“Three-week spring break” sounded like a gift too good to be true, a long hiatus from library hibernations. Tapping into the online highway of Zoom for the first time was like a game. The second time was less entertaining. By the third, its fanfare died in a quiet decrescendo. Never have students missed walking the halls this badly. With the world shifting everyday, how do you start to “find your own path” as a budding adults? The tectonic plates are changing too quickly. “We recognize that these are unforeseen and strange times.” “We understand that all of your questions may not be answered.” Growing pains are hard enough in a world of relative stability, so when it all goes out the window, where does that leave the young people?
In a strange time when the world seems to shift every hour of every day, Three Rooms Press hopes to shed a little light on the experience of the younger generations. From the halls of high school, we hear from student and author Rishab Borah as he traverses college preparations and standardizes testing during his junior year, and from the college lecture halls Ginevra Lee, a junior at Kenyon College, and Merritt McDowell, a junior at New York University, comment on the anxiety of the new “college experience.”
Q: How has school changed for you? What about the transition has been most difficult?
Rishab: I’m very fortunate in that my family was not hit very hard by the pandemic—my parents have stable jobs that are not on the COVID frontline, and nobody we know has contracted the virus—and I know that there are many people who have greater hardships in their lives. I’ve seen that many students in class can’t turn on their video or have regular internet problems. In my case, however, the most difficult part of the transition was the unpredictability. With the usage of online class, it’s not only difficult to focus, but you also don’t know when the internet will fail and cause you to miss a lecture, or delete half of an assignment you uploaded. You also have to be sure that you understand how each school software works, and you have to really be on top of things. The decreased interaction with other students also means it’s harder to confirm whether assignments are due. Overall, it’s very easy to get anxious about whether you’ve done everything you need to, or made a good enough plan.
Ginevra: My school decided to have freshmen and sophomores on campus and juniors and seniors off campus for the fall semester, so as a junior I’ve been doing classes remotely. The professors seem much more used to the online format this semester than they did when we had to suddenly transition to remote learning back in March, and I can tell that they’ve really been working hard to make the online format work better for us. I did have to switch to a different class early in the semester, since I was in a “hybrid class” where remote students would be on zoom while the professor taught an in-person class, and that was just impossible to follow, but the professor was very understanding of the remote students who wanted to switch classes and put us in contact with a professor teaching the same class at the same time but completely remotely.The most difficult part of transitioning to online classes has been the loss of in-person classes, but I also miss being able to study in study spaces and being able to study with friends. On campus, I would often sit in the communal area of my dorm or a friend’s dorm to study with friends and it was common for someone to make tea for the rest of the group or to put music on in the background while we worked. I’ve found myself really missing the little moments like that, now that school is completely online.
Merritt: With everything online, school no longer really feels like school, but yet there’s no significant relief in workload. This is also my junior year in college, and so it makes me anxious to think that I’m running out of time to do everything I hoped to accomplish in my undergraduate years. In this sense, the transition for me has been frantic and chaotic in terms of academic planning, wherein I now find myself stuffing future semesters with things that I don’t want to miss out on and that I’m hoping I will be able to do before I graduate, such as study abroad.
Q: What has been the most difficult part of dealing with the pandemic overall?
Rishab: The increased difficulty of school, and the cancellations of events. I’ve had multiple important standardized test dates, including my SAT’s, get cancelled, and I’m in a stressful place where I have to keep preparing for those tests but am unsure if I’ll be able to take them. My parents and I had a careful plan for junior year–my book events, college campus visits, standardized testing–and then COVID disarrayed it.
Ginevra: The most difficult part of the pandemic for me has been trying to have a good balance of schoolwork and off-time. I sit at my desk in my room for classes and to work, and it’s easy to end up doing all my work there, taking my breaks there, and spending too much time in general there. Both my parents are working from home and frequently have phone calls or zoom calls, so sitting in the living room to study would only distract them and me. Over the summer, I spent a lot of my time sitting in the park and reading, but now that it’s getting colder, it’s more difficult to know how to spend my free time, especially when most of my friends don’t live in New York, and many days I feel like I do nothing except for schoolwork.
Merritt: I am very lucky that overall, my family has stayed healthy throughout the pandemic. I would say that in regards to schoolwork, the main difficulty lies in the distractions. Now that everything is being held online, it’s much harder to focus and stay on top of things, especially considering that in my case, my academic workload has remained basically the same as previous semesters. While it’s great that if I miss a lecture or find myself distracted and not listening attentively, I can go back and watch its recording, this process snowballs so easily to the point where the weekends are as busy as the weekdays in terms of catching up with what I may have missed or what I didn’t take notes on. In that way, there are times when I feel more burnt out than I have in the past, more so as midterms just finished.
Q: How have you been keeping connected with friends and family?
