For some university students, the biggest changes they’ve faced this school year have already been made, and they’ve been dealing with the stress for months.
University of Nevada, Reno, President Brian Sandoval announced in early October that the college would be transitioning to entirely remote classes for the remainder of the fall semester following the Thanksgiving holiday break. For a lot of the university’s students, however, not much is going to change.
Many UNR classes have already been taught entirely online throughout this semester, even those that were intended to be taught in person, leaving the students enrolled in them to face the challenges of learning remotely and consider what that might mean for their future careers. The result for a lot of these students has been increased stress.
“I was just talking with my friend about this, about our experiences and the stress of—I guess it’s like indirect stress because it’s not something that we necessarily deal with every minute of every day. It’s more like the normality of our lives has changed drastically, so it’s kind of putting us in shock every third day at a time,” said Isabella Micone, a senior majoring in psychology with an emphasis in substance abuse and minors in both substance abuse and sign language.
Navigating online learning
Micone is one of those students whose classes had already moved online prior to the break, and she said she thinks this has put her ahead of the curve. Still, she said, she’s faced with a lot of challenges and opportunities.
“There are a lot of pros and cons,” she said. “I have more time to work. I don’t have to commit to a lot with school because I would have to go to labs or go help in research … I don’t have to go class. Everything, I can turn it in via Canvas online, so I have more time to do anything I want.
“It’s a lot more flexible. The teachers have been awesome with flexibility. They’ve been really understanding, at least mine have.”
But the online learning environment is difficult for her nonetheless, and she chalks this up, in part, to having learning disabilities.
“I’m enrolled at the Disability Resource Center at UNR,” Micone said. “I have ADD and dyslexia, so those are both with reading and attention—and that’s what it takes to be online. So, it’s been really difficult because I already struggle with reading and attention, and that’s all that online requires.”
Her other major concern is that not all classes are available online, including the lab classes she needs to obtain the substance abuse emphasis on her degree when she graduates.
“I just know that labs will not be offered anymore, which kind of puts my emphasis at jeopardy because I have an emphasis in research,” Micone said. “And a lot of the research that psychologists and neuroscientists do is with people. So, we cannot do research on people with social distancing or in a lab or with too many people on a computer using the same computer.”
Micone will graduate in May regardless of whether the lab classes she needs for her emphasis are available. And she knows she can return to take those classes if she chooses, but a delay could make a difference in where and when she pursues her master’s education.
“I’ve even been questioning whether to take a semester off,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to rush to apply for my master’s. I think I’m just going to get my degree and save as much money as I can if things are still in the air—because money has definitely been a stress for me because I’m responsible for all of my bills, and I decided not to move home.”
Wondering if it’s worth it
Some younger students have reported considering taking time off, too, and graduating at a later date. Among them is Gabrielle Stafford, a sophomore majoring in human development and family studies.
“I would really like to take a semester off, or two, but I feel like if I do I’m not going to go back,” Stafford said. “I think if next fall is going to be like this, then I’ll probably make a decision around then.”
Like Micone, Stafford is a student registered with UNR’s Disability Resources Center.
“But I have not been doing well on tests,” she said. “Even with having my accommodations, I have not been doing well.”
A large part of the problem for her has been taking classes via Zoom.
“I really feel like I’m not learning anything,” Stafford said. “I feel like this whole semester I haven’t learned a single thing. It’s been hard just sitting in my room and trying to pay attention to Zoom. I have roommates and I have cats, and it’s not ideal at all.”
Two of Stafford’s classes were intended to be taught in person but were quickly moved to remote. She said these two classes have revealed stark differences in the professors’ abilities to adapt. One professor, she said, has “been totally awesome with it,” but the other “professor has completely sucked.”
Other students have experienced this as well, including secondary education major and aspiring high school English teacher Sam Flint, a junior. Flint hopes to be teaching in the Washoe County School District by 2022. For now, she’s navigating the final stretch of her college career online.
“I don’t like to say this about my professors, but they are definitely unorganized right now as most people are doing the switch,” Flint said. “It’s definitely a challenge.”
She said professors have been flexible with her and her classmates.
“With them being unorganized, I assume we’re all pretty unorganized,” she said. “And they’re lenient about changing due dates, and I probably get two or three messages saying they’ve changed a due date and we have a couple more days to do it because not as many people were turning it in as they were hoping. There’s definitely been a change with the structure of the material.”
According to Flint, many of her professors have cut learning material that would usually be included in her courses because they feel the stress would be too great to include it all. She’s glad that all of her professors who’ve chosen to do so have made those materials available for students to study on their own time if they so choose.
Class and grading options impact students’ futures
All three students said they’ve tried to plan their classes around what’s available and what they believe might be easiest to complete online. For Micone, who’s nearing graduation, there’s not really the option to delay taking necessary courses. The same is quickly becoming true for sophomore Stafford, who said she’s quickly arriving at the point where the only classes she needs are upper division ones.
As with all students enrolled in Nevada System of Higher Education institutions, the three now have a choice to have their performance in classes graded on a pass-fail system; however, they know there may be potential consequences of this, and none are particularly keen on the idea.
Stafford has heard that some grad programs won’t admit students who have pass-fail grades on their transcripts.
“But I’m pretty sure—I really think that’s going to change after all of this COVID stuff, and I don’t think UNR is irresponsible for doing it,” she said.
