It’s not a stretch to say that every student on campus probably knows at least two or three peers who have gone home sometime over the last few weeks. I mean someone who has either moved to remote learning according to University policy, whether that be at home or somewhere more exciting, or someone who has secretly left the Domain for a few nights to escape the pressure of life on campus right now. As someone who’s writing this from home, I understand the feeling.
The fact that so many students feel the need to leave reveals that there’s a serious problem: we’re burnt out, we need a break, and many of us simply do not care about protecting the Bubble anymore. We are just tired.
The combination of zero days off from schoolwork, the temporary but consequential inability to gather in groups as a community, overbearing action and miscommunication from the administration, and the general lasting effects of the pandemic has created an intense feeling of fatigue across the student body. The incident at the lacrosse game is still under investigation, meaning the students who yelled the racist slurs have yet to be punished, leaving many students of color remaining on-campus feeling unsafe. This semester has been incredibly difficult, and the fact that we’re expected to perform at a normal academic and social level under these circumstances has left many students feeling trapped and overwhelmed. Going home feels like the only option for some of us.
In a normal year, students have multiple breaks from their academic load, and it’s completely normal for students to go home and visit their families every now and then. But Covid makes leaving campus complicated. Of course protecting the Bubble is as important as ever, but it’s absurd for the University to have expected all its students to be content on campus for a full semester with only three days off from classes.
According to Dr. Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier, associate provost for student life, since the beginning of March, 229 students have left campus to return home; on the leave form, 69 percent of those students put mental health as their reason for leaving. 98 percent of those students returned to campus after their leave period. 229 students is a significant portion of the student body, and that’s not counting students who left without registering their leave.
About a year ago, the University sent out a survey to the student body to better understand the impact the pandemic was having on mental health, physical health, and academic performance. 246 students responded to that survey, and 90 percent of those students reported that they had concerns about their mental health due to the pandemic.
“That was what informed this leave policy,” Noffsinger-Frazier said, “so that students would be able to leave campus as they needed, for a reset, for a mental health break, to be able to go home and reconnect with family, and then come back as needed.”
However, the leave policy, while beneficial in providing students with the opportunity to take a break from campus life, especially with the quarantine period lowered to only a week, does not solve the problem, especially if it’s the only tangible option given to us. It can help treat the problem of burnout and decreased mental wellbeing, but it doesn’t address the source of the problem. CAPS is a helpful option for some, but the therapists there can only take on so many students until they reach their capacity. The burnout is coming from somewhere, and it’s the University’s job to address the source for the sake of our wellbeing. It feels like the administration is leaving us in the cold, like they’d rather us leave if we’re struggling and deal with the problem ourselves, a problem we didn’t create, than change their approach and help us.
Adding to the tension of campus life is an idea held by certain community members that, by going home, a student is somehow giving up or admitting defeat, which is a dangerous mindset when the current culture on campus is detrimental to many students’ mental health. The fact that so many students came back after leaving shows that they truly want to be at Sewanee, and they have hope things will get better. People are struggling in ways you cannot always see or understand. Students leaving campus is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that there’s a problem that the University needs to address.
Noffsinger-Frazier said, “I’ve had a lot of conversations with students about what other things we could be doing to support wellbeing and mental health, and beyond what’s already being offered and being able to leave and take a break, I haven’t gotten a lot of other ideas or strategies.” She expressed openness for students to give her feedback and information about specific needs that could help the administration form new ideas to support student wellness, which she views as a top priority.
She continued, “As a clinical psychologist with decades of experience, I know how critically important wellbeing and mental health is, and I want to be doing everything I can to support students in that area. And again, knowing specific needs is really helpful in putting those in place. Because we can have lots of ideas and offer lots of things, just like reading days, but maybe that wasn’t really the most helpful thing. Maybe X or Y would have been better. The more we know, the better we can do and the more we can offer.”
The reason the reading days are not helpful is the fact that they give us a total of three days off from classes spread over the semester, which honestly does not amount to much of a break. A reading day is one day off from classes in the middle of the school week, and, so far, over the course of two months, we’ve had two Wednesdays off from class. Many students do not feel able to take a break due to their workloads and end up using that time to complete homework, so reading days do not serve as genuine breaks from academic pressure. The two reading days we’ve had so far have been nice enough, but we need better break options.
The University has allowed their students to reach this point of exhaustion, and the fact that they haven’t done anything concrete to address this shows a massive failure on their part to uphold their responsibility to the student body. The #makeittomay campaign especially makes it seem like the school wants us to push through the struggles of campus life for the sake of getting through Covid, without considering the impact on students of an accelerated semester with no breaks.
There are ways to keep us protected from Covid while also protecting our mental health, and it’s the University’s job to determine how to do so. They haven’t done enough thus far this semester, and they could start by giving us a break. This doesn’t mean adding another reading day; this means giving us a real, honest-to-God academic break from classes and homework so we don’t feel like we have to escape the pressure of being here. It’s time for the administration to do something.