When I arrived on Wellesley’s campus for the first time this August, the first-day-of-college traditions I had imagined my entire life were painfully absent. My father, the only one who could accompany me on my journey due to COVID-19 restrictions, had to say a five-minute goodbye before I was whisked away to my room by my RA. Everyone did their best to still make move-in a festive event, with red streamers outside my hall and the RAs greeting me with ear-splitting screams of joy. But even their enthusiasm and dedication could not compensate for the surreal and isolating experience of moving into college during a pandemic.
As sad as it was to not experience the traditions all my older friends gushed about, the much more pressing and relevant implications of COVID-19 are that of students’ mental and social well-being. Little did I know that this move-in process was indicative of what was to come: a stressful, isolating experience full of anxiety and hours alone in my room that left me wondering whether it was worth it to come to campus in the first place.
Undoubtedly, Wellesley has been very successful in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and maintaining the physical health of their students, with only three reported positive cases since Aug. 16. This is impressive and reassuring, considering that many other colleges and universities have had to send students home due to outbreaks, or worse, kept students on campus despite a significant number of cases. This success likely stems from Wellesley’s strict testing and social distancing policies, while also conducting some in-person, socially-distant classes — another impressive feat. However, the isolation that the rules encourage can be devastating to students’ mental and social health, making us feel alone, unsupported and disregarded by Wellesley.
Anna Volgler ’24 came to Wellesley from Arkansas and in addition to the “culture shock” she is experiencing, “the stress of COVID” is difficult to navigate.
“Covid is dangerous and we need to take it seriously. But I feel like [the administration is] cracking down on things that they shouldn’t be. The whole rule about ‘you’re not allowed to eat with anyone but your blockmates’ … for one, no one’s following it, and two, it’s just kind of ridiculous,” Vogler said.
I have definitely found it difficult to adapt to this new social environment, even after two months. College is already a challenging transition for many, and the pandemic exacerbates these struggles. Even as a more extroverted person, I didn’t expect the isolation to be this intense or affect me this much. I did not expect to have to social distance with my blockmates, for example, and I did not realize that we would not be allowed to eat with anyone other than them.
These misconceptions were mainly due to the confusing and contradicting communication from the College throughout the summer regarding their fall plan. From my understanding, blockmates were supposed to be a pseudo “family unit” with which you could be more relaxed with social distancing. As of Oct. 30, Wellesley announced that students can have one blockmate in their room at a time as long as they social distance with masks, which is a step in the right direction. But this rule change comes over half-way through the semester, when much of the damage of social isolation has already been done.
Along with other indications that Wellesley was committed to maintaining our social experience, the blockmate system was a major reason why I was reassured that it was worth it to come to campus this year. If I had known that these expectations would not match the reality, I might have reconsidered. For myself and many others, this social isolation can trigger more intense anxiety and depression or any other mental health symptoms.
Though the College is hosting events via Zoom and some in-person, these events are not a solution and cannot replicate the experience that First-years would normally be having. Similar to the misconceptions I had about blockmate rules, these events are not nearly as frequent, organized or widespread as we were initially led to believe they would be. I know it is not easy to create a strong social environment in the midst of a pandemic. But, by inviting students back on campus, Wellesley assumed the responsibility of not only our physical health, but our mental health as well. And while I am physically healthy, my mental health has rarely been worse, as I have struggled with feeling lonely, burnt out, overwhelmed, bored and anxious all in this short period.
Shell Zhan echoes this frustration with the social situation of being on campus at Wellesley.
“A sense of loneliness and isolation is prevalent. As much as one tries to replace everything through Zoom, it’s far from enough. Seeing someone through a screen automatically dehumanizes and distances,” Shell Zhan ’24 said.
For off-campus international students, remote learning can be a unique challenge, due to the drastically different time zones and a removed social environment. Victoria Lu ’24, a remote student from China, explained that remote learning is “rather emotionally draining.”
“Whenever I think about the fact that I need to stay at home until next August, my head hurts. Also, because of the time difference […] some of the classes/meetings that I have are extremely early in the morning, while the others are really late at night. I think that not having a regular sleep schedule has affected my productivity during the day as well as my mental health,” she said.
However, it is important to acknowledge that being on campus, even with all these COVID-19 restrictions, is necessary for students who do not have access to internet or technology at home or have home environments that are not conducive to online learning, whether that be due to distractions or an unsafe situation. It is extremely important that these students are supported so that they are able to learn just like everyone else, which is why giving students the option to come back to campus was very important and is not inherently a bad decision.
“I like having my own space here and having multiple options for where I can study, which I didn’t have at home,” Selale Gunal ’24 said. “It’s refreshing to be stuck somewhere else after being stuck at home since March.”
Because being on campus is essential for some students’ safety or ability to learn, Wellesley’s lack of mental and social support during this time is even more disappointing and frustrating. Many students had no choice but to return and are now faced with an emotionally taxing campus experience of isolation and stress. Wellesley has failed these students who see being on campus as a safe place and have failed to provide the support they need and deserve.
Hosting outdoor activities is a move in the right direction because it can be very difficult to connect over Zoom, but weather will not allow for these events for that much longer. As mentioned above, allowing two blockmates to be in a room together will potentially help students feel less isolated. But, Wellesley needs to continue in this direction by prioritizing social events that are in-person and accessible by a large number of students.
There is not one perfect solution that will make this year automatically normal because we are still in a pandemic and we must adjust to a new normal. But Wellesley cannot only focus on the number of COVID cases on campus. Even if Wellesley succeeds in preventing any more cases on campus, they will have failed students’ mental health.
“I understand that [the administration is] worried about an outbreak, I really do understand that,” Vogler said. “But I feel like they’re not treating us like we’re people, they’re just treating us like we’re numbers on a page.”