Wolverine Voices: Adjusting to stress and isolation, U-M students make the most of their school year

This story is part of a series called Wolverine Voices, in which University of Michigan (U-M) student writers report on campus issues. The writers of this series are currently enrolled in U-M's Community Engaged Writing course, in which first-year students examine and produce non-academic writing genres in the service of a community in order to understand and develop different ways of knowing, and develop strong analytical and writing skills.


Students across the country were used to a familiar routine: Wake up, go to school, socialize, repeat. But on March 14th, 2020, everything changed.


University of Michigan (U-M) freshman Elly Bishop logged into her final months of high school from her bed in her pajamas. The only difference when she moved to U-M was that she logged into class from her dorm room day after day, with no real interaction with her classmates other than breakout rooms on Zoom.


"There were no activities that gave the day structure other than my Zoom classes," Bishop says.


Without a routine, many students have found themselves struggling both academically and socially. College life during a pandemic is not what anyone expected, and U-M students have had to greatly adjust their expectations.


Students who expected an in-person semester this fall were instead met with an online education system to accommodate COVID-19 safety guidelines. Students might rejoice over the lack of strict deadlines, but many are struggling to manage their time effectively. They are unable to distinguish between class time and downtime, as many courses are remote. U-M sophomore Cole Tarrant dreads the day he has to return to synchronous in-person classes or prepare rigorously for exams, yet acknowledges the need for structure in his routine.


"[Remote learning] has made the previous normal daunting, yet the current normal is miserable," Tarrant says.


Tarrant is one of many students who have had to readjust their expectations about their in-person classes in the face of new COVID policies. As a student in U-M's Engineering Department, Tarrant had expected some of his classes, especially labs, to be in-person. However, after the University of Michigan's undergraduate lockdown, he now has only one in-person class.


"The one class that I needed to be in-person is now online," he says.


New housing policies for the winter 2021 semester have not helped with these feelings of anxiety and restlessness. On Friday, November 6th, U-M President Mark Mark Schlissel decided to close U-M Housing and allow in-person class meetings only for classes that require in-person instruction.


"When I woke up to the email telling us we had to move out, I was in complete shock," says U-M freshman Brooke Gronich. "I am now scrambling to find off-campus housing and it is causing so much unneeded tension and stress with my family and friends."


Gronich says the late notice for the announcement made it particularly challenging.


"The most annoying part of all of this is that they gave us no warning," she says.


The stay-home order has also left many freshmen with a fear of missing out.


"For me, at least, I would not feel so bad if this stay-home order was mandatory for all," says freshman Yousif Askar. "However, it's not, and while I completely understand and support how the university is providing those with extenuating circumstances a home in [Ann Arbor], it still creates the opportunity for this feeling of 'missing out.'"


COVID-19 has also impacted clubs and social events, many of which have moved online, creating distance between students of the U-M community.


"It was a lot harder to meet people because there was no face-to-face contact and there weren't a lot of clubs or events, so the whole dynamic has changed," Bishop says.


Though some clubs and events are still scheduled in-person, they now require the use of masks and social distancing. However, these protections still detract from many aspects of a student's social interactions. At U-M, where students usually thrive through in-person interactions, a blockade below the eyes causes many students to feel secluded from their peers.


"It is hard to read people when they are wearing masks," says freshman Nina Li. "I can't tell if they are smiling."


Although freshmen might have had the highest expectations due to their transition from high school to college, the pandemic has also paused upperclassmen's goals and expectations.


As the co-leaders of U-M's all-male K-pop/hip-hop dance team, sophomore James Zhang and senior Christopher Underwood expressed their frustration about their inability to implement changes to the club due to the pandemic. All shows were either canceled or switched to recordings, which made it hard to find opportunities for the team to perform.


"When Chris and I became the leaders, we were very excited to see what more we could do. But then COVID happened, and all of that just went down the drain," James says.


In addition to worrying about the lack of opportunities that the dance team will have to shine on stage, Underwood is also occupied with his post-graduate plans. As someone who is interested in Korean culture, Underwood was planning to pursue a career as an English teacher in Korea after graduating. However, the program was canceled due to the pandemic.


"The Korean program is canceled by the government, so I'll probably go to New Jersey to teach. I just hope I don't have to teach through Zoom," Underwood says, noting his own unpleasant experience with teaching elementary classes online during his summer internship in Michigan this year.


When asked how she's coping with these changes, freshman Zeynep Koseoglu says, "I try to do yoga and keep a positive attitude." Whether students are at home or in Ann Arbor, they're working to stay mentally well, whether that is by connecting with nature, exercising, or, like Koseoglu, staying open-minded.


Students have tried to find ways to connect virtually and make the most out of the situation by taking advantage of school resources. When the weather permitted, one could often find students enjoying a socially-distanced meal on the Diag, or studying while six feet apart at the Union.


"I spent a lot of time going to Elbel Field playing pickup games," says freshman Joseph Taylor. "We tried to keep our masks on and not be in physical contact during the games. It was a great way to socialize safely while also getting outside my dorm, and it felt like one of the more normal interactions I was allowed to have this semester."


For students who have a harder time joining games spontaneously or finding people to play with, the University of Michigan Recreational Sports Center will help arrange events. Student organizations have also found ways to coordinate socially distanced in-person events such as outdoor workouts or trips to the farmers market. Whether through student organizations or their own efforts, students seem to be finding ways to manage and adapt.


"We just cope," Tarrant says. "Because there's nothing else to do."


Click here to read the first and second installments of the Wolverine Voices series.


Karen Rubinsztain, Alexis Rayman, Madilyn Gaydos, Olivia Chen, Kevin Zheng, and Gavin Gao are U-M students.

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