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As a senior studying cellular and molecular biology at Occidental College in northeast Los Angeles, I look back and think of the time I’ve spent giving tours, heading several clubs and organizations, serving in student government, presenting my biochemistry research at conferences nationwide, playing NCAA Division III baseball, and getting to know my professors personally. Along with all the opportunities I’ve had to bolster my résumé and advance my career, this small liberal arts college has enabled me to develop my racial and cultural identities, integral to my growth as a person and an aspiring scientist.

Through social time with peers and watching Dodgers games at faculty members’ homes, I’ve fostered deep personal connections and engaged in discussions around everything from job pathways to social justice. These connections have influenced the lens I see the world through and brought me personal opportunity and satisfaction.

However, for my more junior peers at Occidental and across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a shadow and frozen access to these key relationship-building opportunities. The recent Student Voice survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, and presented by Kaplan, found that 71 percent of students selected “lack of connection with others” as a top COVID-era online learning challenge, and 73 percent identified “friends and social life” as the aspect of campus life they are missing most.

Loss of connection is about much more than missing parties or study groups: it impacts mental and emotional health, the ability to learn, job prospects, and identity formation. All these needs have been exacerbated this year through a pandemic, a free-falling economy and events that have put racial and social justice at the forefront.

Virtual experiences don’t provide the same comfort: discussions surrounding social injustice and the urgency for change have been ineffective in the virtual environment as the lines between sincerity and lip service are blurred. As students grapple within themselves and discover their core values, they are looking for peers and mentors who share their sentiments and can help them cope, but this year has provided few routes to establishing these key relationships and identities.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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As a leader of the Student Coalition on Higher Education, a student-led, grant-supported initiative that is part of the Sorenson Impact Center’s MAPS project on the future of higher education, I’ve had the chance to engage with fellow students about their experiences. Several of the students with whom I have spoken underscored the ways in which loss of connection created by COVID-19 impacted their lives significantly.

Daviona Moore, an Occidental College senior and first-generation college student, shared how she felt isolated when “community interactions have been shut off” and she could no longer “collectively go through the up and down experiences” with peers. She also shared how returning to live at home as a first-gen student cut her off from key academic supports and required emotional labor being around others who “don’t understand the grind.”

As a fellow first-gen student, that sentiment resonated with me deeply. Typical first-generation students have had three recurring concerns: filling out the FAFSA, impostor syndrome and family’s inability to understand the intense workload of college. Support for navigating these concerns often comes from our peers and student affairs professionals at our institutions. With limited access to both throughout the past year, first-gen students faced not only social isolation, but compounded inequities in losing the key supports other students may take for granted because they have them at home.

In addition, Moore is a Black woman who was caught in a bubble of anxiety as she felt “distraught, conflicted, sad and angry” (a sentiment many of us felt ourselves) about the killing of George Floyd. Almost a year ago, institutions of higher education across the country embarked on a long, bumpy road toward antiracism. In these efforts, it’s critical that students are met with holistic approaches toward just, equitable learning environments. It is imperative that this involves support systems in the form of in-person student-student and faculty-student connections -- to ensure that every member of the community is able to learn from the knowledge and experiences of others and engage in making their institution a more inclusive space.

Another student at Occidental, junior Kamea Quetti-Hall, decided to study economics in part because it’s a field where “you don’t see many students of color or women.” She seeks to help break down that barrier with the support of her peers with similar identities. This is not new, as a lot of these emotionally taxing efforts are being done by women, people of color and others from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

As an NCAA DIII volleyball player who works for her institution’s admissions office and is an active member of Oxy’s Black Student Alliance, Quetti-Hall has invested significant energy in building personal connections and contributing on campus. These connections were strained when Occidental lost two Black students, a few weeks apart, just prior to the pandemic. Administration did not heed the community’s request for support, such as a day off to mourn.

These rifts deepened as the pandemic hit and grew from weeks to months. In expressing what she’d like to see done differently, Quetti-Hall shared a sentiment we’ve heard from many -- that students just “want their administrations to listen. They say they’re listening, but it’s really just them hearing us and finding a way to respond back rather than listening.” The loss of connection between students has been distressing, and the loss of connection between students and administrators has also been damaging.

In addition to connections with peers and administrators, I’ve also found connections with faculty to be important, especially in potential job prospects.

While students have shown resilience in adapting to the “new normal” of a pandemic world, this should not be mistaken for students thriving and getting the most out of their education.

As a biology major, I’ve benefited greatly from my professors’ colleagues across the nation, as collaboration is an important and inherent component in the field. Before the pandemic, the biology department hosted weekly seminars where scientists (usually friends of our faculty) or alumni would present their research and then stay to network with students. They offered mentorship and gave valuable advice on how to navigate grad school applications and create a good life in graduate school, academia or the biotechnology industry.

The COVID college era has attenuated the effectiveness of these seminars as Zoom fatigue and burnout have plagued students, in turn eroding students’ motivation to go the extra mile and attend professors’ office hours to revive those connections.

Each of these students and countless others are experiencing the hardships of a global pandemic while managing to uphold their academic responsibilities and often work one or more jobs, not to mention taking care of family members and more. While students have shown resilience in adapting to the “new normal” of a pandemic world, this should not be mistaken for students thriving and getting the most out of their education.

As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to circulate around the United States, eventually allowing for a safe(r) return to in-person learning on campuses across the country, higher ed leaders should take heed of the significance of interpersonal connections to their students. Clearly, relationships are not only an aspect of the college experience many students hope to experience, but the foundation for success in jobs, communities and more. For the sake of the mental and emotional well-being, personal and professional development, and critical consciousness of their students, administrators must take proactive steps -- with students centered in the charge -- to help make up for lost time.

Editor’s Note: In May, Student Voice will feature findings of a survey focused on advocacy for racial justice on campuses.

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