When I first arrived to campus as a freshman, I was brimming with a sense of conflicting excitement and agitation. As an international student from Canada, most of my knowledge of the American college experience came from “Pitch Perfect” and online forums like Reddit and College Confidential. While I was looking forward to making friends and socializing, I also carried with me a little anxiety about where I would fit in. Football was never a part of my life before college and the thought of living alone away from home scared me. Luckily, after a semester of exploring Ann Arbor restaurants and bonding, I found a group of people I love and made memories that I could cherish for a lifetime. It seemed all of my preoccupations dissipated into worries I once knew.
However, the class of 2024 may not be as lucky as I was. To contain the spread of COVID-19, most University social spaces and facilities were closed, drastically reducing opportunities for freshmen to form their own communities. Students can no longer meet for lunch in South Quad dining hall, or study for classes together in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. Consequently, some parents began to petition for the University to reopen dining halls and implement further in-person instruction to improve the University’s students’ mental well-being. As someone who deeply sympathizes with the freshmen’s situations, I reached out to a few of these parents and invited them to share their stories.
Nanci Bramson, the mother of an LSA freshman, expressed her concerns to me about the aforementioned challenges exactly. She explained that the lack of COVID-catered social spaces or programming in such isolating times is problematic for students trying to make their way.
“(The University is) not giving any opportunities to these 18- and 19-year-olds to socialize, and instead they are just penalizing them,” Bramson complained. “And the only ways they can socialize are absolutely dangerous.”
She reprimanded the University for not treating students as human beings with social needs and the lack of available socially-distanced programs such as book clubs, study groups and game nights. Bramson pointed to another large public university, the University of Pittsburgh, which has established shelter pods within residences to help students better transition into campus communities in a public health-informed manner.
“The University is really failing them. It’s just taking their money for nothing,” Bramson said. “There could’ve been social opportunities. (The University) should’ve engaged their RAs more, help(ing) them create relationships with the kids.”
And while Bramson acknowledges the lack of support residential staff received from the University in the beginning of the school year, she also laments their lack of involvement in freshmen’s transition. Indeed, in early September, more than 100 residential advisers went on strike, demanding increased COVID-19 safety measures and accessible testing. As a result, most RAs were not able to provide students with guidance during the time when many new students needed it the most. According to Bramson, both of her daughter’s two RAs quit: one within the first week of school and one at the beginning of the stay-in-place order. The absence of RAs and lack of community-wide engagement has created another barrier for freshmen to socialize safely.
Robert Liu, the father of another LSA freshman, also shared the stories of his daughter’s social difficulties. While he understands the University’s preference for online modes of instruction, he considers in-person interactions and public dining spaces crucial to the college experience. He told me that he thinks the University is doing a satisfying job in containing the virus, and feels hopeful about the reopening of dining halls in the future. But Liu is afraid that since the class of 2024 are the first generation of people born after 9/11, these students may be more susceptible to mental health issues.
“I was just hoping that nobody looks down upon this freshmen class as snowflakes or over-sensitive people,” Liu explained. “Any mental health issue is justifiable.”
However, while parents like Bramson believed that the administration had completely failed its students in both physical and mental health, Neil Cadman is appreciative of the University’s caution. Cadman, whose daughter is a freshman living in East Quad Residence Hall, told me that his daughter has had an amazing experience in dorms. Though Cadman’s daughter has rarely interacted with her RA, she was able to form a small group of close friends in her marching band via Zoom over the summer, and maintained these relationships throughout the semester.
“I know that there are so many kids who are having such difficult social issues, but our daughter has really acclimated through the band and (from) having a roommate she really likes,” Cadman explained. “The stars really fell into alignment for her.”
Cadman stated that one of the reasons why he felt comfortable sending his daughter to campus was because of University President Mark Schlissel’s background in immunology. Cadman had faith in an administration that understands and makes its decisions based on science.
“When my daughter moved to the dorm, we essentially signed an agreement with the University,” Cadman explained. “(Schlissel’s medical background) was part of our reasons for feeling comfortable sending her. (The fact) that the leader of the university was a medical doctor, and that he understood that science has to run this.”
Yet he also acknowledged that perhaps because his own daughter is doing better mentally than the majority of freshmen, he appreciated the University for placing safety of the community as a first priority. Indeed, though the University has exercised a certain degree of caution in its fall reopening plan, bringing students back on campus has also drastically increased the population density in Ann Arbor. Along with the start of the flu season and escalating student gatherings, test positivity rate in Washtenaw County has surged from 1.7 percent on Aug. 28 to 4.1 percent on Nov. 5.
“The difference in going to a place like Michigan is in those things that you can’t measure,” Cadman stated. “I feel horrible, but not enough to make the universities all go back though, and put everybody at risk!”
Since most of them view the University’s situation from a distance, each parent shared a different perspective on the policies. However, as a student who’s experiencing a hybrid semester firsthand in Ann Arbor, I share a mix of their concerns. While it is certainly difficult to maintain a good balance between mental health and physical safety, I think the University has failed us in both.
Ever since mid-September, I have received 17 notifications of positive cases in East Quad, where each notification indicated one or more cases. I see students who eat in indoor lounges without social distancing, mainly because they have nowhere else to go. I know people who suspected symptoms but did not get tested because they did not want to be isolated in a facility that has roaches and hallways crowded by trash. Creating a safe space for students to study and socialize is the foundation of our mental health, and because of the University’s vague and inconsiderate policies, the administration has lost the students’ trust since the first month of the semester.
But just like what Bramson, Cadman and Liu believe, this doesn’t mean we should not hope for better or make our voices heard.
On Friday morning, when I took a break from monitoring the election and typing this piece, I received an email from Schlissel regarding the University’s winter 2021 plan. Though I appreciated the University for listening to student concerns and enhancing safety measures, the updated housing terms, which included limited residence and canceling of winter contracts, caught me off guard. As a result, I quickly followed up with the interviewed parents again to see if their immediate reactions changed their perspectives. Liu told me that her daughter was greatly upset by the news and concerned about her work-study position.
“I feel for my daughter, her friends and everybody at the (University of Michigan) community,” he said. “I told her that the University is trying to look after everybody’s health, and (my daughter said that) she cares more about her mental health.”
On the other hand, Bramson was scrambling to get her hands on available off-campus housing options for the upcoming semester. Cadman also expressed his concern about the potential deterioration of his daughter’s mental health at home. However, he completely respects the University’s policies and puts his daughter’s decision first.
“I actually feel worse for the class of 2021, because those seniors are going through what the class of 2024 went through in high school last year. And I know how hard that is,” Cadman lamented. “At least my daughter has maybe three years of normal college.”
The University’s cautious winter plan may put us back on track to return to normal for fall 2021, but parents’ concerns of students’ exacerbated mental health are not baseless. Just recently, a student at Grace College in Indiana passed away alone in her dorm room, with COVID-19 being one of the contributing factors to her death. In the most recent winter 2021 plan, the University has merely introduced two academic “well-being day” breaks and an expansion of Counseling and Psychological Services team to support student mental health. Though such passive initiatives can relieve students’ stress and depressive feelings, they do not actively address the source of these mental health difficulties: isolation. While the faster things return to normal the better our college experience will be, the University must recognize the existing issues at hand and resolve them individually.
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