What Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ can tell us about social distancing and focusing on life’s essentials
Student scientists, athletes and artists miss opportunities when learning moves online
Moving his education online because of the coronavirus presents a much bigger problem for Cameron Pelton than it does for many of his Indiana University classmates.
Pelton is studying ballet and choreography, subjects that don’t convert easily to virtual instruction. Meanwhile, auditions have been canceled and seniors who were hoping to land jobs with ballet companies have had those aspirations delayed.
“You spend your whole life being a control freak with your body, with your time. You try to control as much as you can, and then you get into a situation where you can’t really plan at all,” he said. “It’s all really difficult.”
The closing of colleges and universities has disrupted the educations of millions of students. But it’s affecting the lives of many in ways that are not yet widely understood.
Graduate students have had their research interrupted. Those in the performing arts have seen recitals and auditions canceled. Athletes in late winter and spring sports won’t play for championships or get scouted for the pros. Aspiring nurses can’t do clinicals — the nursing equivalent of hospital residencies. Job fairs and internships have been called off, as have debating competitions, graduate school admission tests and conferences that are essential opportunities to network and get jobs.
Most of these students have one thing in common: What they’ve suddenly been stopped short of are goals toward which they’ve worked almost single-mindedly for much of their lives.
“I sat on my bed and cried,” said Stasia Laterzo, a nursing student, about the day she learned that her clinical had been canceled, just weeks before she’s due to graduate from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “I called my friends. We all cried together.”
Holly Gildea, a fourth-year doctoral student in neurobiology at the University of California, Berkeley, had her lab shut down just as she needed results to shape her thesis.
“As a biologist, of course, I understand the importance of acting appropriately in this moment,” said Gildea, whose research into neurodegenerative disease, and potential ways to slow it, has been under way for two years. “But emotionally you have to grapple with the fact that you can’t do the thing that could have a big impact on the world in general, and that you love to wake up and do every day.”
Caroline Bourg, a senior vocal performance major at Boston University, was set to make her debut at Carnegie Hall, a prize she’d earned in a competition. That show was canceled, too, and Bourg is now home in Chicago trying to figure out how to perform the senior recital that’s among her remaining graduation requirements, online and without an accompanist.
“The people who do understand really feel for me,” she said. “These are things that will impact my future. So I’ve gotten a lot of really compassionate messages.”
Pelton hoped to graduate next spring and get a job with a ballet company. Those plans might now have to be pushed back by a year, when pent-up supply will make the market even more competitive.
“My grand plan was to spend three years in college,” he said. “But it might turn out to be four.”
That will cost him, in terms of tuition and lost opportunities, he said. “College is expensive, and I’m not planning on making much money in my life.” And, he added, “every year you wait is another year that somebody might get your dream job.”
For a generation of college students preoccupied with accomplishments and getting good grades, opportunities to chalk up more of them are shrinking.
Many universities are giving only grades of pass or fail or satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and suspending dean’s lists; that typically won’t reduce an all-important grade-point average, but, for a student doing well in a course, it can’t improve it either.
Pressure to do well had already made these students the most stressed-out ever, according to surveys. Even before the pandemic, 66 percent reported feeling overwhelming anxiety in the previous 12 months, the American College Health Association reports. Forty-five percent said they had been so depressed that it was difficult to function.
“No one was prepared for this kind of shutdown, and one of the consequences of that is that the attention is largely on what I’d call mechanistic things — going online, staying in touch with students,” said Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College and author of the forthcoming book “Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door.” “The price you pay for not paying attention to the psychological trauma is sizeable.”
Many students’ lives are also tied up in now-suspended extracurricular activities. How important this is to them was the subject of the widely watched Netflix reality series “Cheer,” which followed the Navarro College defending national champion cheerleading squad as they spent their lives preparing for the national competition, scheduled this year for early April in Daytona Beach. It has also now been canceled.
“The end of my cheerleading career has come a bit early,” tweeted La’Darius Marshall, one of the cheerleaders on whom the series focused. “I’m heartbroken for my team and coaches.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has halted all its spring events — most famously the March Madness national basketball championship tournament. But the abrupt cancellations have brought pain to athletes in all sports. The Penn Relays track-and-field competition, for example, which began in 1895 and was the longest uninterrupted collegiate track competition in history, has been canceled for the first time, affecting 15,000 expected participants.
