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College in the time of COVID: What students are doing and feeling in this unprecedented year

A sign of the University of Michigan Central Campus
Anna Schlutt
Michigan Radio

During the past year, many universities have seen high rates of COVID-19 on or around their campuses. Academic institutions in Michigan and throughout the U.S. have faced challenging questions and criticism with regard to their decision-making in an unprecedented public health crisis. And often, university students and their behaviors — like attending social gatherings or even simply living in group housing — have played a role in spreading the virus at their schools.

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A recent update from University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel announced that 62% of COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County are associated with the university. That’s up from university cases comprising about one third of the county’s total back on February 3. Schlissel said in a February 19 email to the campus community that large social gatherings are a big part of the problem. He urged students to get together virtually, outdoors, or in small groups — and, of course, to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

It’s not exactly the college experience many students tend to imagine.

“I am living a pretty much entirely virtual life, between school and work and everything else,” said Theo Zangoulas, a UM senior studying political science.

Zangoulas, who lives in an off-campus fraternity house with 16 other people, says he hasn’t seen any of his professors in person. One of his roommates, Amanda Vogel — she’s a first-year graduate student at the UM College of Pharmacy — is enrolled in some courses that offer a hybrid learning model, but she says she still hasn’t been able to get to know many of her peers.

“It's a cohort. We're supposed to move together,” Vogel said. “That is really just, I think, the thing I miss the most, is being able to make friends with my new classmates and form those professional relationships that, you know, are going to guide me through this career.”

Zangoulas and Vogel say it’s been nice to live in a group, because they have more people to interact with amid an isolating year.

“But on the downside, we know that we have a much higher risk,” said Vogel. “If someone in the house gets sick, there's a good chance that a lot of us will get sick. So we do wear masks around our house when we're not in our rooms, to make sure that we're all being as safe as we can.”

Zangoulas says most of his friends don’t attend large social gatherings that continue to occur on or near college campuses, despite public health guidelines.

“Our sort of impression of these people who are having, you know, big parties and going to social gatherings is just like — I think it's a little bit of disbelief,” he said. “I would be freaked out, at this point, to go to a big party with a bunch of people.”

At the same time, Vogel says campuses and students face an incredibly tough situation, and she doesn’t blame college students for wanting to see their friends.

“If you bring a bunch of young kids together who have been living in isolation for almost a year, I think it's inevitable that people are going to need to hang out, and I don't think that it is the fault of the 18-year-old for not wanting to live locked in their room for an entire year,” she said. “If you bring people back to campus, they're going to meet with each other, because otherwise, you've created an environment where thousands of students live a life where they exist in their room and nowhere else.”

The stress and lifestyle changes associated with the pandemic have taken a toll on college students. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August that adults ages 18 to 24 were navigating increased depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Students from elementary school to college have struggled with their schoolwork, which requires many of them to spend extended hours looking at computer screens.

Zangoulas and Vogel both considered taking a gap year instead of coming to campus this past fall. Vogel says it’s been difficult starting a PhD program in a pandemic, but she’s happy with her decision.

“I think putting it off a year wouldn't have really helped my situation at all,” she said. “I really made the decision because I'm ready to move forward and start the next chapter of my life, and seeing that healthcare is so, so important this year, I was ready to get started.”

Zangoulas says that, given the circumstances, his senior year has been going the best it can.

“I'm just holding out hope for when I get the vaccine,” Zangoulas said. “That's my light at the end of the tunnel.”

UM students in need of mental health support amid the pandemic can find resources here. If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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