From closed campuses to canceled graduation ceremonies, over 14 million college students have been impacted by COVID-19. Many students also lost their housing and access to food. Youth with previous experiences of homelessness have even fewer back up resources, and greater trauma.
On April 30th, SchoolHouse Connection hosted a webinar featuring three young leaders from our Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program who are navigating higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. During the webinar, the students shared their experiences, challenges, and advice for other students, higher education professionals, and service providers. This blog post has been repurposed from the webinar. To view the archived webinar, see here.
Meet Jose from New York City!
Meet Lorinda from Kansas City!
Meet Destiny from California!
Please share your name, where you’re from, what college you’re at, what you’re studying, and anything else you want to share.
Jose: Jose Mendoza, born and raised in New York City. I go to Columbia College and I study psychology. I’ll be graduating later this spring, and I’ll be the first in my family to do so.
Lorinda: Lorinda Ruz, and I’m finishing up my sophomore year at Georgetown in DC and I’m from right outside Kansas City, Missouri.
Destiny: Destiny. I’m from California and I’m currently attending San Diego State University and also majoring in psychology.
You have all experienced homelessness in K-12, and were resilient in graduating from high school and deciding to pursue higher education. Why is higher education important to you?
Jose: Well higher education is extremely important. It opens up a lot of opportunities. It means you qualify for the jobs that you want. The jobs that are going to be paying decent salaries. You get to learn about a lot of topics, the schools like the one I attended in high school do not even come close to matching.
Destiny: Higher education is really important to me because I was homeless my entire High School career. I was homeless with my family and my family is still currently homeless. The only reason I was able to stop being homeless was by going to college and pursuing my degree. I’m really passionate about it because I want to be able to maintain stability and eventually get stability for my family.
Lorinda: I think probably higher education is important to me just because education as a whole is something that my mom really valued when I was growing up. I grew up with just my mom and my brother, and we experienced homelessness at varying times throughout my life from when I was younger to when I was in high school. Education was always a safe space and something that I knew that I was good at, so higher education is really just an opportunity to kind of continue that. It wasn’t until probably four years after my mom passed away, a few months ago, that I found out that my mom never graduated high school. It’s something that she never told us, but explains why she emphasized the value of education so much. The fact that she went her whole life without the opportunity to get a high school degree, let alone a University degree, and that I am now able to is something I’m really grateful for.
I was lucky enough that I live off campus, so I wasn’t really worried about being kicked off campus and having to go home. However, I was worried about not being able to pay rent and getting kicked out of my apartment. Also, in regards to accessing food, I mainly fed myself on campus and rely on EBT to feed myself at home. So when campus closed, all of the meal halls closed. I was really stressed about how I was going to feed myself basically because now I was home five days a week that I wasn’t home before and now I had to figure out how I was going to eat and when I was going to eat.
Please share what your college experience has been like since mid-March when college closures started happening. What was being communicated to you? Did you have a point of contact on your campus who was explaining what was happening? Did you know where you were going to live, or where to access food?
Jose: In mid-March my school initially told us not to worry even though other schools were closing. They said “you guys are not going to be kicked out of your dorms, but whoever is able to leave their dorm should be doing that.” But literally a week later, they did a whole 360 and they said you have 48 hours to leave your dorm and pack up everything and this was during spring break. So luckily I was on campus still, but there were a lot of people who weren’t in the city. There were some people that weren’t even in the country and they were making everyone pack things up within such a short amount of time. I go to a pretty large school, so everything was very chaotic. It was unclear who I had to reach out to for help. It was also unclear what help they were providing. I live in the city and my sister luckily lives near my college. So I asked her to come help me and I asked if there was any way I could crash with her, since I’m being kicked out of my school. So right now I’m just staying on the couch. Luckily, my sister was able to help me out a little bit, but I can’t imagine what I would be doing if I didn’t have that option. My school basically told people to apply for housing. They were letting certain people stay on campus, but it was only if you had any immediate danger returning home, or if you are an international student who wasn’t able to return to your home country. But there was nothing being said about students who you know might not have a home to return to. But luckily I did have my sister to help me out.
Destiny: For me, at San Diego State, I only got information via mass emails that the school was sending out and some of them I wouldn’t even get. I would have to hear the information from someone else and they’d ask ¨did you get this email?¨ and I would be in shock. ¨No, I didn’t get that email¨. So it was very disorganized. There are a lot of fake emails going out like asking student workers to submit information about their checks and different private information. It was very confusing on what was real and what wasn’t real. I didn’t have a person to talk to or a point of contact on campus. I didn’t have a person that I was sure I can go talk to this person and find out what’s really happening. I kind of had to just figure out what everyone else was doing. I was lucky enough that I live off campus, so I wasn’t really worried about being kicked off campus and having to go home. However, I was worried about not being able to pay rent and getting kicked out of my apartment. Also, in regards to accessing food, I mainly fed myself on campus and rely on EBT to feed myself at home. So when campus closed, all of the meal halls closed. I was really stressed about how I was going to feed myself basically because now I was home five days a week that I wasn’t home before and now I had to figure out how I was going to eat and when I was going to eat.
