April 21, 2020
By Smitty Smith (they/them), Photographer/Writer Student Lead
Ever since the return from spring break, life has not been the same for University of Michigan students. My name is Smitty (they/them), a first-year RC-LSA student, and the Writer/Photographer Student Lead for IGR, MESA, and the Spectrum Center. As I work on finishing my first year, the new lifestyle brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has been a difficult one for me to navigate, along with focusing on my studies and managing my mental health. When news of the university switching to virtual classes was sent out, every day after that for the next couple weeks had been a whirlpool of information and anxiety as every department started planning next steps for the uncertain future ahead. Through this, the stress of keeping track of my classes and personal projects I started before all of this began, compounded. I also returned home due to Housing’s COVID-19 precautions and the requests from my worried parents, even though campus provided me with a more inclusive environment for my queer and non-binary identities. I constantly struggle to stop procrastinating and be productive at home. However, when I am not doing those things, I am reflecting, which is hard for me to do while keeping up with college life.
I wanted to see how other University of Michigan students were feeling about COVID-19, and how it has impacted them so far. In order to capture diverse Michigan student experiences, I had virtual conversations with my partner and a few friends who are at different stages in their college careers. My partner says they were feeling on edge even before the announcements from U-M. Finn Crochran (they/them), is a sophomore studying Actuarial Math at the University of Michigan. “For me, I was already a little cautious just because of the amount of people who travel at our school.” The switch to virtual classes seemed like a better and safer alternative for the rest of the semester, but it turned out to still be difficult for them to manage given all the other stressors that came along with the changes being made across the university. Not only are they balancing being a student studying Math at Michigan, but they also are a Residential Advisor on campus.
I wanted to know how their job was being impacted as they cared for residents, while also trying to figure out the COVID-19 situation for themselves. “People had so many questions that I did not even know how to answer. To, like, even tell them how to find the answers was difficult because for myself, I was still trying to figure that out.” Finn’s job as an RA became more stressful on the resident end - trying to make sure residents feel safe and are getting the information they need to successfully navigate the constantly changing environment - and also on the professional end. ResStaff were still expected to complete the same duties their job requested of them, even when those duties - such as interacting with guests and residents at the Community Center, and going on duty rounds, surveilling the halls and restrooms to make sure they are safe - proved to be hazardous due to the pandemic. While they expressed great understanding of the needs of the residential community, it was no more comfortable being one of the people responsible for fulfilling those needs. “It was getting really difficult for me to want to continue to do that job, but I had to… because for me, I felt it was safer and just a better idea for me to stay in housing on campus during this time … I’m in the higher risk group and I’m also queer and nonbinary… being on campus is the only place I can actually exist in the way that I feel most comfortable.”
With all the struggles Finn has been through, I asked them if they could give advice to students that speaks to what helped them get through their difficult experiences. “It’s important to take care of yourself… and then to, [find] multiple ways that you can do it.” As chaotic and unpredictable life can be, Finn explained, it is important to have alternative ways to adapt to tough situations -- in this case, a pandemic that has put the world on lockdown.
Maintaining a daily structure that incorporates our class schedule and time allotted for things like going for walks is another way to adapt to this time in our lives. This advice was given by my friend Emilia Bauer (she/her), a first-year STAMPS School of Art and Design student. “I don’t feel trapped or anything … because I’ve still got things that I’m doing. And I’ve still got, like, time in my day that I’m like, okay I’m gonna do this then, and then I’m gonna go outside, and then I’m gonna take the dogs for a walk.” Before Emilia moved off campus and back home and got her bearings, she recognized that no one -- not even the professors -- knew what was going on as changes were being made to university operations due to COVID-19. Because of this, there existed inevitable confusion as she received information about next steps in her classes.
Staying on campus was more preferable for her because of her need for- and access to art spaces, however, the art building and her dorm closed, so going home became the best thing to do. Now, she experiences some difficulty completing her art assignments. “I have a class right now that we’re doing video and performance art in. And in another class, we’re also doing, like, performance art-esque kind of work. And, so, it kind of requires you to have a camera, tripod, something to work with.” Since these assignments are still being required of her and she is unable to use her phone for them, she has to make do with what she has in order to complete them - even though getting access to these materials are challenging now that those resources cannot be made available to students from the university due to the health concerns around COVID-19. “There are a lot of people that didn’t even have a camera to begin with, so I don’t know how they really expect people - especially who might … not have as much money, like I don’t know how you would expect them to be able to make up that kind of work and not really have exceptions or other ways to get it done.”
The social distancing aspect of the pandemic precautions has also been hard for Emilia to deal with at times. “A lot of the friends that I have at U-M don’t live near here at all … so, it was a little hard saying goodbye to them. And then, like, my boyfriend lives here but obviously I can’t go see him or nothing because I can’t go anywhere.” We all have to be in the same space all of the time, and with that comes the issue of keeping separate our work environment from our more relaxed environment. Emilia recognizes this hardship, and has been trying to regulate the balance between relaxing and working. Staying in one place too long, she realizes, makes her more unproductive. When this happens, she tries to get herself active and working again by going outside.