Athletes including Imani Gray, who runs the 200 and 400 meters on the University of Maryland track team, are now at home wondering how they’ll keep up their training. As a sophomore, Gray said, “I still have a chance,” but she was “heartbroken” for the seniors: “This is their last year running and they were expecting to go to the championships.”
That’s the case for tens of thousands of other seniors, too, whose spring seasons could have been a chance to show off their skills to a scout.
“What will they do with the draft?” wondered John Stuper, baseball coach at Yale, referring to Major League Baseball’s annual draft of young prospects. One idea is to delay it so teams can scout players in summer leagues, he said. But “will there actually be summer ball? Who knows?”
Stuper said two of his seniors “absolutely” have potential to be drafted.
“I’ve talked to the seniors. Hugged them. Consoled them,” Stuper said. “They were heartbroken, but I can say with certainty, they understand this had to be done. May not make it a whole lot easier, but at least they get it.”
Other students, preparing for graduate school admission tests or hoping to enter professions that require licensing exams, may also have to wait a little longer.
Test centers administering exams for certified public accountants have closed until mid-April. The Law School Admission Test scheduled for March has been canceled. So have Medical College Admission Tests through early April. The Graduate Record Examinations have been postponed in many locations.
In addition to the foiled hopes and plans, some college students are now facing stresses suddenly familiar to many other Americans. For those who relied on campus jobs, the most immediate and anxiety-provoking problem is financial.
“It definitely makes me worried about being able to pay my bills,” said Michael Johnson, who had been working in the gym at the University of Chicago for up to 20 hours a week to pay his rent, his phone bill and other expenses.
Johnson, who is in the first year of a master’s program in public policy, asked his landlord whether he could postpone rent payments or end his lease before June, but the answer was no. The $37,000 in student loans he owes also weighs on Johnson’s mind.
Growing numbers of university and college students also have children, now home with them.
“I have a little bit more stress of trying to make sure my family is stocked up than an undergrad who goes home to their parents’ house,” said Adam Stein, a doctoral student in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, who has three children.
International students have still other worries. “My parents are 7,000 miles away. I don’t know how they are,” said Divyansh Kaushik, another Carnegie Mellon student, who is from India. “They say they’re fine, but I don’t know. And they’re worried about me.”
Graduate students face deadlines with dramatic consequences. Connor Strobel, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Irvine, has had the fieldwork for his dissertation interrupted, in a program that limits his stipend to only a certain number of years. “If I exceed that, I’ll still be a student but I would be responsible for the tuition and the fees,” Strobel said. The publication of his earlier research also may be delayed, affecting his chances at academic job openings that mostly arise in the fall.
“In some ways, being laid off is more clarifying,” Strobel said. “We’re in this sort of purgatory of transitioning the coursework and transitioning the projects. It’s sort of this prolonged limbo.”
Many institutions, agencies and organizations are trying to help.
Amherst College is continuing to pay students who were working on campus, whether or not they can work remotely. As Congress considers halting the collection of student loan debt, New York State already has. The National Institutes of Health are allowing grantees to extend their funding for up to one year. The NCAA has granted an extra season or semester of eligibility, depending on the sport, to springtime student athletes. And the U.S. Boards of Accountancy are offering extensions of eligibility for candidates who haven’t been able to take that licensing exam.
Some solutions have been more creative. Shenandoah University is having music students record themselves, then splicing those recordings together into ensembles and posting them on social media. Columbus College of Art & Design will stage its annual juried art fair and thesis exhibition in April, virtually.
“When we shut down schools, we did it kind of like a light switch. We didn’t think through all the questions and problems that would arise,” Gross said. “You have to hope that graduate schools, employers, accreditors will begin to flex in light of what has happened.”
Nursing student Laterzo now will do her final clinical online. She thinks that’s “kind of crazy,” since “we’re not getting any hands-on training.” But she also said the pandemic has only increased her desire to become a nurse. “We have a really important role in making sure people are educated in how viruses are spread.”
As for Pelton, the ballet major, he’ll take online classes from his parents’ living room in Baltimore, trying not to trip over the furniture.
He’d already been trying to get himself mentally ready for the stress and uncertainty of auditions, he said, and this just adds to that.
“I’ve been telling myself since day one, ‘I just need to roll with the punches,’ ” Pelton said. “And this is more punches.”
This story about universities closed due to coronavirus was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.