Lorinda: I’ve been really really blessed in the way that the school has approached the situation for me. I was able to apply to stay on campus and I got my application approved—I know a lot of people who didn’t. I was able to move into an apartment-styled building and there’s certain times a day that the dining hall has food, which is really helpful. I would say in that sense, I’ve been grateful. I’ve been getting a lot of my information from students in student Mutual Aid group chats, which I think is a good tool because, yes, we get emails from the administrators, but sometimes the emails are ambiguous or confusing and they’re not as frequent. So to be able to have people within the group chat who are student advocates for us in an informal setting creates more trust. We’ve been able to actualize some of our desires. For example, improving the food options and getting reduced summer rental rates. I would say the most confusing part of the experience was after the initial announcement of virtual instruction. I was home for about a week and a half. I didn’t have Wi-Fi and then my cell phone service got turned off. So I couldn’t attend classes and then it was a really anxious time because it’s like you just don’t show up for classes and can’t communicate with your professors. Yeah, it was just weird. But like I said, I’ve been really blessed throughout most of the last few months.
What are some of the challenges that you faced and are still currently facing during this time?
Jose: One of the challenges I’m facing even right now. My Wi-Fi is pretty bad. So everything is online. But luckily my cell phone provider is being very generous right now and it’s just offering everyone unlimited data because of everything going on. So most of the time I’m having to use a hotspot in order to gain access to the internet. Another thing that really sucks right now is as a last semester senior all my job applications have been put on hold or just cancelled because of anything going on there. So that’s just something I’m very worried about.
Destiny: I have two main worries. One of my biggest worries right now is that this spring semester. I’ve been retaking two courses that are required for me to get into my major. At San Diego State University, psychology is an impacted major. So until you complete some of the prerequisites, you’re considered a Pre-Psychology major. The first time I took the courses I had some really serious physical health issues so I wasn’t able to attend class for like a month or so. My grades reflected that. So now I am retaking them and was doing pretty good. Then everything started shutting down and now it’s kind of like I’m trying to teach myself the material that I already could not learn the first time around. It’s just been really frustrating because the teachers aren’t teaching the courses. They’re just putting up a lecture video for us to just watch on our own time and not really teaching during class or having time to actually teach us the material at all. So I’m worried about not being able to get into my major and how that’s going to set me back a semester or two semesters because I have already registered for my summer and fall classes. If I don’t pass these two classes, then I’m not going to be able to take the courses that I’m registered for. As a whole, that’s one thing that’s been super frustrating. Aside from that, I have been worried about my mental health with everything that’s going on. It’s just been a lot of stress on me to just take it all in and not really be able to do anything about it.
Lorinda: I think mental health has probably been one of the biggest challenges for me and also just like creating some type of routine. I’ve probably been struggling the most with my sleep schedule. So normally I’ve been going to bed at 7:00 a.m or 8 a.m., and then I’ll sleep until like 4:00 p.m, and sometimes wake up for classes. I’ve tried to take melatonin to fix things and it’s not completely working. But I also think it’s a weird combination of unusual hours and mental health. Feeling boxed in on top of usual things such as a really rainy day like today doesn’t help my mood. But I’ve still had access to therapy which has been helpful, yet it’s still hard.
Another thing that really sucks right now is as a last semester senior all my job applications have been put on hold or just canceled because of anything going on there. So that’s just something I’m very worried about.
What do you wish you could tell the higher education professionals who are working with students who are in similar experiences like yourself? Any advice and guidance that you wish to share?
Jose: Well, I think the most important thing is for professionals not to assume that everyone has the same circumstances at home, because I feel like a lot of my professors have been doing that. I feel like the only way they have made changes to what they’re demanding for academically is if you go reach out to them and explain your circumstances. They’re not the ones who are reaching out to me. So I really think any education professional should be, reaching out to their students and asking them, “Hey, how’s everything going on? What’s going on at home?” I think that’s the most important thing. Another thing is making sure that all the needs of low-income students are being met at home. If you expect them to produce the same quality of work, they need to have their basic needs met in order to be still able to produce the same quality of work that you expect them to be producing.
