Sociology of Education, Final Paper

2020 began as an exciting year for me. I was named one of 190 finalist for the Truman Scholarship, which means I am seen as a leader in public service for future generations. The day before flying to the Pacific Northwest for an interview, Seattle confirmed first death from COVID-19 in the United States. Upon my return to Philadelphia, I was informed the University would shut down, and I was not to attend classes, use university buildings and technology, or interact with the professors I pay tens of thousands of dollars to be able to sit and talk with.

This was a moment of awakening for me and many other Americans.

The remainder of the year has been unprecedented, uncertain, and frankly scary for millions of Americans. As the Pandemic struck, stay at home orders were enacted that caused countless businesses to temporarily or permanetly close, mass layoffs occurred, and millions of Americans were in the most uncertain economic situations of their lives. To add insult to injury, George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department. This led millions of young people to protest in the streets, many for the first time. For many, including myself, Floyd’s murder and the ensuing unrest highlighted many of the social issues our society faces and a reminder that a new future is possible as long as people are willing to welcome change.

Prior to Floyd’s murder, the Federal Government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and allocated $2.6 trillion to provide economic support for American workers and businesses of all sizes. The Act also provided American adults with $1,200 (more money for parents) and an additional $800 for students receiving FAFSA funding. Although this money was needed by those who received it, corporations, millionaires and billionaires received much more than the people who needed it most. Meanwhile, only $14 billion was allocated to support higher education.

As a result of this lack of funding for colleges and universities, many students were directly impacted. This lack of funding, and the Pandemic in general, has revealed what many have been saying for years: America does not provide equal opportunity for all and the flaws of higher education negatively impact that most marginalized and vulnerable people in our society. Among the students I spoke with while researching how the Pandemic has impacted college students, I found that students believe leaders are not doing enough to address the adverse effects of the Pandemic.

Methodology

I began collecting data for this project at the beginning of the Fall 2020 Semester, in August. I have consistently taken notes on various articles, books, and a documentary — Hungry to Learn. I kept a journal to document my thoughts and feelings throughout this semester as they relate to both my education and the pandemic. Additionally, I conducted phone interviews with 4 different college students from across the country. 2 students are Sociology majors at Temple University, like myself; one student attends Salt Lake Community College, and another is attending Portland State University.

Rather than attempting to use these interviews to mine the participants for data, I was more interested in exploring participants’ narratives with them. Because of this, interviews were semi-structured. I attempted to allow interviewees to direct the conversation as much as possible to allow them to talk about the experiences and values that were most significant to them, rather than to simply uncover what was of interest to myself.

All paraphrases are based off my my hand written notes and a synthesis of the overall sentiment students expressed during our conversations. As such, all interpretations are just that: interpretations. My own worldview, experience, as well as countless factors stemming from my personal identities (queer, white, cis-gender, working class, American, college student, brother, son, etc.) influence my interpretations of the interviewee’s words and feelings.

Additionally, the generalizations I make about students are based on interview data and my own experience, as well as conversations I have had with friends, a family member, and fellow students throughout the Pandemic. Some of this data was not acquired in a formal research setting, however, the opinions and narratives of these students are in line with the 4 student who participated in formal interviews. As such, this information is relevant, and I have made the decision to include this information in this final report. These generalizations are in regards to the myself and the students I spoke with while conducting research. This information is a synthesis of myself and these students, not a generalization about college students as a whole.

Discussion

Prior to the Coronavirus Pandemic, existing research has highlighted the challenges of being a college student in contemporary times. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s 2016 book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream documents the experiences of several students attending public universities in Wisconsin. While following the educational journey of these students, her research team found that college students, in large numbers, are falling through the gaps of the outdated financial aid system. Goldrick-Rab’s work exposes the often unseen reality of college students — high tuition rates are a relatively small part of paying of school. As a result, many students are working long and odd hours to support themselves, which often results in poor learning outcomes. Additionally, this research shows that students experience homelessness and food insecurity at beyond alarming rates.