Rishab: A lot of my extended family lives in India, such as my grandparents and most of my cousins. We visit India each summer to meet them but this year we didn’t get to meet them and talk to them face to face and I miss them. It’s difficult knowing that they could contract COVID and we might not know, or that we wouldn’t be able to visit them. But we can talk to them on phone and keep in contact on social media. For friends, one thing I do is take walks with friends who live really close: we meet up wearing masks and walk around with a six-foot distance between us. We also go over to friends’ houses as long as the combined size of our families is below the social gatherings limit, and we usually sit outside to maximize distance between us.
Ginevra: I’m staying at home with my parents, so it’s easy to keep connected with them, but with friends I’ve mainly been relying on texting, with the occasional zoom call or socially distanced hang-out in the park. I’ve also tried to stay involved with what’s going on on-campus, going to zoom events or playing a murder mystery game over discord, but it’s been difficult and some things I’ve been involved in (like the newly formed beekeeping club, which was ready to purchase a hive for the campus farm back in March) have more or less had to be put on pause, which is understandable but frustrating because as a junior, I won’t have that much more time to partipate in campus activities.
Merritt: I’m currently attending all classes online while staying with extended family, but I would say in keeping connected with friends and other family, I’ve just done what I’m able—calling on a daily basis, hosting Zoom movie nights, Face-timing over “family dinners.” Anything to feign normalcy while maneuvering current restraints. I think that it’s incredibly important to make sure that you aren’t mentally isolated, and I’m lucky that I have such a supportive backing.
Q: What kinds of things have you been doing to cope with the stress of a pandemic? Any new hobbies?
Rishab: I have written short stories frequently to let out all the ideas in my head. I have been taking frequent walks with my brother. I have made a Java programming tutorials on Youtube in the hopes people who can’t access programming classes or are struggling with programming might learn from them. I also have done Minecraft modding (changing the gameplay or elements of Minecraft using Java programming) during the pandemic. A new skill I learned was cooking. I only really learned to cook two types of meals, but I still feel glad I know it because it’s a useful skill to have in the future.
Ginevra: No new hobbies, but I’ve been doing things like watching movies, working on my graphic design/photoshop skills, and using the online resources my school’s library offers to read a lot of non-fiction. I’ve been finding it particularly difficult to do creative work, like drawing or creative writing, during this time, but one of my classes this semester is a fiction writing workshop so I have been working on a short story for that class.
Merritt: Over the summer, with the help of many YouTube tutorials, I taught myself how to crochet. It gave me something repetitive and tactile to occupy my brain space, even though I never finished a single project—my room became a sort of yarn graveyard of half-finished sweaters. Once school started up again though, it was back to filling the time with school assignments and intern work, as well as a lot of writing.
Q: What other ways has your life been affected that is unique to people your age? What would you like others (whether they be peers, teachers, policymakers, etc.) to know about the experience?
Rishab: This is the year when people of my grade need to make our academics count because this is the most crucial year for college preparation. Due to COVID, however, college preparation is a lot more difficult, especially with the difficulty in standardized test-taking and the challenges of online learning. It’s also really confusing how much importance different colleges are placing on these tests and what is expected of us, and how much is being done in colleges to accommodate pandemic difficulties for our generation. There don’t seem to be any national guidelines on how colleges can accommodate the distance-learning generation(s), especially around the frequently cancelled standardized tests such as SAT’s or ACT’s, so it’s really worrying.
Ginevra: I feel grateful that I’m in college during this time, as I suspect remote high school would be a lot more difficult to follow than the smaller classes and more self-directed study that’s in college. But I think the most important thing during this time is to support each other, as everyone has had their lives affected by the pandemic. I’ve found my own professors have been very understanding, but in general I hope teachers realize that their students are going to be at times struggling to pay attention during class, struggling with the technology, struggling with feeling burnt out over spending too much time indoors and isolated, and that these things should be treated with understanding, not punished. I also really hope that policy-makers think twice before mandating that students have in-person classes — for all the downsides of remote learning, safety is the most important thing, and I have been shocked and disgusted by the willingness of some to put the lives of students in danger. As disappointed as I was to receive the news that I wouldn’t be going back to campus this semester, I’m grateful that my college has been so cautious and mindful about the dangers of the pandemic, and chose not to let more students back on campus than they could safely handle.
Merritt: From last semester to now, I’m grateful that my professors and academic advisors have been understanding to the anxiety and uncertainty of their students, and as this semester continues I hope that they don’t lose sight of it. As a student, it’s so easy to get burnt out when you are staring at a screen and trying to pay attention to lectures and recordings for hours on end, then turning around and trying to work on homework for hours after. Midterms this semester have been noticeably stressful, with technological difficulties and rearrangements of semester projects to be held in a virtual environment, and so I just hope that professors and peers stay as mindful as they are now.