Lorinda: I have really similar sentiments and thoughts. I would say, adding on that, one thing that I appreciated was that members from our campus ministry individually reached out to me (I attend a Jesuit university). The fact that the email said my name instead of just ‘Dear everyone’ was nice. But also small things like professors chastising someone if they don’t have their camera turned on is a challenge. I think it’s an official rule here, that maybe some professors are just not following, but professors would ask about what’s behind someone or make observations about people’s room and location. It’s just very jarring to see some people’s backgrounds that have really expensive paintings in it, highlighting disparities, for example. In regards to guidance, it’s helpful to keep in touch with student advocates who are on campus because I feel like sometimes you trust information more when it comes from a student than you do from the administrators.
Destiny: I’m definitely going to echo a couple of the things that Jose and Lorinda said. My biggest thing is just recognizing that it’s not just the pandemic. It’s not just everyone staying at home. I know personally, right before the pandemic hit I was going through a lot of stuff. Mentally, I had just lost a family member, I had just recently cut ties and was not talking to my best friend anymore. There was like a lot of stuff I was dealing with. Then everything that was stable in my life kind of went up in flames. It was just like okay… I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s happening. I was trying to deal with so many things. I feel, like Lorinda and Jose were pointing out, if you’re asking students to perform at a certain level, you have to consider the students who are living in hotels, who don’t have internet access, who don’t have this or that or the things you’re expecting people to have. Some students have to do all of their work from their cell phone because they don’t have a laptop to do it. To a certain extent you don’t really want to speak up and say ¨Hey, I’m living in a hotel room with my six other family members, I can’t turn my video camera on¨. I want to support what Jose said about reaching out to students and just checking on them individually. Not just blasting out mass messages. Similar to what Lorinda said, personally being like “hey, are you okay? What do you specifically need for you to be able to function in this class the way that it’s being performed currently?”
What advice do you have for other college students who are going through something pretty similar?
Jose: Right now one thing that’s been helping me get through all, is something I’ve never used before. As of a few weeks ago, I’ve been using my school’s Psychological Services. If you’re lucky enough for your school to still have these services open like my school does, then I recommend you reach out. I’m not sure if that’s the case for most schools, but my school is still offering that and I’ve been very lucky that they still are. I was able to reach out and make an appointment and I was able to speak with a mental health professional and they’ve really been helping me get through all of this.
Destiny: I was actually going to say exactly what Jose said. My school also has psychological help and counseling centers and everything. Even though my personal issues were extensive and couldn’t be captured in the limits of what the school system can do, they helped me get off campus psychological help where it’s affordable, works with my insurance, and whatever it is that I needed. They helped me get there. So I really wanted to recommend that but I also wanted to recommend one thing. I know that San Diego State has an economic crisis response team (ECRT). I don’t know if a lot of other schools have it, I know not every school has it but it’s been super helpful for me before and during the pandemic. That’s the first thing I recommend to anyone when they tell me anything they are struggling with. If your school has one please apply and tell them what your situation is. They can help you and if they can’t help you they will give you a bunch of different links and resources to something or someone that can help you.
Lorinda: I would say that we’re all going through the pandemic, everyone from the students and professors to the admin. Obviously the situation is chaotic, which merits empathy on all fronts. But I would say I’ve had professors who’ve been more flexible, but also some who have not been. So for students, I would say it is okay to self-advocate and demand greater flexibility for some type of solution to a COVID- related problem, even if it was out of the professor’s hands. For example, I had a test that I had taken and ended up with a score I was not happy with. However, the closure of the academic buildings meant the test was locked away inside and I would not be able to understand why I got that grade. So I had to reach out to the professor and we were able to agree that we could review it in the fall and potentially get my overall grade adjusted if I found an issue in the grading. So even though this pandemic is inconvenient for everyone, we shouldn’t be afraid as students to advocate for some type of solution to its negative consequences.
Questions from Attendees
How has transitioning from in-person to online classes impacted your learning style? Do you feel like you have the resources to be successful? Have any of your colleges reached out to provide additional assistance? Has anyone offered you tutoring and do you think tutoring would help?
Destiny: I just want to say that I’ve taken online courses before and they’re not a problem at all IF the course is prepared and intended to be taught online. It’s not really a problem that we’re learning online. The problem is transitioning to online, grades being shuffled around, emails getting lost, and not really understanding what’s happening. A lot of my courses completely revised our coursework entirely. Beforehand, I had a certain amount of exams. It was like ¨okay, I’m going to study for this one¨ and then it turned into not having exams at all. Now, you have a writing assignment. So many things were getting switched around and completely changing that it was hard to keep track of what was happening and what wasn’t happening anymore.
Jose: When we were first transitioning a lot of professors were trying to replicate an in-person course and force it to be online. For example, my professor told us that she had typed out an exam, a midterm exam that was supposed to be taken in person. She put it online, but she made the questions more difficult because she was like, oh people are going to be able to access, you know, their textbooks or their notes. It ended up being a lot more difficult than it was supposed to be. So that’s something that was very difficult at first, luckily professors have mostly realized that it’s not fair to that, but unfortunately there are a few who haven’t changed their minds.
