On March 10, 2020, Michigan announced a state of emergency following two confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state. In the following days, all K-12 schools and most colleges would begin closing down to prevent the spread. What was supposed to be a temporary measure turned into weeks then months of online schooling, social isolation and global instability.
Once bustling college campuses turned eerily quiet as many students returned home and began their months-long isolation. For many current college students, this lockdown coincided with important high school milestones including sports competitions, school plays, prom, walking for graduation and graduation parties. No matter the circumstances, all students felt the effects of the pandemic in one way or another.
Now, three years since the start of the pandemic, college students are having to readjust to a normal routine while reflecting on the impact of such a traumatic experience.
Addison Lehmann, 22 was a freshman at Michigan State University when the lockdown began. They remember being notified about the closings through email.
“It was very sudden,” said Lehmann. “Even in cases of horrible weather (very) rarely does MSU cancel classes… so it was a very unstable feeling. It kind of changes everything. It changes your whole life to be like suddenly sent home from university.”
Lehmann was studying Zoology, a major they said was extra complicated to complete with online classes.
“We were supposed to do dissections during that time, like recently deceased animals that had been donated to the university for science and it’s like, how are we supposed to do that? How are we supposed to study these critical experiences for people who are going into those careers,” Lehmann said. “So I remember all of those dissections would be recorded by the professor, and then you’re supposed to watch them, which is such a weird experience.”
Lehmann explained that another assignment they had to omit was a chicken raising project, another significant loss for their educational experience.
“We never really got to actually interact with any of these animals. It was a very hands-off experience,” they said. “And in order to graduate with the zoo and aquarium sciences… you have to have an in-person internship, a semester long (and) all of them were canceled that summer because of COVID, because it impacts animals. It’s a zoonotic disease. It originated in animals, so of course, it heavily impacts the way that I do my career because it can get all my animals sick.”
Lehmann also lost their job at Blue Fish Aquarium in Grandville during this time and had to move back home with their family.
“They wanted to basically give my position to some of the other staff members who really, really needed the money and couldn’t afford to not work. It was a really odd spot to be in. It’s like my job still existed. I just wasn’t working there,” they said. “I can remember in the lockdown I had nothing to do. At that point, I was kind of going a little stir crazy… I went home, and it’s like you couldn’t see anybody. I felt so isolated from the rest of the world.”
Lehmann reflected on their coping mechanisms at that time, saying, “I would kind of sneak out of the house, and I would go run around in a park by myself. That kind of saved me… Another thing I did, which I was very grateful for, is that my therapist offers Zoom and Facetime calls. So I was talking to her. We would still do our like weekly or bi-weekly sessions, and that helped me a lot to be able to process those things.”
Despite the three years since the initial lockdown, Lehmann said they still don’t feel like things have returned to normal.
“I feel like everyone’s trying to pretend really, really hard, that everything’s normal, even though it’s not. It’s okay, besties. We can all talk about the trauma that we endured. Life went completely sideways and upside down even, and it had really big impacts on society, for everyone,” they said. “Students have pretty much decided that it’s no longer a thing anymore. And to be quite honest, I feel like the administration really kind of is the same way.”
Lehmann said they have accepted the possibility that another pandemic could occur saying, “Ultimately this started from an illegal wildlife trade, and that was a really hard lesson that we had to learn from ourselves. And so, if we can’t get that under control, we’re going to see it again. I really hope that people can take away information and apply it to a better future.”
Jo Carew is a 20-year-old architecture and interior design major at Grand Rapids Community College. She was in high school, committed to track and soccer when the lockdowns began.
“I was like, oh okay, cool. Two weeks of no school,” said Carew. “At first I was just kinda like, whatever it’s a break. I did practice and stuff with people, and then people were like, ‘oh, this is getting serious’ and it just kept extending and extending.”
“It was my junior year that (the lockdown) happened. In my senior year we went back to school. I think it was a month or 2 after we would normally start, and then we did in-person. But it was all masks, and most of the time we were on the computer.”
