Dr. Michael Ramirez is an associate professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He teaches courses on gender, work, aging and the life course, and film.
As a sociologist, I am attentive to how nearly every dimension of social life is shaped by one’s social location, identity, and the social structure of our world. The college classroom is no exception. When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and spread throughout the world, the U.S., and our region of South Texas, I saw an opportunity to task students to think about the social consequences of what we were witnessing. I asked students to consider how gender, race and ethnicity, social class, and even one’s work sector shaped life in the pandemic. I tasked them to consider short- and long-term consequences to families and individuals, as well as to institutions such as the workplace, family, and education. Little did I know that I would be reminded to engage in the same process myself, which in turn provided a powerful reminder as to our purpose as college professors.
Using Social Research Methods to Gauge Student Concerns
Moving courses online, though embedded with its own set of challenges, was the easy part. The more pressing concern that surged was the growing worry I had for my students. I am committed to my students and like to think I have a true bond with them. I did worry, however, that students, under the duress of an emerging pandemic, would be overwhelmed, anxious, distracted, and perhaps even embarrassed to reach out with concerns they had that would potentially impact their transitioning online.
Ever the social scientist, I envisioned the advantages of creating a confidential survey in which students could respond with utmost honesty to inform me of where they were mentally, academically, and, if they so desired, emotionally, as we moved online. I created a Google survey to administer to students in my courses and the larger population of our sociology majors and minors. I asked a range of questions: their self-assessed level of stress and management as we moved online, their anticipated access to internet and technology off campus, and their projected challenges of academics, finances, housing, food security, and family issues. The survey concluded with open-ended questions asking for additional issues that I should be aware of as we moved online, as well as what concerns they wanted me to share with university administration. The survey responses were more than just data—something sociologists are keenly aware of, of course. The responses were informative, surprising, and in some cases, heartbreaking.
Some of their worries concerned shifting to a format in which they would be distant from their professors and classmates—something that they intrinsically enjoyed and an informal component of class that helped them with course content.
Students demonstrated resiliency: they quickly adapted to the new norms of life in a pandemic. They did, however, face a range of challenges to their academic success, home lives, and general well-being that need more intervention.
I work on campus. As of last week, I was told my hours would be significantly cut back due to the coronavirus. Although I plan to continue working, I am looking for a second job because I still need a full paycheck to pay my rent. I have not found anything yet, but this new job may come with longer hours or an inflexible schedule.”
Students put on a happy face of easily adjusting to life under quarantine. However, in other, more private contexts, such as an occasional email or the anonymity of the Google survey, they shared more of their worries. Some refused to respond or provided curt responses that life was unchanged. I didn’t take their silence or the generic “yeah, I’m okay” responses as an indication that they were indeed fine. I prodded and likely annoyed them with my persistence. And in doing so, I learned of a broad range of students’ concerns, major and minor. Overwhelmingly, students were concerned with how to successfully manage a new course format coupled with the challenges of quarantine. Here are some of their quotes, presented anonymously and with their permission:
“I thrive in a classroom environment and will have some trouble adjusting to having to hold myself accountable.”
“I’m [most worried] about realistically being able to complete assignments not on campus due to a hectic home situation.”
“I wonder [about] changing the dynamic of how interactions work online. Lectures are not the same when done online and the extra discipline is needed to deal with online courses as well as the amount of CRAZY that has been introduced into my life.”
I had students contemplate whether they should return home to finish out the semester; students who lost their (underpaid, service-sector) jobs and worried how they would pay their rent and buy groceries; students who did not have access to internet or technology off campus to continue their coursework; students living with depression, anxiety, or other issues that were compounded immediately under quarantine; and students enrolled in classes in which professors expected them to return to computer labs on campus to complete their coursework.
Some of these challenges were organized by class standing (and/or perhaps age). First-year students were more likely than upper-class students to contemplate moving back home; they were saddened by this prospect, but also framed moving home as a refuge to make life easier. Upper-class students surprisingly had greater worries, despite their having more experience managing the realities and responsibilities of college life. They were more independent, as they were less likely to live with and/or rely on family, more economically independent due to their higher rate of holding part-time jobs—and resultingly more likely to express worries of making rent and paying bills. A typical response was similar to this, from an upper-level student:
“I work on campus. As of last week, I was told my hours would be significantly cut back due to the coronavirus. Although I plan to continue working, I am looking for a second job because I still need a full paycheck to pay my rent. I have not found anything yet, but this new job may come with longer hours or an inflexible schedule.”
Other students felt the mental stress of the pandemic almost immediately upon going into quarantine. Reports of anxiety were common.
Using Survey Results to Inform an Empathetic Response
In light of the concerns I learned about via the survey, I reached out to students regularly—again, probably to the point of annoying some of them, I imagine. I shared information that was potentially helpful as students navigated this transition, including federal resources, such as CARES Act funds, and also local resources, such as the on-campus food pantry and other available regional services.
For some students, the mere demonstration of my empathy and humanity was enough to provide them options for potential solutions. At the very least, my listening to their concerns helped them feel better. Something as simple as an extra few days to complete an assignment made a world of difference for those who had fallen slightly behind, often due to understandable distractions of dealing with the pandemic. Those with financial worries who I directed to CARES Act websites were able to learn of their eligibility to secure those funds. I directed students with mental health issues to resources to get the help they needed. For students voicing mental health struggles (whether medically diagnosed or not), I reached out immediately to offer support, encouragement, personal strategies to alleviate stress, and, most importantly, to direct them to campus resources they had access to by virtue of being students at our university. (Fortunately, our counseling center offered online sessions to provide a safe, socially distant context to access help.) For one student who was in the predicament of being asked by her professor to complete her work in computer labs on campus, I requested an intervention to allow for an alternate way for her to complete her coursework safely from home without fear of being infected with the coronavirus. Again, for most students the simple act of my demonstrating a tiny sliver of humanity meant the world to them. I provided so little in the larger scheme of things, yet many were incredibly grateful.
I wonder [about] changing the dynamic of how interactions work online. Lectures are not the same when done online and the extra discipline is needed to deal with online courses as well as the amount of CRAZY that has been introduced into my life.”
As we neared the end of the semester, I realized a powerful lesson and important reminder that many professors may fail to bear in mind, not because we are selfish or uncaring, but because we are inundated with responsibilities and are overwhelmed ourselves. Let this be a reminder that our students are living through this pandemic in ways distinct from us. The emerging adult years create particular challenges—they have worries, stresses, families, jobs, bills, and are not prepared for this. For many of them, it will remain a private struggle. The best thing we can do is to provide guidance, show support, allow some flexibility, and be human. Isn’t that part of what we want our students to learn during their short time with us, after all?