Another one of my friends who is being affected by social distancing is Aldo Pando Girard (he/they). Aldo is a Vocal Performance and Civil Engineering double major who is also a Diversity Peer Educator (DPE) on campus. “I really do value social interaction.” When Aldo goes on walks and runs outside, they sometimes try to invite a friend along for company. Aldo keeps spending time outside at the forefront of their priorities, and advises everyone to make time during their day to take in nature. They also stress that this is a time to intentionally reflect. Even though they are enjoying the ways they have found to cope with the COVID-19 environment at home, being on campus was the more preferable option for Aldo because the study spaces make them more productive, and home is less comfortable because of their queer and gender-nonconforming identities.
I wanted to know about Aldo’s experience as a DPE. “When everything came up, a lot of my job functions were not going to be possible because of the rule against large gatherings … I knew a little more than the residents did, but it was still confusing and I still didn’t know a lot.” Aldo felt the conflicting information that was coming out on a daily basis in response to the coronavirus was disconcerting and disjointed, as different departments around campus worked to make decisions - some without communicating to the others. Aldo is a part of many organizations on campus, including Black Leaders in the Arts Collective, the Michigan Student Power Network - a diverse group of people that networks to student organisers , Bronze Elegance - a fashion organization on campus, and the U-M Slam Poetry Team. “A lot of things I anticipated and expected to do over the next couple months were no longer possible, and it was hard to focus on work through all of that.” They highlighted the lifestyle changes we all had to make as surreal. I asked Aldo what they were learning through this time. “I’m seeing that society is set on the premise that people have to work in order to be able to survive... A lot of people’s normal work, they can’t do at all - like food service jobs, event organisers … As people return to work, hopefully they will learn that your life should not be attached to your ability to work.”
The stress that exists during this unprecedented time is very real, and given the general hustle mentality that students may adopt in college, that can add on to the anxiety accumulated due to cancelled plans and projects, alternative lesson plans for courses, and more. In conversation with Akaash Tumuluri (he/him) - STAMPS School of Art and Design senior - he explained to me the ways in which he, and some of his other senior friends, feel better than how many other students feel while coping with the coronavirus pandemic. “We feel weirdly better right now than a lot of other people do. I think … because … this is bringing everyone to like an equilibrium state, and kind of evening out the playing field in a sense. And so, we feel calmer because everyone kind of understands what we’re going through on a day to day.” From Akaash’s perspective, he finds comfort in the fact that people are more understanding of one’s mental state during this time because it is knowingly obvious that everyone is dealing with the same difficult circumstances. “Like I can text my professor and be like, ‘Hey I just did not feel the motivation to do it today, I’ll turn it in tomorrow.’ And for the first time in my college career ever, my teacher will understand that. Which is very different from how it is during most parts of the year.”
Some seniors in the STAMPS School of Art and Design take on a senior thesis in which they propose and plan out an art project. Their project would normally be presented in a gallery exhibition at the end of the year, and it is a big part of seniors in the art school’s experience. For Akaash, his senior thesis was the main thing on his mind when thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on the rest of the school year for him. Having to make changes to his plans was stressful, but he also was not discouraged because of the chance to spend more time on his project and make it even better. When I asked what he was feeling when changes in precautions were beginning to be announced across the university, he said “It was kinda tough because I realized I couldn't shoot my senior thesis … But I also realized, because of that, I could shoot it on my own time the way I wanted to. I didn’t feel rushed by anybody, and I got a little bit more of a chance to work with my actors and personalize it around their experiences instead of having it be something that I wrote and they to .. act in something that I wrote … I kind of wanted it to be more of a collaborative experience.”
I was wondering about how Akaash was feeling about the job aspect of this time, considering the nation-wide lockdown and closing of many places of business. His job opportunities are being put on hold, but he does not count that as a complete loss. “Now, I’m not getting rejection letters. I’m getting like ‘Hey, sorry, we’re going to have to delay this until after this whole ordeal’ … I think there’s that whole thing where we gotta be keeping up pace with everybody, and hitting the check marks that you’re supposed to be hitting. Like getting an internship junior year, and graduating in four years, and stuff like that.” Even though COVID-19 has caused inconveniences, Akaash finds ways to keep moving by accepting the new environment we all were forced into, and thinking about ways to be productive during this time. “I’ve been trying to deal with this mostly by writing and learning … this music software to make alternative music. I’m just trying to come out of this having picked up a new skill, seeing as we have so much spare time.”
Although the coronavirus pandemic has not been a breeze, we are all getting through it in different ways. The purpose of this story is to spotlight a few of those perspectives in an attempt to help make other students feel less alone. The social distance may physically separate us, but that does not mean we cannot still connect with one another by sharing our experiences and helping one another press forward. This is a tough situation for all of us, and sharing our stories and advice for coping can be a big help for someone else struggling during this odd time. So go for walks, journal your thoughts, take up a new instrument, call your friends and family more often, or simply breathe.