Carew had an altered prom and no homecoming because of the lockdowns but like many students, she decided to hold her own small gathering to mark the occasion.
“We didn’t have a homecoming but my friends and I, we just got dressed up and went to a park, and kind of had our own ‘homecoming,’” she said. “For prom, since I was a senior, and I was also in (the) Student Government Council, I was part of the group that was in charge of it. We had to change where it was gonna be. We had to change a lot of stuff, last minute.”
“At first I was super upset. Like, ‘wow, I don’t get to go (to prom), because we didn’t have one for my junior year. So my senior prom was the only (one) we were going to get. It’s kind of a bummer… Everything kind of felt rushed and changed… I would definitely say it made me a lot more depressed about it all. My senior year did not feel like the ‘senior year.’”
Like Lehmann, Carew also expressed concern with the rate at which schools began returning to normal, in-person classes.
“I also feel like it’s too rushed right now. You go from everyone just (learning) to do all online and then for them to be like, ‘Well, COVID’s over. We’re gonna do a complete 180 again, and you have to pretend like the past two years didn’t exist,” Carew said. ‘I feel like (no) one really talks to each other anymore. Like there’s not as much friendships being built, like we’re all very introverted.”
Despite this, Carew expressed some relief since the start of the pandemic, “It (was) like, ‘Oh, my word. Are we going to make it out? Am I gonna die? Are my family and friends gonna die? Are we gonna be like this for the rest of my life?’ And now, knowing, you know, I’m okay. My friends and family are okay. It’s not gonna last forever. I’m a lot better.”
Terri Rosel, a primary mental health practitioner from University of Michigan Health West explained some of the issues she’s seen her college-age patients struggle with.
“In my experience, since the pandemic started and up to now, I’ve seen a lot of patients dealing with anxiety. That’s been (the) biggest challenge in the mental health world right now,” said Rosel. “I think specifically in adolescents in young adulthood (it’s) the fact that their entire routine was uprooted. People who were otherwise, maybe suffering a little … in lou of the pandemic, they were to shelter in place, they weren’t having to face their anxieties on a regular basis… people forget how to do that. Their bodies aren’t ready to face the challenges of everyday life again.”
Rosel also explained how the pandemic could have been extra harmful to college students who didn’t have the opportunity to create a basic routine.
“For kids and young adults who really weren’t shown schedules or really didn’t have routines in place like some of the older adults did, I feel like it’s harder to get back into something that was never well-established to begin with,” said Rosel. “Then all of a sudden, they’re plopped into all these experiences head on.”
Despite these less than ideal circumstances, Rosel did have some advice to help with some of the post-pandemic mental health problems.
“The biggest thing is, talk to someone. If you are struggling, I promise, someone else close to you is struggling as well. There’s lots of resources since the pandemic started and even post-pandemic, if I can say that, in terms of counseling, things at school, support groups. Talk to your primary care physician, they should be doing screening at all your check-ups. Don’t be afraid to speak up and say, ‘You know what, something’s not right,’” said Rosel. “If you’re into counseling and it’s just not going as planned, or you think you need more, there’s certainly medications out there per psychiatrists and other mental health providers that could help.”
Rosel also had some recommendations for how colleges could better assist with students’ mental health needs brought on by the pandemic.
“I think having easily accessible resources available in dormitories, in a common (space), places where they eat, having pamphlets that say, ‘Hey, this is a number you can call here,’” said Rosel. “Just universities having easy, accessible resources out there. Maybe even some free access seminars or (having) counselors on hand that they could sign up to go to or groups that can meet if people are still struggling. You know, groups with a counselor facilitating them that they meet with a couple of times a month or something.”
Although COVID-19’s Public Health Emergency is set to expire on May 11, 2023, for many students the pandemic will have a much longer impact. GRCC students suffering from mental health complications can seek help at the GRCC Counseling Center and non-GRCC students seek a multitude of community resources or call 988 in the case of a crisis.