Goldrick-Rab was also the focus of Hungry to Learn, a documentary focusing on the ways in which students are being underserved while in school. This documentary provides a visual introduction to the new reality of college students as the navigate food and housing insecurity.

The students I engaged for this project echoed similar sentiments as both this documentary and book. However, the students I spoke with believe the COVID-19 Pandemic has exasterbated the existing issues college students face. According to these students, the largest schooling-related issues they face during the Pandemic stem from a lack of support from their respective institutions and professors. Their statements point out that students lack resources to succeed in college during this Pandemic. Like myself, these students are also experiencing a decline in their mental health as a result of various aspects of schooling during the Pandemic.

For starters, the vast majority of students I spoke with lost their job as a result of the Pandemic. Multiple students began to skip meals in order to survive. One student, who relies on scholarships and Pell Grants to fully fund their education, mentioned losing their summer job because the restaurant went out of business. As a result, she has to find a way to pay for rent during summer months. This caused a great deal of fear and anxiety for her.

More than half of the students I spoke with were not working during college. However, many expressed concern about searching for a job during the Pandemic. These students believed the economic situation created by the Pandemic would prevent them from getting a job. Some remained optimistic, yet they still worried that the job market would have increase competition that may cause a decrease in wages. This is relatable for my as I graduate this month and currently do not have a job lined up. Although I have a job prospect, I too worry about what will happen when I have to begin paying back my student loans 6 months after graduation. Like many of the students I spoke with, my parents have not been working throughout the Pandemic and do not have the resources to financially support me after I graduate.

Students also mentioned not having the technological resources to easily complete assigniments. Many typically use on-campus resources for writing papers, research and even accessing online portals to submit assignements. Although some students still have access to on-campus resources, most do not feel comfortable being on campus due to the potential of contracting COVID-19. However, one of the students I engaged doesn’t have the ability to use on-campus resources because the entire campus is closed, including the library. Fortunately, this student was able to get help from a professor to obtain a laptop but did not know how to do this on his own. Additionally, this student did not have wifi and is worried about how he will pay for it once Comcast ends free access to their wifi. This shows that students are having to find ways to access financial and technological resources that were previously provided by their colleges. This often took place with little to no help from their respective institutions.

Declining mental health was by far the most salient issue that surfaced while engaging students. Each and every student I spoke with has experienced poor mental health at some point during the current semester. For many, this is the first time they have expereinced such a heightened level of stress and anxiety. Most students were aware of resources available on campus, only one had accessed these services. It seems as though most were not comfortable being vulnerable with a stranger via Zoom. Some were also just generally hesitant to begin therapy due to a lack of time.

The most common contributions to poor mental health among these students were in relation to the nature of social isolation and their overall living situations. All of the students living in dorms last semester were required to move home with their parents. One queer identifying student moved in with parents who are unaware of his sexual identity. Every day he is overcome by the fear of being homeless if his parents discover his identity. When asked if his college has someone for him to talk to, he was unaware of any resources.

Difficulty studying at home was also mentioned by multiple students. Both of these students have found a way to be productive at home, yet they believed they would be more productive in a different environment such as the library or a coffee shop. Additionally, many students mentioned not being able to study with friends and classmates be a challenge to their success. When discussing this with one student, she became extremely overwhelmed and upset that she is not able to study with others. She mentioned that her grade point average is going to significantly drop this semester. If this happens, she may lose her financial aid and have to pay for her last semester out of pocket.

Being frustrated by professors was also brought up by several students as a contributor to their mental health decline. Although this seemed like a secondary issue for most students, one mentioned reaching out to a professor regarding poor mental health preventing him from getting an assignment completed on time. This professor did not respond. Rather, she forwarded the email to the Dean of Students, which exacerbated his existing mental health issues. Furthermore, it created discomfort between the students and professor for the rest of the semester. While discussing this, he became disappointed by this professor. However, he also mentioned that his professor was probably not taught how to handle an issue like this and maybe it wasn’t her fault.

Another student had a professor with completely different approach. She believed her professor seems to understand that students are experiencing stress and anxiety at high levels. He starts every class by asking students how they are doing and often takes a good portion (up to 20 minutes) of class to provide students with space to express themselves. She believed this created an environment where students were more comfortable being vulnerable, however she stated an awareness that a shorter class would not have this option. This student believes longer classes could help to improve this situation.

