Loneliness, Gratefulness, and Anxiousness: How WSU Students are Handling the “New Normal”

Writer Rebecca Carrillo explores how WSU students have struggled but remained hopeful through the pandemic.

By: Rebecca Carrillo

The girl looks over at the time, sees it is noon, and stretches her arms over her head, trying to get the kinks out from being hunched over a laptop for the past hour or so. Since she began her social distancing efforts in mid-March, her daily schedule has been largely the same, to the point of becoming tedious. Every day at noon, the girl takes a break from her schoolwork, goes for a walk with her mother, returns to have lunch and to complete more schoolwork, day after day after day. As the girl puts her shoes on to go for her walk, she can’t help thinking about what she would be doing if she was back at Worcester State, if this pandemic had never occured. She thinks of the classes she would be in, of grabbing lunch at the POD with her friends before they walk to their next classes together. She can’t help wishing she was on campus, and she anxiously wonders when she and her fellow students will be allowed back, when everything will return to normal.

This scene is a familiar one for college students across the country, including those at Worcester State University. Many of them have been stuck in the same routines for two months, ever since WSU closed its campus. Students are missing their dynamic and exciting daily lives on campus. Commuters, too, are suffering without in-person classes and without the Worcester State community to turn to for events and socializing. 

That being said, being in a routine isn’t necessarily a harmful thing, and it can even be beneficial to some. The difficulty lies in students not knowing when these routines will be replaced with their previous, normal ones. As well, in accordance with CDC recommendations, many WSU students have only been in contact with their immediate family members and have no plans to spend time with their friends—except virtually. This lack of socializing and the inability to go places they normally would leaves many with routines that lack the engaging and exciting aspects of their previous lives.

It’s no secret that social distancing can have harmful effects on a person’s mental and emotional health. The same bland routines with less stimulating activities than usual can leave some feeling drained, anxious, and even depressed. Nevertheless, Worcester State students are doing their best to make the most out of their new ways of living.

When WSU students left for their spring break in the middle of March, many of them did not realize just how serious social distancing would soon become. Students had been planning on spending time with their friends and going to their treasured hometown diners and theatres, just like on any other break.

“I was hoping to go to some of my favorite places back home and enjoy my time off,” explained sophomore occupational therapy major Megan Lane. “I always look forward to these breaks because I don’t get to see my friends from home as much anymore, so these breaks give us the chance to catch up.” 

Many students also had their plans for studying or traveling abroad abruptly cut short. Sophomore OT student Victoria Donahue had been in Seville, Spain, during the spring semester and was planning on doing some traveling with friends during spring break, going to places such as Greece and the Netherlands. 

She explains that she “had all the tickets and reservations booked,” but now she’s “been working since March to get the flight refunds back.”

Likewise, sophomore communications major Julia White was expecting to study abroad in London over her spring break. 

“I was disappointed, but I understood why social distancing is important, and it’s better than potentially getting stuck in England and not being able to come home,” she explained.

Part of the reason students still expected to be able to engage in normal spring break activities—even during the pandemic—is because when they initially went home, social distancing guidelines hadn’t even been established by that point. Worcester State students began their spring break on or before March 13th, while Trump didn’t advise social distancing until March 16. When this first social distancing measure came into effect in Massachusetts on March 24, many students believed it would be over somewhat quickly. The full weight of the situation hadn’t been felt yet.

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to see my friends right away and wasn’t prepared to stay at home all day long,” explained Lane. “However, I was hopeful because the ban had an end date. I never imagined it lasting this long.”

In a similar vein, Donahue said that when she first heard about the social distancing guidelines, she was confused. “I wasn’t that worried about the coronavirus at first, and didn’t think it was a big deal,” she explained.

On March 30, the day the first social distancing guidelines were set to expire, Trump extended them to April 30th. Although this extension was met with restlessness and worry, many Worcester State students agreed with the extension. The same cannot be said for protesters across the country who demanded their states be reopened.

Of the president, White said, “I was expecting him to extend the social distancing. Two weeks wouldn’t have done anything.”

Likewise, Lane explained, “When Trump decided to extend the social distancing guidelines, I was upset but also knew it was the right thing for our safety. I think this time, the guidelines were more strict and people took it more seriously. As the virus was peaking, everyone was afraid of how it would impact their lives.”

Worcester State students are proving that they are up to the challenge of social distancing. Many are worried about the virus spreading and thus are being responsible and are only keeping in contact with those who they live with in an effort to do their part to slow down its spread.

“I have made the decision to socially distance myself from everyone except my immediate family,” said Lane. “I am fortunate enough to be able to complete school from my home and do not see any reason to risk infecting myself or others by leaving the house.”

WSU students sincerely care about the health and well-being of their loved ones and community, and are thus willing to set aside their own longing for normal, real-life social interaction. 

“The only people I see are my family and the people I work with,” Donahue explained. “I haven’t hung out with friends in weeks. It’s been hard, but I know it’s the best decision for everybody.”

That being said, just because WSU students are mature enough to understand the risk that COVID-19 poses and are sensible enough to practice social distancing, it doesn’t mean that this transition from their normal life has been easy. Many students are longing for their friends and for their normal routines.

“I just get bored,” explained Donahue. “I miss my friends and just having the option to go somewhere and do something. I miss restaurants, stores, and just freedom.”

 It has been especially difficult for those who are already going through a painful experience, such as the death of a loved one, which necessitates the support of multiple people.