Destiny: I would like to echo what Jose said. That happened to me and one of the classes that I’m retaking. It’s a statistics class and the professor tried to make the online exam as if it was an in-class exam. We had to show all our work and input all the formulas. The formulas had to be written correctly or you did not receive points. There were an excessive amount of things that they wanted us to do. I’m normally a person where I finish exams 30-40 minutes before we’re supposed to be done just because I’m a fast test taker. For this exam, I didn’t get to half of the questions. A lot of people didn’t get to finish the exam because there were so many requirements. They only gave us an hour to do it as if we were like in class writing and taking it. You can’t expect students to perform exactly the same on an entirely new platform.
Lorinda: I had one Professor that I’ve seen handle it pretty well. At the start of all the changes he had everyone, in a group of maybe 50 students, fill out a survey and note any time zone differences or if we had any individual needs. For all of the assignments, instead of being due at 11:59 on a day, he would give us a due date, but then a three-day window to submit the assignment. But then, on the other hand, I’ve had professors where the nature of virtual instruction has made them act more suspicious of students. It is so important to be academically honest, but we’re also in a national pandemic. Situations vary so much for students and they don’t need emails questioning their work to add on to their stress, even though I understand the inherent concern to an extent.
Have you had someone in your life that has really been helpful during this time? It could be a faculty member or a friend. What is their role?
Jose: I’m really grateful for my older sister. If it weren’t for her and letting me stay with her, I don’t know where I would be right now. So I’m really grateful for her, she’s been helping me so much. So I’m very grateful for her.
Lorinda: I’ve been really grateful for my roommate right now. She’s just been a really good source of relief and we’ve been a good support system for each other. She’s a graduating senior, so she’s been a good mentor and we promote accountability between us.
Do you think having a pass or an incomplete would be better than actually receiving a grade for some of your courses?
Lorinda: Yeah, so originally we had a pass/fail option and then it morphed into satisfactory/credit/no credit, which is basically the same thing. Everyone was fighting for a double A system where students get an A or an A-, it was a really big campaign on campus, but the proposal was denied. We had until yesterday to decide whether we were going to opt into the alternative system, but I didn’t because my finals make up such a significant portion of my grade. I didn’t want to risk doing the alternative system because that doesn’t help your GPA and I’m thinking of going to law school. I’m applying pretty soon, so that just wasn’t an option for me. I think what would have been the most helpful is if the deadline for when he could have decided was extended until after we got our final grades. Until you have your final project or final assignment grade, it’s really hard to gauge how your grade will end up.
Destiny: Yeah, I wanted to say, similar to what Lorinda was saying, that my option was credit/no credit or withdraw from the class. My deadline for credit no credit is tomorrow. The withdrawal deadline is like May 7th, I think, and our semester ends on the 14th. It’s something that doesn’t really help me because my major requires me to get a certain letter grade in the course for it to count towards me getting into the major. So if I change it to credit no credit, then I would have to retake the course all over again. That would be my third time taking the course. Even if that wasn’t important to me getting into the major, it would be important for when I decide to go to grad school. A lot of graduate programs aren’t considering credit/no credit as you actually taking the class. They way they see it, if you did good enough, you should have taken the grade. Obviously you didn’t do great enough in that course so then why should we let you into our program? So, in the end, this option doesn’t help at all.
Jose: I think this is a very complicated question because my school is doing mandatory pass-fail for all classes, but I heard a lot of people were unhappy because some were relying on their grades in order to get into grad school, boost their GPA, or maybe a scholarship requires them to have a certain GPA each semester. I also heard the argument that we should just automatically pass everyone because what if a student has circumstances at home where they just not able to do the bare minimum to pass, because there are some students who, that just have that situation at home and I just think it’s very complicated to decide what would be best for each student.
It sounds like a lot of the communication was really broad about the different COVID-19 resources as a lot of colleges were trying to get information out quickly. So what do you wish you would have known that was communicated to you from the beginning?
Destiny: I think, not only from my experience but from the experience of people I know, I wish that they had taken the time to get all of their information together before they said something to us. As Jose pointed out one minute they were saying you’re not going to have to leave the dorms. You’re fine. And then the next minute was they were saying you have to get out now. It was like well what happened to we do not have to leave? I knew people who were being forced to move across the country and thus were quitting their jobs because they couldn’t work. Then all of a sudden it was announced that they’re going to make the students work through telework now. Well now this person just quit their job not knowing that they could have been able to work. So they’re not getting paid at all because they won’t hire them anymore. I don’t know. It was just really messy.