Flint said her concern surrounding pass-fail grading is its potential to cause issues with scholarships and grant funding.
“I think my grades are pretty decent right now, so that I can avoid it,” she said. “But for those students who aren’t doing well in the online setting, I think it’s a really good option.”
Of course, classes and grades are only a portion of the college experience—something of which Micone, Flint and Stafford are all keenly aware.
Meeting social and emotional needs
“It can get pretty lonely because there aren’t a lot of things to do,” Micone said. “You have this idea of going to college and making all of these friendships and memories, but there’s none of that now because you can’t go to football games, and you can’t go to each other’s homes; you can’t go to the library; you can’t go to the gym.”
Micone has a close-knit group of friends. In addition to nannying to pay her bills, she also works as a server at Midtown Eats and said co-owner Christina Savage has been excellent in making sure her college student employees feel comfortable coming to her with anything they need, including a listening ear.
Both Flint and Stafford have also experienced the social strain of the online college experience.
“Socially, it’s been so hard,” Stafford said. “I haven’t met any boys or anything. It’s just so hard because you can’t do anything in person.”
She and Flint are both sorority members, another experience that’s been drastically changed by the pandemic.
“We’ve had a lot of things cancelled, which I understand, but I’d still like to have been part of those,” Flint said. “Sororities are really big on philanthropy, so they’re always creating events to make sure that we’re helping our community—and that isn’t something that we’ve been able to do. Not only is that good experience, but it’s good to put on a resume.”
Nonetheless, the women said their sorority sisters have helped stave off their loneliness—even if encounters with them have had to take place largely online.
“Even though we can’t do stuff in person, I do still feel really connected to the university and have people I can connect with,” Flint said. “I’m not too worried about missing out on social events and things like that.”
Rising COVID-19 numbers among college-aged students indicate that not everyone is satisfied with online or small-group social gatherings. A large spike in cases among 18 to 24-year-olds in the months since the semester began drove the decision to close down UNR for in-person learning. It also prompted the City of Reno to partner with the Reynolds School of Journalism and some of its students in an attempt to bring those trends down through the use of a new social awareness campaign.
Trying to affect positive change
The #DoItFor2021 campaign is being funded by the City of Reno, overseen by local PR professional Rachel Gattuso and designed and implemented by a group of five Reynold’s School of Journalism students. Among them are seniors Rachael Reyes and Emily Evans.
Evans and Reyes explained that the idea behind #DoItFor2021 is to encourage college students to follow COVID-19 safety protocols now in the hopes that it will flatten the disease transmission curve among their population, allowing them to return to normal activities next year.
Reynolds School faculty member Alison Gaulden, who worked to secure Gattuso as an advisor for the campaign so the students organizing it could receive internship credits, explained, “Their goal was to see if they could get their classmates to reduce their behavior that was creating COVID. So, they interviewed I think about 170 students. … About a third of the students really oppose COVID protection measures.
“Either they don’t believe in it or they don’t believe the government has a role in telling people what they can wear and what they can’t wear, or they don’t think it’s that serious because they either had it and quickly recovered or they don’t think they’re hanging around with their families at this time, so it’s not going to be an issue.”
Reyes and her fellow campaign organizers said they believe COVID-fatigue has played a large part in the types of responses they received from students.
“And we decided that, since they are being selfish in their actions, the #DoItFor2021 campaign is to selfishly do something for yourself in 2021,” she said. “So, if that means to go to music festivals or travel or study abroad, at least do it for yourself or do it for your family or to hang out with friends or whatever that might be. Do it for 2021.”
The students will be running their campaign at least through the end of December. They received a $25,000 budget from the City of Reno to facilitate placing advertisements and messaging for it across social media platforms. Their messaging includes photos and videos of students wearing plain white masks with messages written across them explaining who and what they’re willing to take precautions for in 2020 in the hopes of a better 2021.
At first, Reyes said, they were considering partnering with local bars and restaurants to promote their mask-wearing and socially-distancing messaging. However, they changed their minds on this after Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak made a plea recently for Nevada residents to spend two weeks returning as closely as possible to Phase 1 reopening behaviors like avoiding social outings and only leaving their homes for essential reasons.
Now, they’re considering partnering with Spotify because UNR students receive a discounted price for the music service, which many of them use.
The students stressed that they commiserate with their fellow college-aged people and understand the challenges that attending classes online and avoiding social settings present—including potential mental health effects.
“As someone who deals with mental health issues myself, I completely understand,” Reyes said. “Most of my days are spent in my room, in my house, just on Zoom from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.—and it’s really taxing on my mental health and my roommates’.”
Evans added, “It’s really hard for us to find a balance between, ‘We empathize with you, but we’re criticizing you’ because, at some point, this isn’t OK.’”
After a long back and forth between the campaign organizers, Evans said, it was decided that they’d have to employ a bit of both strategies in their approach. Now, they’re working–and waiting—to see how successful it may be.
“These are long-lasting decisions that we as a population are making,” Evans said. “Our actions today determine the experiences that we have tomorrow. Our actions today determine the image that we have tomorrow—whether that be older generations seriously looking down on us or younger generations, you know, despising us because we ruined the potential they could have had in the future. What’s this going to be? Are we not going to have a graduation for years to come? Are we going to continuously cancel spring breaks? What’s the sacrifice that we have to make in order to have a safer future for our community?”
Learn more about the #DoItFor2021 campaign by following it on social media here.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.