“My toughest experience during this time was with the passing of my nana. The experience has definitely been difficult for me, and I do find myself feeling lonely sometimes,” said Lane. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to hold any services; only a small number of family members gathered at the cemetery—we stood six feet apart from each other and had to say goodbye that way. I think that was the first time I realized how disconnected I felt from others and realized how much I wanted to be able to be with my family and friends.”

Even when students are able to spend time with their family, that experience can sometimes get tainted. While students are largely grateful to be spending more time with their family, they admit that being stuck in the same place with the same people day after day can become taxing.

 “I’m grateful that I get to spend this time with my family rather than being alone,” said Lane. “However, once in a while we have to take time to ourselves and a break from constantly being in the same room.”

When WSU students feel like they have to spend some time apart from their family members, they simply spend time by themselves in order to recharge.

“I just go to my room when I get annoyed with my family,” said White. 

On a similar note, Donahue explained, “My house isn’t huge, so five people all together gets very crowded fast. I have noticed that I get annoyed more easily now, and I try to just stay in my room.”

One way WSU students are maintaining their social lives at the same time is through texting, calling, and FaceTiming their friends. This method of communication may not be as ideal as face-to-face contact; however, it’s currently the best strategy, and virtual hang-outs are certainly better than none.

“I am constantly in touch with friends and family through social media, FaceTime, texting, and any other way I can think of,” explained Lane. “I think technology has allowed me to be successful during this time.

 Positive outlooks are abundant in WSU students even as they face uncertainty. Instead of dwelling on the difficulties and restrictions of this new way of socializing, they are focusing on the bright day ahead when they’ll be able to reconnect with their friends in-person. 

“It’s hard not seeing my friends face to face, but this is the new normal,” explained Donahue. “There is nothing we can do about it until the coronavirus is less of a threat. I miss in-person connection, but I know that day will come again soon!” 

Indeed, WSU students still find reasons to be grateful and appreciative, even though they’re living through a major historical event that has put strain on relationships, routines, and schoolwork.

“I’ve been hanging out with my brothers and parents, so that’s been really nice,” said White. 

Donahue has positive opinions to share as well. “It’s nice to have my own quiet place to do my work and think,” she said.

Lane is grateful for the spring weather as “nice weather allows for outside exercise like taking my dogs for walks.”

On May 18, Governor Charlie Baker introduced his four phase plan for reopening the state. The second phase of the plan is set to occur in three to four weeks, if the first phase goes well. The second phase would put many WSU students back to work, as it allows restaurants and retail businesses to open. However, Baker cautioned that each phase of the plan may have to be extended and that the state may even have to go back to earlier phases (depending on future public health data). 

Worcester State students are generally anxious that the first phase could be extended well into the summer. An extension would, among other things, jeopardize their summer jobs. 

White explained that, “If the deadline is extended, then I won’t be able to get a summer job, and I need money.” 

Similarly, Lane said, “I rely on my summer job, but because I’m not an essential worker, that would no longer happen. I would find myself with a lot of free time with no school or work. I would definitely need to find a new hobby or something to keep busy if this continues through the summer.”

Indeed, another common concern students have besides the inability to make money is what to do with all of the time they’ll suddenly have, especially after the spring semester. Some are taking online classes through the summer in an effort to get class credit and to have something to do.

Donahue explained, “I really hope our summer is free because it would allow me to get out of the house and just enjoy the few months. I am planning on taking a summer online class, so that will take up some of my time!”

What is perhaps most worrying to Worcester State students, however, is the upcoming fall semester. Universities across the country are in talks over what to do with the fall semester. There are concerns that COVID-19 will still be a large public health concern in September. While the majority of universities agree that an online fall semester is neither ideal for educating students nor ideal for the sustainability of the university itself, many are making online learning a part of their back-up plans.

While many Worcester State students would understand if they couldn’t come back on campus next semester, they are still anxious about the possibility.

“I will be very upset if in-person classes don’t start till the spring,” said White. “I miss my friends.”

Online classes in the fall are especially worrisome for those who are supposed to engage in clinicals, fieldwork, or other experiences that demand a hands-on, in-person approach. 

Lane explained, “I have heard from some of my professors that there is a possibility of not returning in the fall. This does worry me because junior year is a big year for me as an OT student, and I would hate to see it shortened because of this.”

“I will have to change a couple of my classes because for my major it’s hard to learn some of my classes without that hands-on practice, so I have to anticipate that,” said White.

Likewise, Lane explained, “I know I’m supposed to start fieldwork in the fall, and I’m excited for the hands-on opportunity and would be upset if it was put on hold.”

With all of this doubt, however, WSU students are still filled with hope and optimism about the upcoming fall semester, whatever it brings.

“I don’t want to see the school close in the fall, but I also don’t want to go back and have to be afraid of getting sick,” Lane said. “I think the school will make the right choice depending on how this progresses.”

Still, the current anxiety surrounding the decision and the anticipated feeling of disappointment if they aren’t able to return to campus isn’t something Worcester State students can easily shake off. To so many students, Worcester State is their second home. It’s where they spend time with friends they love and earn recognition from professors they look up to. It’s where their intellectual curiosity is fed by engaging discussions in the classroom and where their hunger is fed by stops at the food court, the POD, and Lancer Loft. For Worcester State students, the campus experience is a significant part of their identity. To miss it for even longer than they have already would be devastating.

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