Magazine

Self-care and silver linings: Stanford students reflect on lessons learned from the virtual school year

Sept. 15, 2021, 12:39 p.m.

When Mahmoud Hamdi ’24 stepped off his plane and onto Stanford’s campus for the first time last fall, he was not greeted with the typical chaos of move-in day but a nearly empty campus that he described as a “ghost town.” 

Due to COVID-19, most frosh would not be moving into dorm rooms, instead taking virtual classes from home. The University initially invited frosh and sophomores to campus in the fall, but canceled these plans and only offered housing to students with special circumstances. 

Unlike previous years, there weren’t any resident assistants dressed in tutus and colorful socks to cheer Hamdi on and help him move into his first college dorm room. Only an orange sky that swallowed the Bay Area awaited Hamdi’s arrival.

At the time, the Golden State was suffering its worst wildfire in a century, with 4.2 million acres of land burning. The wildfires took place amidst a pandemic that already claimed the lives of thousands in the United States alone. 

Due to policies restricting large gatherings of people, Hamdi had to figure out how to navigate campus by himself. He was given a key to his room in Escondido Village Graduate Residences (EVGR) and had to follow passersby to locate a dining hall. In a few days, he would begin his first college class over Zoom. 

A year later, Hamdi is preparing for his first in-person classes. 

While this virtual college experience might sound out of the ordinary and a bit haunting, for many, it is all too familiar. For the first time since March 2020, the entire undergraduate student body is invited back to campus. After a year and a half of Zoom breakout rooms, dorms will be filled with students chatting in hallways. Instead of jumping from meeting link to meeting link, people will be biking to and from class (and probably hopping to and from fountains). 

With hundreds of students hungry for a “normal” college experience, it is no secret that students are excited to return. However, several are returning with a changed perspective on their education — the past year and a half has changed both University life and educational paths for many. While the virtual format was far from ideal, Hamdi still formed connections with students and professors, feeling their passions come through the screen. 

As the year went on, Hamdi struggled more with classes for reasons that went beyond the usual stress of coursework and exams. “More people were joining class with their camera off and then just leaving,” he said, making it difficult to meet people in classes and stay engaged with material. By winter, Hamdi felt like there wasn’t “going to be a light at the end of the tunnel” as his classes became increasingly monotonous.

To keep up with the challenges of virtual learning, Hamdi prioritized his self-care habits even more than he had before. Small tasks, such as exercising and prioritizing sleep, became important to him. “I compromise my sleep for nothing and nobody,” Hamdi said.

Between missing out on traditional milestones to small conversations that take place in everyday life, it is no secret that students’ mental health suffered

Self-care for Hamdi also came through prayer. “I’m also a Muslim, so I pray five times a day,” he said. “I always have that time to just forget everything and submit myself to something else … religion has been something that’s kept me sane throughout the pandemic,” he said. 

Hamdi also feels that prayer acts as a form of socialization for him — a feeling that has been reflected in an academic study that he read. 

For some students, balancing mental health with the virtual realm posed a greater challenge. Megan Hyatt ’22 said that balancing her life as a student and as a resident assistant (RA) became worse due to the online format. 

Hyatt was working for the Stanford Summer Engineering Academy (SSEA) over the summer, which she attended in person before her frosh year. As a virtual RA, Hyatt said she “couldn’t get to know the residents as well.”

Being away from campus brought unique challenges for SSEA students during the pandemic. In-person activities and opportunities to collaborate with peers were limited. “I was kind of more of their emotional support rather than just like an RA that was supposed to be around them because they didn’t have a lot of people to talk to,” Hyatt said. 

“It was definitely very hard for me because I was, again, going through a hard time myself and I had to make sure that the students didn’t know that and didn’t feel like when they’re around me,” Hyatt said. “So it was hard, but it was fun.” 

Hyatt said the past year made her truly understand how much one’s financial situation can affect their access to resources.

“Education should be much, much more universal than it is,” Hyatt said. “Everyone could get a top-notch Stanford degree if they wanted to, but they can’t because it’s all about money.”

Due to the unique challenges of remote learning, Hyatt chose to take a gap year. Originally from rural Kansas, she spent most of her year at home. 

Hyatt said that the virus didn’t reach her community until between April and May. While Hyatt and her family took precautions, she noticed a lot of other people who didn’t seem to care.

“The majority of people in my area either thought it was a hoax, didn’t care, or thought God was going to take care of them, or just something ridiculous,” Hyatt said. “And eventually, by the time fall came around, they learned their lesson when people in the community started dying, but that took a long time.” 

With the Delta variant on the rise, many regions — including Santa Clara County — reinstated mask mandates despite high vaccination rates. Students have had mixed responses towards the new policies, with some expressing frustration.

While most of Hyatt’s gap year was spent in Kansas, she had the opportunity to work at EcoSwell, a nonprofit located in a coastal desert town in Peru that’s dedicated to providing communities with access to clean water. When Hyatt arrived in Peru, she noticed that COVID-19 was not as widespread due to the rural location: “It almost felt normal. For the first time since COVID hit America, it felt normal.”

Like Hyatt, Maya Czeneszew ’23 found unique opportunities despite the pandemic.

Czeneszew competed in several “ideathons” — brainstorming events where students have one to five hours to propose a product or project to solve various issues. Czeneszew competed in a biology ideathon that her team won. “I would have never imagined winning something like that,” she said.

Ideathons were not the only opportunity Czeneszew pursued while she was in quarantine. The conditions of the pandemic also allowed her to reflect on her passions in visual art and apply to an artist residency. 

“I think for this, I was like, ‘no, I have a compelling story. I have a story behind my art and maybe this is the time for me to share that.’ And it worked,” she said.

Through her time at the residency, Czeneszew finally had the space to create the art that she had been wanting to make for a long time. She was also able to push her artistic abilities and create video art. “I think the piece of video art that I worked on was influenced by the pandemic,” Czeneszew said. Her art piece explored the theme of impermanence and her own growth as an artist. 

For former Daily staffer Young Feminore Lee ’21, the pandemic presented opportunities to delve into music journalism. Previously, listening to music was treated like a homework assignment rather than just something to do in passing. “I think in some ways outside of the pandemic, I sometimes didn’t feel like I had the time for it or had the mental space for it in certain ways,” they said. 

However, Lee said the pandemic presented additional challenges for their mental health. 

As students prepare for the full return to campus, they bring with them new insights about education and what they want to get out of not only their college career, but their life. 

For Czeneszew, the pandemic has made her appreciate alternative paths to pursue a degree, and she hopes for more respect for people who take more than four years to graduate. Hyatt, Hamdi and Lee learned that education, while important, is not the only thing that makes their life important. Hyatt has learned to take time to value the friendships that she has. 

Undoubtedly, the lessons learned from the pandemic will follow these students into the new school year and not only recreate students’ approaches to education, but also their relationships with their sense of self. 

Carolyn Stein is a Desk Editor for Campus Life and a co-Audience Engagement Editor. She is double majoring in communications and East Asian studies. Her favorite activity is going on unnecessarily long walks. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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