One college student shares her and her peers' experiences facing pandemic-related challenges, such as combating depression and staying focused in school.

Student Voices

How College Students Are Handling Pandemic Learning

College students are facing enormous challenges related to the pandemic, including feelings of isolation, an excess of free time, and unreliable internet connections.


Learning during a pandemic is a unique experience to say the least. With some colleges holding all courses remotely and others trying a mix of in-class discussions and online learning, every student's experience so far has been slightly different.

Though each state's and each school's policies vary, many college students agree that pandemic learning comes with numerous challenges, which can be especially hard for first-year students starting off their college experience with COVID-19 restrictions in place.

With students unable to socialize and make connections as easily as they could prior to the pandemic, many are experiencing increased feelings of isolation and depression.

With students unable to socialize and make connections as easily as they could prior to the pandemic, many are experiencing increased feelings of isolation and depression. While it's true that online courses can give students more free time, some are using this time to focus on things that distract them from their learning. The pandemic has also created a need for internet access that not all students have readily available.

Colleges and universities across the U.S. have had to adapt to unprecedented and unexpected circumstances so students can continue learning. Though some of the policies schools have put in place due to the coronavirus have proven to be helpful, students are still dealing with several challenges while handling pandemic learning.

Freshmen Are Forced to Start School in Isolation

Many first-year students I've interacted with are having a very different freshman college experience than I had. They aren't involved in any clubs, can't go to sporting events, and feel ashamed if they spend time with more than one or two friends.

As a freshman, I was introduced to my school's culture during Homecoming Week, felt a sense of community in the student section at football games, and met many new people through campus club activities. But today's first-year students haven't had the same opportunities and don't share that same sense of camaraderie and community they would have gained had they had a normal freshman year.

Students are also stuck spending most of their time with others in their households (i.e., their roommates), whether they like these people or not. Some students go away to college and plan to room with friends, but first-year students often attend with the hopes of meeting new people. Freshman year can work out great if you like your roommate — but some aren't so lucky.

Today’s first-year students haven’t had the same opportunities and don’t share that same sense of camaraderie and community they would have gained had they had a normal freshman year.

In my first year, I lived with some interesting roommates who didn't share my interests, food preferences, or even the same sleep schedule. Without having good friends I could spend time with outside my dorm, I guarantee I would've felt misunderstood and frustrated every day.

It's also important to remember that many first-year students are away from home for the first time. This means they're learning how to cook, clean, and take care of themselves, all while coping with the pandemic. Since most areas around the country have restrictions on social gatherings, many first-year students aren't allowed to get to know other students going through similar experiences as them.

According to research, the loneliness that stems from being isolated during this crucial time in students' lives can be physically harmful, heightening health risks such as smoking.

The Myth of Having to Combat Depression Alone

Several days a week I attend school for hours on my laptop — and then do hours of homework on top of that. While going to class used to give me a break from my computer screen, now everything takes place digitally.

On days I do all my work from home and have no meaningful interactions with others, I become irritable and don't feel my best. Dealing with isolation, increased screen time, and all the uncertainty and frustration the pandemic brings can increase feelings of depression in students, with many believing they have to combat the situation alone.

On days I do all my work from home and have no meaningful interactions with others, I become irritable and don’t feel my best.

As winter moves closer to us, seasonal depression may set in for many students in addition to everything else they're dealing with. In better weather, it's easier to socialize while still social distancing. Even going outside for a walk can help recenter and calm nerves. But winter weather puts a stop to many of these activities.

When students experiencing symptoms of depression feel they can't reach out and see the people they trust, their symptoms can worsen. In a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association, 36.4% of college students reported having depression. This percentage will only increase every year as more and more students receive counseling for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

But when these conditions are combined with appropriate medication and treatment, social interaction through classes and other campus events can help give students a sense of connection and community. With only limited interactions through screens, depression becomes even harder to address.

Too Much Free Time Steals Focus From School

Since my college classes were going to be different this semester, I decided to try to take advantage of the extra time I thought I'd have. With half of my classes online, I figured I could handle holding down multiple jobs — something I'd never done before as a college student.

What I discovered is that many jobs are flexible because of the pandemic, and there are a lot of great work opportunities for students. But the reality is that it's still hard to juggle all the responsibilities and be able to focus when I need to.

Even when I'm participating in my online classes, I don't feel as confident as I want to feel, and I'm a little nervous about how I'll perform once exams hit. CNBC reported that 59% of low-income college students who work 15 hours or more a week averaged a C in their classes.

Even when I’m participating in my online classes, I don’t feel as confident as I want to feel, and I’m a little nervous about how I’ll perform once exams hit.

With courses being online and easier to cater to students' schedules, many students have taken up extra jobs or responsibilities thinking they can spend less time on schoolwork. This might seem like good time management, but it could ultimately hurt academic performance.

It's also easy for students these days to get distracted with free time. Because online classes are more flexible, some students are choosing to spend just one day of the week finishing up all their work and using the rest of the week to play video games, stream their favorite TV shows, and sleep in.

It's nice to be able to relax a little, what with all the stress the pandemic brings, but creating habits like this can lead to sloppier performance in class and a harsh awakening when students eventually start working full time.

The Digital Divide Hurts Underprivileged Students

After hours and hours of work on my laptop, I often end the day with a massive headache. It's easier to hop on a Zoom call than it is to walk to campus for class or work, but it definitely feels like it comes at the cost of my well-being sometimes.

While I used to catch myself wishing I didn't have to commute to campus and spend so much time sitting in class, 2020 has definitely taught me to be careful what I wish for. Taking everything online has some perks, but it's also created some major problems.

After [using] my laptop, I often end the day with a massive headache. It’s easier to hop on a Zoom call than it is to walk to campus for class or work, but it definitely feels like it comes at the cost of my well-being sometimes.

Most college students were already used to spending hours on their laptops for homework, but adding classes, social interaction, and leisure to the mix can result in well over 15 hours of screen time a day, contributing to problems like less physical activity, headaches, eye problems due to blue light, and even cybersickness. Cybersickness symptoms include nausea, dizziness, headaches, and sleepiness — issues that have become more common among students during the pandemic.

The switch to digital learning has also created another problem: the necessity of having a good internet connection. Online classes have deepened the digital divide at universities, as many students struggle with securing reliable internet access. Because many college campuses remain closed, some students without great internet access are having trouble completing their work and assignments.

Off-campus housing often requires students to pay for internet as a separate amenity from their rent. Although splitting the cost among multiple roommates decreases the overall price, it can still pose a burden to students who are strapped for cash.


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