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COVID-19 disregarded and targeted the college student population.

October 23rd, 2020

By: Carmen De Alba Cardenas

Homework, deadlines, jobs, internships, family responsibilities, extracurricular activities and a pandemic. Coronavirus (COVID-19) became another obstacle college students had to tackle in their daily lives.

When the pandemic hit, many things stopped but not higher-ed. In a matter of a few weeks, college students, including myself, were expected to be learning from a new educational platform, Zoom.

Students were expected to have a stable internet connection, a working computer and a quiet area for class.

Many of my peers do not have access to the tools needed to have a successful virtual learning experience. In fact, according to a 2018 study, roughly 20 percent of students have trouble accessing effective technology.

While this setting was new for everyone, students were the ones expected to know what to do without much assistance.

Many of my peers have expressed the same concerns when it came to being a college student during a global pandemic. The college student body started the fall semester worried about financial insecurity, their mental health, and the uncertainty of going back to campus in the Fall.   

Money

As a college student, my favorite response to any conversation on the topic of financial stability is “the struggle is real,” because it is real.

In the CNBC series My College Dream, college students from across the country explain their college experience and the struggles they have faced, including money instability. Most of the students said they were faced with the choice between going to class or going to work.

The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) is doing advocacy and policy work to help students achieve their postsecondary dreams including an initiative to double the federal Pell Grant.

Low-income students are half as likely as their higher-income peers to complete a postsecondary certificate or degree by age 26. Additionally, students of color and first-generation students have disproportionately lower rates of success.

Doubling the Pell Grant would not only help students afford college, but it would allow them to spend their additional money on other necessities.

I work two campus jobs on top of being a student. Some months I struggle to pay rent and have money for groceries. My situation is not unique. According to the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, 44 percent of respondents at two-year institutions and 38 percent of respondents at four-year institutions have experienced food insecurity.

When it was announced that Congress agreed on a stimulus package, I felt a rush of relief. That relief was short-lived when I heard I would not be receiving any sort of assistance because like thousands of others, I am still claimed as a dependent by my parents.

As a 20-year-old student who pays thousands of dollars to go to a university with a rigorous course load that leaves no time for a full-time job, I need help from my parents. I pay taxes though, so why wouldn’t I be part of the stimulus package?

Luckily, I am a recipient of the College Success Arizona (CSA) scholarship. Through this amazing program, I was able to receive the Arizona Postsecondary Student Resiliency Fund (Fund), which helped me cover some outstanding expenses; for me it was rent.

The Fund was created by CSA and Helios Education Foundation to assist students with their education expenses, housing expenses, technology expenses as well as other immediate needs. Through the Fund, the organizations were able to award $500,000 to 1,156 low-income and first-generation college students.

Mental Health

College students suffer in silence.

Even with as much progress as there’s been in the battle against the stigma of mental health, young adults still refrain from speaking up about stress, anxiety, depression, etc.

Being in quarantine for months without social interaction took a toll on everyone. College students are used to being in large groups, whether it is in a classroom, at the dining halls, or at their jobs. Taking that away from them erased a part of their daily routine.

Adding a global pandemic to the mix was the tipping point for lots of students.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the pandemic’s effect on mental health disproportionately affected 18- to 24-year-olds, with one-quarter of those saying they had “seriously considered suicide” in the last 30 days.

I have struggled with stress and anxiety since I was in high school. It is an issue that hinders my everyday life.

When we were all ordered to go home and stay inside, I shut down. I saw no hope for the future, and it made me neglect my schoolwork. It felt like everyone handing the pandemic a lot better than I was.

Speaking to Violeta Ramos, my CSA adviser, for our end-of-semester catch-up, was one way I was able to feel better. She allowed me to realize that I was not the only one going through these tough times. Her being there to lend a listening ear, really made a difference.

It is important for students to feel supported not only in their academic journey, but their emotional and mental one as well.

Recently, CSA released a policy brief describing the importance of non-academic supports saying social and emotional support can make a student feel a sense of belonging and create a positive self-image, allowing them to succeed academically.

I was lucky to have a support system.

Going Back to Campus

I, more than anyone, want things to go back to normal. I wish I could get lunch with my friends in between classes or join study groups at coffee shops, but it’s not safe.

So why are we back on campus?

Freshmen are living in the dorms, but most have a full schedule of Zoom classes.

Food retailers are open, but seating is closed. Fall sports have been cancelled. The gym re-opened about a month after school started but with restrictions. Yet, I am being charged fees for these partial amenities. 

If it is not safe to have 30 people in a classroom, why are there 400 in a dorm building? Our health and well-being are being disregarded. I understand why it is impossible to completely shut down a university.

All I ask is for professors, mentors, parents and fellow students to listen. Listen to what your students are saying, listen to their concerns and make an effort to understand them.

These are trying times for everyone and no one can tell what the future holds but it is time to stop denying the voices of students. We need our institutions to listen to us and to help us achieve our goals.

It all starts with conversations and open minds.

Carmen De Alba Cardenas is currently a junior studying Public Relations at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is also a recipient of the CSA scholarship and worked with the Arizona College Access Network to publish this piece.

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