for people who are coming into the pandemic with a preexisting mental health condition is to give yourself a break” Moses said. “Expect a regression, expect that you’re not going to do as well as you have been doing potentially, expect that some of the work may be undone — and don’t panic about that.”
One of the most important things for people struggling with mental health right now, Moses said, is to remember things will get better soon and to start taking small steps to get there.
Peyton David, a senior at UW who also struggles with anxiety and depression, echoed Moses’ advice, saying what helps her the most is remembering she will get through this tough time.
“At some point, it’s over and at some point you feel better — and that’s just kind of what you have to tell yourself to get through the day,” David said. “And you don’t really know when it’s going to be over, but you’ll know when you’re on the other side, I think that’s the best advice I can give anyone who’s starting to deal with anxiety, or depression because of this.”
David has found that working on creative projects and reconnecting with old friends has helped her during quarantine. Swanson said she has been working to do this by trying to set a routine for herself and recommends anyone currently struggling with mental health do that as well.
Moses agreed with David and Swanson’s recommendations, adding that it can be helpful to limit your intake of social media and news, and create a strong sense of community right now — whether that is virtually or six feet apart.
However, Moses said the most important thing for everyone during this time to remember is that everyone is in it together, fighting COVID-19 as a community.
“I think a lot of what I think people need to do right now is to, I guess, accept where we are,” Moses said. “Don’t individualize your stress. Try to understand [this pandemic] as a collective experience.”