Students from all walks of life provided insight on their pandemic experiences during an ACUI 2022 All Conference session on Tuesday, March 15, detailing their obstacles, victories, and suggestions for the future. From burn-out to family loss and renewing collaborations and facing new challenges, the panel provided ACUI members with a wide range of pandemic-related experiences.
Dana London, lead student assistant and facility manager at Kennesaw State’s student center, served as moderator for the panel. London began a new role at the conference as the student representative on ACUI’s Board of Trustees. London introduced a diverse group of student speakers that included Gabi Gies (University of Arkansas), Tiffany Howard, (University of South Alabama), Róisín Burke (Mary Immaculate College), and Luiza Nelson (University of Wisconsin Oshkosh).
All four panelists brought varied perspectives to the session. As an older college student with three children, Luiza Nelson appreciated the opportunity to start classes in Fall 2020 over Zoom.
“I’ve participated in meetings where I’m walking in the supermarket buying groceries for my family and still engaged,” she said. “During COVID, I could join a lot of clubs and feel as if I was part of the university. This year, it’s been different; if there’s a virtual option, I can participate. If something is 100% in-person, then it’s not something that I can do, especially outside of school hours.”
Burke, a recent contemporary and applied theatre studies graduate and current student union president at her university, found the lack of in-person connection more jarring.
“My final year [of college] was spent completely in the pandemic, which was very interesting situation — especially for a teaching degree that relies so much on human connection and physical touch,” Burke said. “Pre-COVID, the drama society on campus would put on sold-out productions for five nights, with 500 people in the audience and a great sense of community.”
Burke survived by turning to virtual theatre while also becoming a class representative for her union council. Online resources helped her navigate the situation but also put her at risk for burnout.
“I said, ‘We’re in a pandemic, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much going on; why don’t I just say yes to every opportunity?’” she said. “But then you realize you need to take time to pause — you’re still doing university, you still have to get to the end of it, and you want to make sure you do it one piece while still enjoying your college experience.”
Howard, who started college during the pandemic, echoed the importance of avoiding burnout. With the most recent semester serving as her first in-person college experience, Howard said she wanted to be a part of everything.
“I had to sit down and talk to my advisor,” she said. “It took a lot for me to admit that I was doing too much. But I had to make sure I had that balance. You have to keep your bucket full — you can’t run off an empty bucket.”
Howard remains involved in leadership activities at the University of South Alabama, including Jaguar Productions, the school’s official student activities board.
“I lost my grandmother the week I had to come back to school,” Howard said. “It was really hard to deal with the grief on top of that. As a transfer student, I was still learning the school and trying to make friends. Since I joined Jaguar productions, it just felt like I had a family. I had people to talk to, and I really appreciate them.”
Gies, who had one year of traditional college under her belt before the pandemic hit, has been involved with student government since the beginning — first in an introductory program and then as an elected senator for the past two years.
“My class is the last one that’s really seen the student organizations in their full operating capacity — and what they’re capable of,” Gies said. “Moving forward, our role on campus will involve making sure that student groups have the resources and opportunities they need to get back to normal, engaging students, and then giving those students the opportunity to engage with one another.”
As for the immediate future, Burke highlighted issues with mixed messages over mask mandates.
“Student unions need to demand clarity from colleges about what exactly students are allowed to do,” she said, “If you leave a gray area, there’s of course going to be confusion for everyone involved.”