First Gen Students Struggle to Go Back to School Amid Ongoing Pandemic

As I prepare for my return to campus, I've reflected on how this year of isolation went

First-gen students pandemic

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As I prepare for my return to campus, I’ve reflected on how this year of isolation went. Obtaining higher education is hard enough, but add to it being a first-generation student and you’re in for four years of learning on the fly. Much of my first year was spent going through plenty of trial and error. From missing out on opportunities to not putting myself out there as much as I would have liked — being first-gen means not having a path laid for you to follow.  Because of this, you end up creating the path yourself, sometimes leading you to dead ends that no one prepared you for. Navigating your way through college is an experience in and of itself and just when you think you are getting the hang of it—so much so that you begin to plan ahead with what you’ve learned—the unexpected can happen.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the cause of many changes in people’s day-to-day lives. From social distancing to quarantine to wearing masks, life as we know it hasn’t been the same and probably never will be. I remember when I was a freshman in college and I was living in the dorms in the middle of winter quarter and as we were heading toward finals week, news of the pandemic started gaining ground. My roommate and I talked about it, freaking out about what this would mean and what would happen with school. For the remainder of our time there, we were getting constant updates and news from our professors. In the span of three days one class went from searching for a bigger room to take our exam to taking an online exam to eventually canceling the final exam due to the coronavirus. At the same time, changes in the dining halls started to happen and soon enough we were ordered to move out of our dorms for a “two-week quarantine”. Just like finals week, the two weeks after which we were supposed to return kept changing and time away from campus became longer.

These changes were swift and fortunately I was able to return to my parents house and stay with them during this pandemic. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case for other students. Housing insecurity was a major cause of concern for many students and rightfully so.  This has been an issue even before the pandemic with nearly 3 in 5 students affected by housing insecurity, according to the #RealCollege 2019 report, the nation’s largest annual assessment of basic needs security among college students.  Furthermore, campus closures in March 2020 left many to search for a place to stay. As the stressful nature of a college education persists, the added pressures of lacking housing affect one’s ability to perform academically but more importantly their overall mental well-being. 

Once in the midst of the stay-at-home order, many issues arose as a result of the transition into remote learning. The most apparent is that of “Zoom Fatigue’‘ which has been a worldwide phenomenon as a result of the pandemic.  I’m sure you’ve come across plenty of articles, tweets and probably even TikToks discussing the effects of prolonged screen time. Zoom Fatigue is characterized by excessive eye contact and lack of movement, this is an inevitable result of remote education.  At the same time, student organizations have also made the transition through virtual club fairs, extensive social media presence and remote events. If you take into account the amount of time spent attending lectures, doing homework and then on top of that being involved on campus to combat the isolation, students are living the entirety of their day through a screen. The year and a half spent attending college from the four walls of a bedroom or kitchen have made a possible return to campus sound that much more appealing. 

Aside from inevitable fatigue, the loss of campus resources was severely felt. A stable internet connection and a quiet space to do school work were among the many hurdles students faced as they adjusted to online learning. My first quarter spent at home, I really felt the loss of community, especially through academic counseling.  My first year I would regularly visit a peer counselor who was also a Latina student and we would talk about the struggles of being first-gen as well as academics. I completely disconnected from her, online sessions did not feel the same and like with campus organizations, I felt no motivation or energy to be involved. The counseling services that I was getting were a huge help, especially being first-gen and for reasons out of my control I ended up missing out on my biggest source of support.

Although myself and others will be moving back to campus this fall, the format of higher education is still in question. As some schools across the country are returning to in-person classes, some students are facing uncertainty as there are questions about what the fall semester will look like. There’s a possibility that we could have another lockdown or even restricted access to facilities on campus. If campus closures were once again a possibility, many would be back to square one, aggravating issues of housing insecurity.  Similarly all of these questions are still up in the air because after all, we are still in the middle of a pandemic. The only things we have control over is our own actions. The best we can do is take care of ourselves, continue safe practices and go into the school prepared for anything.

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