College students across Illinois returned to classes for the second semester this month after a first term that many students and professors say did not go smoothly.
Like many students, freshman Lauren Yost thought she could balance the full-time job she picked up during the pandemic with her classes at the College of DuPage last semester.
It proved to be too much. Toward the end of the term, she stopped worrying about doing all her assignments. She couldn’t keep up anymore.
Lily Morgan, a classmate, had the same struggles. Plus, after all the time she spent online, she lost some of the social skills that once had helped her thrive as a student.
“Before the pandemic, I used to be great at communicating with people around me and asking questions, being the go-getter in class and everything,” said Morgan, a bubbly first-year student from Villa Park. “And now, sometimes I just feel like I am not that same person anymore. And it’s harder for me to actively seek help from people when I feel like I do need that help.”
The transition back to in-person school has been anything but a return to normal, students and professors at Chicago-area two- and four-year colleges say. As the pandemic and its effects continue, some students are struggling academically and they’re worn out from holding down jobs, craving social interactions they missed while online, and are tired of putting their lives on hold as new variants emerge.
“We’re all just kind of mentally drained,” Yost said. “With all the bad things that are going on, with climate change to the pandemic and everything else … there’s so much bad, and we’re just trying to do good and figure out what we want to do with our lives.”
Students also are questioning whether it’s all worth it, especially at community colleges, where the stresses seem particularly acute. Undergraduate enrollment has been trending downward since around 2012, but the pandemic has brought about historic declines. The nation’s community colleges continue to see the bulk of the decline, with enrollment dropping by 13% since 2019.
Ariandy Luna is a first-year student at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago’s two-year campuses. As she headed into the Loop campus last week, she explained how her grade point average plummeted last fall after a close friend passed away.
“Everybody lost somebody during the pandemic,” said Luna, a soft-spoken freshman from Pilsen. “But when that happened to me and my family, it impacted us a lot. I was in school during that time and that’s why my grades dropped. I don’t want to blame it on that. But it was … a tough time.”
Luna’s experience is common among current college students. And professors are noticing the strain it’s placing on their academics.
Robert Moorehead, a sociology professor at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, saw more students struggle academically last fall than during any other semester in recent memory. Poor attendance, lower grades and high rates of students dropping his class are some of the changes he sees.
“Students are just dealing with so many issues right now,” Moorehead said. “Whether it’s having family members who’ve been sick with COVID-19, having issues with family finances … the personal experience of isolation that’s come during the pandemic. It’s this whole mix of different issues all coming together. But overall, this isn’t a normal college experience for any of them.”
Moorehead started his in-person class on labor and inequality at the community college last fall with around 35 students. By mid-November, he had about 20 students left.
He said it’s normal for students to drop several classes at the start of the semester as they adjust their schedules. “But never to this extent,” he said. As he watched students find their seats in a half-empty lecture hall on a fall Monday afternoon, he wondered where almost half of them had gone.
Moorehead said several students who dropped out may have been attending classes for a while, but were not submitting assignments. After a while, they realize, “They’ve sort of dug this hole that they can’t get out of. So they tend to stop attending and some of them will drop the class.”
Tim Lacy, who taught a history class at Loyola University Chicago last fall, said his students had trouble adjusting to being in-person as they had been “out of the flow” for so long.
“A year-plus of online learning created this desire in them to be in person,” Lacy said. “But when they came back, I don’t think they were fully prepared for what that meant … in terms of the discipline and time management it takes.”
Lacy also thinks students are generally craving more in-person experiences at a time when most of their interactions continue to be mediated by a screen, leaving them feeling disconnected.
Studies show that young adults are disproportionately suffering higher levels of pandemic-related depression and anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Moorehead worries this is causing students to drop out of his school and schools across the country.
“As a far greater number of students fail their classes, how many of them are going to stop attending?” Moorehead said. “Are we going to end up with a cohort of young people with no college degree?”
Diera Slater arrived early for a history class at Harold Washington College one day last week to get tested for COVID-19. For Slater, the pandemic has shaken up the future she once imagined for herself.
“I do think the future is [BS] right now,” Slater said, using some salty language. “Because as far as my degree, I don’t know if it will go to something nice … like being a teacher.”
Classes may have resumed in-person, students say, but they can’t shake off all the effects of the pandemic.
Adam Muentes, a junior at the University of Illinois-Chicago, was taking a breather after one of his classes on Jan. 24, a snowy Monday morning. It was the first day of in-person learning as UIC, the College of DuPage and a number of other colleges and universities in Chicago pushed the start of the semester online to mitigate the spread of omicron.
Muentes is frustrated by school officials who insist student safety is their top priority while also asking them to cram into large lecture halls “like sardines” amid an ongoing pandemic.
“There’s no reason that you have to sit through a one-hour lecture with close to 200 students,” Muentes said.
Students at higher risk of COVID-19 complications have to deal with that extra stress every time they head onto campus.
“Even though I don’t learn well over the computer, I was already really terrified of COVID,” Morgan, the College of DuPage student, said about her state of mind during her first semester. She is immunocompromised and most of her family is also at elevated risk.
Plenty of students are comfortable being back in class and are doing well, but they say they’re also feeling extra stress this year.
Erin Henkel, a first-year at the College of DuPage, is one of many students who continue to feel weighed down by the full-time jobs they took on during the pandemic to make some extra cash.
Henkel started working as a high school senior when school shuttered early in the pandemic. With all her classes online, it seemed like she had a lot of free time on her hands.
But when college classes resumed in person last fall, Henkel found she was extremely fatigued.
It wasn’t just the pressure of balancing work and school, she said. It was more about the expectation that the lives of students had “returned to normal” when schools reopened while the rest of the world continued to grapple with the pandemic.
“’My high school teachers … were basically like, ‘You have all this time now. So, you can go and do things and you should be able to turn in assignments, not think about the crippling state of the world and how millions are getting diagnosed with this deadly disease.’”
Henkel managed to stay on top of her assignments and maintained good grades throughout the fall.
But that has not been the case for many of her peers.
Micheal Duggan, a counselor at the College of DuPage who taught several classes last fall, said the rigors of college haven’t changed, but students’ lives have.
“’The expectation is, ‘Be as good a student as you were before all this happened,’” Duggan said. “But they’re struggling with that because their world, their vantage point, has completely changed.”