The fall semester is in full swing, and by now University of St. Thomas students are settling into their virtual classes. Student life looks very different than it did half a year ago before the school opted to switch to a distance-learning model due to COVID-19, and students say the new education format has involved a significant academic and social adjustment for most.
For junior communication major Haley Baker, that adjustment has mostly been positive. Baker says she has had to travel back and forth between the Houston area and Dallas to ensure her grandparents are being cared for during the pandemic, and that her current schedule would have made in-person classes impossible.
“If it wasn’t for online learning I would not have been able to enroll for the semester,” Baker said.
Meanwhile, Baker said she and her husband have put an emphasis on family time, and that activities like picnics, camping and hiking have been crucial to their well being.
“Doing things together and being active has definitely helped stave off the blues,” Baker said.
In contrast, senior English major Elliott Smith said virtual learning and social distancing have been highly challenging.
“There’s something about juggling five classes on a single laptop that seems to greatly complicate the workload,” Smith said.
“I think it’s just genuinely unfortunate, and something none of us could properly prepare for.”
To maintain a feeling of connection with others during isolation, his usual athletic routines have been replaced with online video games that allow him to safely connect with friends almost daily in a virtual setting.
“I look forward to being able to lift weights and play basketball, but I don’t think I’ve had a shortage of social interaction, per se, despite the physical distance,” Smith said.
Sophomore English major Kaylee Stearns and senior English major Emma Beasley both told the Independent they expected the virtual learning format to be worse than what they have actually experienced.
Although the situation is not ideal, both say it has had its advantages.
Stearns said she has become better at managing her time now that she has more of it on her hands and is able to get more work done, and that she has discovered private study spaces at her two jobs.
“We have a giant cafe at the health club I work at, and a learning lab at the kids academy,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll be in there for hours by myself doing my work, and I am always talking with family and friends, whether texting, calling, or Facetiming.”
For her part, Beasley says online learning has allowed her to not only accomplish more coursework, but also to put in more hours at her job and earn more money.
“It saves me time and gas commuting between home, school, and work,” Beasley said. “Before, it would take me 40 minutes to an hour commuting between each place and I have had more time to do school work this semester without that.”
To cope with the challenges of social distancing, she has focused on cleaning her home and visiting close family members who are isolating.
“I love to clean, to make the house look tidy and feel like a healthier environment,” she said. “When I’m not doing schoolwork I go around the house and clean up, and that makes me feel proud of myself for getting things done.”
Freshman education major Isabel Garcia, a self-professed extrovert, said she has not done well with online learning.
“Honestly, it has impacted me negatively,” Garcia said.
“I am a visual learner, and I learn well from listening to others.”
Garcia said she wants to return to an in-person format as soon as possible. For now, she said she copes by reaching out to friends at UST when she needs help with her studies, going out for her favorite foods, and Facetiming with friends and family.
Mental health is like an internal battery, according to UST counselor Laura Castronovo; our busy lives can drain our battery, but we can recharge through simple, everyday activities that bring a sense of peace, joy, pride or accomplishment.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive things like manicures and spa days. It can be a hot shower, listening to a favorite song playlist, or enjoying a cup of tea; these are all little things that count as self-care,” Castronovo said.
She recommended students also get plenty of sleep, fresh air, and exercise, which releases endorphins that boost mental health. To establish a healthy sleep schedule, Castronovo said students should try to separate their study and sleeping spaces, and avoid working in bed. Getting up and dressed each morning can help establish a feeling of routine and increase productivity, she added.
Above all, Castronovo said students should try to remain social while social distancing. Virtual study groups, Facetime with family or friends and social-distance lunch/coffee dates are all ways to combat feelings of isolation, she said.
“Be intentional about fostering connections outside of the classroom,” Castronovo said.
To help, Counseling and Disability Services are holding outreach events, geared toward self-care. One is called “Virtual Mindful Lunch Breaks” offered on Tuesday, Oct. 13 from 12:30.-1:30 p.m. and Tuesday, Nov. 10 from 12:30-1:30 p.m.
“Mindfulness is a type of meditation where you bring awareness to what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without trying to interpret what it means or judging yourself,” Castronovo said.
The other, “Be Kind to Yourself: Self-Care 101” will be held on Friday, October 22 from 12:30-1:30pm.
This self-care event, led by UST Office of Counseling and Disability Services’ staff psychologist Jennifer Norten, will focus on the topics of self-care and self-compassion. At this event, students can expect to learn about proper stress management techniques.
“Participants will also be guided through a self-care assessment exercise to help determine how they are doing with their personal self-care. The workshop will conclude with an experiential activity – a guided self-compassion meditation exercise,” explains Norten.
For those who cannot make these events, but are interested in talking to someone, the Office of Counseling and Disability Services provides free, confidential counseling services to UST students. Sessions are currently remote, over a secure video conferencing platform.
Interested students can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-525-2169 to schedule an appointment.