by Toni Allison
“I’m confused and frustrated…I feel like I’m wasting my youth.” This quote comes from Chicago, a junior at the College, and the model COVID student. Following social distancing guidelines, religiously wearing her mask, and taking advantage of frequent testing events has aided in her not contracting the virus thus far. Describing herself as a pre-COVID homebody, adjusting to isolation and lockdown periods have also not been a problem for her.
Her biggest problem is the new level of stress in school and uncertainty about her future, all caused by COVID. As a political science major, she feels frustrated not being in person for class participation and concept clarification, but at the same time, she understands the risks that come with in-person lectures. She also describes how the pandemic has altered her pre-professional path, due to internships being altered, postponed, or cancelled all together. While describing her worries, Chicago keeps a positive mindset and attitude. In fact, this is how many college students speak about their current schooling situations. This positivity causes outsiders to overlook just how much hardship, disruption, and uncertainty students are actually going through. Chicago’s narrative highlights how COVID disruptions are impacting students’ academic routines and leading them down a path of uncertainty about post undergraduate plans. It provides a story that is often heard but not taken seriously by students, faculty, and those outside of the education system. This ties into Rita Charon and Sayantani DasGupta’s emphasis on the importance of listening and interrupting every narrative, no matter how common we think it may be.
When asked about school, Chicago acknowledged that virtual classes are not particularly working for her. She notes that her major mostly involves outside reading, so she thought everything would be fine; however, she says her best way of learning and maintaining information is through class participation. With classes either recorded or on zoom, participation becomes harder. This can cause a trickle-down effect of lower grades, lower motivation, and higher stress levels. As mentioned before, she understands the risk that comes with in-person classes, though. For example, despite the College’s Back to the Bricks plan, the few in person lectures she has attended made her feel unsafe. She stated, “If one person with COVID walked in, I could probably contract it with how the desks are placed.” Because of this experience, Chicago made the choice to sacrifice her educational needs for safety.
Someone reading this may say this is a common theme heard from college youth; what makes it special? According to DasGupta’s Narrative Humility TedX Talk, this sounds like a story where “we see what we expect to see [and] hear what we expect to hear” (8:01). Narratives of political science majors like Chicago are often overlooked or untold because they mostly read and write essays. This virtual shift can still cause stress and confusion, as Chicago feels. This preconceived notion of that major not struggling as much as others could cause faculty hearing stories like hers to have one blind ear when listening. If faculty listened and re-evaluated lesson plans, they could try to foster a more positive online experience for students. This could include smaller group discussions once a week, utilization of discussion boards, and break-out room type lessons. This would aid in student engagement and help students like Chicago succeed more. Regarding her Back to the Bricks comment, faculty and staff at the College need to be listening. Chicago is fortunate enough to have access to remote resources, so she can make the choice to go online. Other students are not so lucky. Those without access to reliable internet or virtual communication devices are forced to go in-person or take a break for the semester. Because of this, the College needs to reflect to make sure it is providing the most optimal in-person environment for those without the luxury of staying home. In addition to Chicago’s academic worries, she now must worry about the future after undergrad.
Chicago also discussed how her pre-professional plans have been impacted by COVID. She was appointed a paid, out-of-state internship, set to start summer 2020. As COVID developed, her internship shifted to virtual, but this shift also brought a pay cut. Chicago acknowledged that she was not excited to give free labor or forego her travel plans, but she was grateful to still have to opportunity to work. Chicago’s narrative about her internship highlights how she some pre-professional students are being impacted, in comparison to others. As Rita Charon says, her story reflects a positive outcome, but this “narrative knowledge [should] enable one individual to understand particular events befalling another” (9). The interviewer commented that she is on a pre-health track, so she has been unable to work or volunteer in any type of medical environment. Chicago responded by saying she understood that her political science major put her at an advantage, and she knows how hard other students are struggling to find needed internships to graduate. This interaction between the interviewer and interviewee show how knowing about varying narratives can improves one’s mindset. It expands one’s perception of what those around them are going through, and it reminds them to be thankful for what they have.
What may seem to be a common COVID narrative of a college student has highlighted just how small changes impact their academic performance and future outlook. Chicago’s story of overcoming these changes and embracing these uncertainties shows resilliance in students. In fact, she claims that “COVID has shown [people’s] adaptability” in times of unknown and strife. Reflection of her story also poses questions like How differently are varying college majors being impacted? How safe is in-person instruction, despite claiming to follow school and CDC guidelines? Most importantly, her story should remind colleges to think of their less fortunate students. Chicago has several resources playing in her favor when it comes to online schooling. College staff must remember some have been forced to drop out due to no technology, forced to decline an internship because they need pay, or forced to choose their classes over health. Maybe if colleges interview and listen to students of varying backgrounds, they can foster a more positive, successful environment for Chicago and students not like her.
Charon, Rita. Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. New York City, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Chicago (pseudonym). Interview. Conducted by Toni Allison, 2 December 2020.
DasGupta, Sayanti. “Narrative Humility: Sayantani DasGupta at TEDxSLC.” Youtube.com, 10 July 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ3ucjmcZwY.