By Anish Biligiri
Trudging up the famous Hill back to the Residence Halls after a long day, studying in the many grassy fields around UCLA, and eating a hearty meal at one of the many famous dining halls on campus; they are cherished memories. We were supposed to be living this life, creating these experiences, but COVID-19 had other plans. The limbo of college students’ arrival on campus did not only happen to Bruins. The college experience of millions of freshmen globally has become unattainable. Despite this, we’re forced to pay full tuition, including paying for gym and library access. But where is the compensation? Tuition has largely stayed the same, reflecting the appalling indifference of our university to students’ compounding problems. In the beginning, UCLA often kept us in the dark until the very last moment when it was too late for many people who had already planned housing accordingly. Many professors have remained rigid in their policies, and many departments–for example the economics department–are still mandating that major courses be taken for a letter grade even if COVID-related issues arise for students. According to the CDC, three out of four Americans between the ages 18 to 24, a large proportion of them college students, report their mental health has suffered due to the pandemic. Why does UCLA seem to do nothing about it?
Our world has been upended, but UCLA has not adapted to it. Through the school, students receive only one additional session with CAPS since the pandemic began and two more if they have UC SHIP. People staying at home often lack privacy or experience other problems like issues with internet access that prevent them from utilizing the few resources that are in place for struggling students. Certain departments, including the economics and physics departments, appear not to recognize the challenges that remote learning pose for students. They dismiss students’ problems by keeping letter grades mandatory, and professors often assign more work under the mantra that students must have more time at home or have less to do. Tests have steadily grown longer, as shown by the influx of complaints on public forums like UCLA’s reddit. Comments such as “So this midterm that was supposed to take an hour took 10+ hours for me” have become worryingly commonplace. Lectures sometimes go over the allotted time because students could “just watch a recording,” and the pile of work becomes endless. It seems that college—already a stressful time for many—has only grown increasingly stressful and unmanageable throughout the year.
Since the pandemic began, UCLA has sent out numerous emails in response to this growing mental health crisis, but they fail to address the major problems students are facing. Rather than helping students, emails with invites to webinars such as “Self-Care During Pandemic” often feel impersonal and largely ignore the cause of students’ problems. Instead of their intended purpose, UCLA’s outreach attempts often reinforce students’ feeling of isolation induced by the pandemic. These efforts inadvertently exacerbate the Zoom fatigue many students are facing.
However, it isn’t only universities that disregard college students’ needs. The government has ensured that vaccine distribution for college students is a low priority. How did education, an experience that will uplift a generation of students who will contribute to the United States’ economy, end up on the back burner? Although not as physically dangerous for young adults, mentally, the COVID pandemic has hit young adults the hardest, with one in four people aged 18 to 24 contemplating suicide last June while only 11% of all other ages did according to the same CDC survey. This is on average anywhere from 1.5 to 2 times the numbers seen in years prior, a statistically significant uptick the pandemic likely explains.
Prioritizing vaccinations for college students first could lead to the improvement of this mental health crisis. Many college students are stuck at home or living isolated in their dorms, and much-needed social interaction is lacking. If we were to prioritize opening up colleges and get students to take precautions and get vaccinated soon, we would be taking crucial steps towards reversing the decline of students’ mental health. Students would be able to access more of the resources they need in-person and receive the proper advising to ensure they get the help they need. Students will also have their social needs met.
Therefore, vaccinating college students and thus ensuring the ability for them to return to campus is essential not only for the campus community’s overall epidemiological well-being but also for students’ mental health. Thousands of lives that COVID itself doesn’t directly claim can be saved. Suicides can more easily be prevented, and resources can be more available to students living in quarantine households that stigmatize mental health. While we are still remote, the university should mandate that departments be more understanding with grading systems by allowing pass/no pass for all major courses and allow more leniency with students’ individual circumstances, whether it be the loss of wifi during a test, the loss of a loved one due to COVID, or the inability to find a quiet place to work or study. Counseling services need to be more flexible and available to serve the needs of students. If schools don’t act sooner rather than later, it may become too late for the thousands of students starved of human connection.