Multiple students expressed frustration that their classes have been canceled more this semester than any point before. Some also stated their dissatisfaction with professors not restructuring their courses to be online, having an unfamiliarity with Zoom and other technology, not lowering their expectations of students, not communicating with students over email, and even feeling uncomfortable asking questions in class. Each of these issues were part of my own reality this semester. For example, I emailed one of my professors 11 times throughout the semester and have not received one response. This same professor would begin class with the same question “what did you think of the reading?” each day. When students weren’t reticent to answer his questions, he would become angry and threaten to end the class session if students didn’t talk.

One of the courses I took this semester, on the other hand, drastically altered the structure of the course to meet the needs of students. Instead of class discussions at a specified time of a week that was decided by the professor, she polled students to see when was the best time for us. As an extremely busy student, I was not able to attend most of these sessions but they were recorded and I was able to watch them when I was available.

She also made changes to the online platforms we used to submit assignments and communicate with each other. Rather than using Canvas, the online portal the university pays for, and email we used Slack and Medium. Using Slack instead of email or the Canvas message board provided a more informal way of communicating. For me, this made communicating easier and provided me with a comfortability to ask questions that didn’t seem important enough to send an email. Using Medium to write papers is not that much different than using Google Docs. However, it allowed us to bring our writings to a public space and to a wider audience if we were inclined. For me this is revolutionary because it allows information to not be gatekept inside of the university walls.

Beyond promoting accessibility, this course taught me how to use two different platforms that I was previously unfamiliar with. Using Medium gave me exposure to a new platform. Additionally, and possibly more importantly, it gave me confidence to write my own articles and publish my ideas to the world. I have wanted to do this before taking this course but have not had a platform to do so in a formalized manner. Additionally, I have implemented Slack at a nonprofit I volunteer for, which is proving to be helpful to organize the many projects we are engaged in. Furthermore, learning these platforms seem to be part of a hidden curriculum to learn professional skills that are used in many workplaces.

Conclusion

The issues faced as a result of the Pandemic are extremely important to student’s well being as well as their future success, and many could be solved by professors changing their behavior. However, these issues arose for students I spoke to across the country, which makes me believe that colleges and universities are not doing enough to help their faculty member support students. Although this may be the case, public colleges and universities rely on funding from state and federal governements.

When I asked students what they would have said to college administrators and elected officials in regards to their experience, students had a lot to say. The majority felt similarly and belived that more could have been done to restructure schooling during the Pandemic. First and foremost, students believe colleges should be doing more to ensure students are practicing social distancing, although one did not think this was the responsibility of his university. One student believed that regardless of university policy, students will break the rules and colleges should provide more free tests for students. Additionally, 3 different students believed colleges and universities should not have re-opened for in-class instruction for the upcoming year. However, all three of these students understood why the university had to make the decision to reopen — money.

Money seems to the primary issue regarding the negative aspects of the Pandemic. If money was allocated in a more sensible way, college students and low-income people alike would be able to live with a little less stress and anxiety regarding their finances. However, as Goldrick-Rab highlights in her book, states have continually decreased funding for public colleges for multiple decades. So this raises an important question, who is responsible for ensuring student’s needs are met? Should the responsibility fall on students and their families, faculty, the colleges and universities themselves, or governments?

Personally, I view it as the responsibility of the government to ensure the basic needs of all member of society, including students, are met. However, as one of my mentors consistently says, we only get what we are organized to take. Operating under this principle, the people need to find more ways to connect with each other and build networks of solidarity and power so that each individual impacted by the ills of the Pandemic, or any other issue, is taken care of. For this, we must begin to put aside our differences and meet each other where they are at. Although this is virtually impossible to do during a pandemic, it seems as though this Pandemic is showing each of us the importance of human interaction. For me, this is one of the few positive aspects of the Pandemic and something that provides endless opportunities for the future.

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Nicholas Carmack

Nicholas Carmack

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