Article by Jahlil Rush | Apr. 21, 2021
Twenty-nine-year-old Diana Iser was new to CUNY’s Baruch College, having just transferred from CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College for the spring 2020 semester. Iser was looking forward to her college experience now that she found herself at a four-year institution.
But her excitement about the new chapter in college life came to a halt about six weeks into the semester when on March 18, 2020, CUNY fully transitioned to remote learning as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and New York City entered shutdown mode.
“I didn’t like it,” Iser said about distance learning. “Mainly because I had just started at Baruch and I was excited to attend a new school. I feel like I’ve been robbed of a proper education and an experience like higher education.”
Iser conducted her studies in her Bushwick apartment, which she shared with four other roommates. She would travel back and forth between New York and Miami, where her family resides, and some days, she would be in her Miami home Zooming with her classmates.
She thinks she lost the chance to experience opportunities that some college students would normally get. Iser said that she didn’t know where the library was, or much about the programs that the school had to offer. “I didn’t get to meet a lot of people or explore all of the campus or buildings.”
The disruption that Iser experienced in her academic studies was also felt by most of the 275,000 CUNY students across the largest urban public university system’s 25 campuses. The transformation led to 95 percent of CUNY’s 50,000 courses being transitioned to distance learning format. Many students have reported struggling, staying disciplined and meeting assignments on time.
“I’m not sure anyone had an ideal at home situation for online learning,” said Jonathan Basla, a second-year graduate student studying mental health counseling at Hunter College. He found it difficult to do group projects online and was even more frustrated that professors didn’t make cameras being on mandatory. He felt it diminished the learning experience while he was working from both Connecticut and his New York apartment.
Despite the format adjustment being unenjoyable for some CUNY students, others found it a grateful outcome considering how the pandemic was progressing. “Honestly, I was relieved,” said Alex Golubev, a business communication major who graduated in the fall of 2020 from Baruch.
Baruch College Senior Raven Conyers agrees. She thinks the new learning environment provided new ways for her to balance and spend time with her family.
“Traveling to and from Baruch then having to sit in a classroom surrounded by people I didn’t know was talking a huge toll on my mental health. Now I have been a lot happier,” Conyers said.
Gabriela Castro, a psychology sophomore at City College, was able to avoid the shift in learning formats in the spring 2020 semester because she took a break from school. When the sophomore re-registered for fall 2020 classes, she wanted to see her City College campus buildings in person but nonetheless decided to look at online learning with a positive outlook.
“I wanted to go to campus, I love being at campus,” Castro said. “But I was willing to give online learning a try. So I was more open minded.”
Castro’s positive outlook about remote learning came with a number of factors including an opportunity to test her multitasking skills and a newfound love for Zoom, the video-conference application that became virtual classrooms for students and professors alike.
CUNY students dealt with mental health challenges during the course of the remote school year. Data from the Journal of Public Health showed that of the 2,282 CUNY students surveyed in April 2020, 49 percent of students reported an additional need for mental health services in an effort to help cope with the increased stress, anxiety or depression due to the pandemic.
In February 2021, CUNY introduced the “Crisis Text Line”, a 24-hour service that allows students who are dealing with mental health struggles to connect with counselors through text. CUNY’s “Crisis Text Line” is just one of several initiatives that the public university system is implementing in its commitment to combat mental health challenges among its student body during the pandemic.
The university also set aside $5 million from the federal CARES Act to increase the quality of its mental health services, including hiring new staff and certifying them in providing “teletherapy” services.
The stress of remote learning also has been felt by faculty members.
Prof. Rianne Subijanto of Baruch College’s Communication Studies Department took on the pandemic while dealing with major changes in her life, overcoming her bout of COVID-19, all while teaching communication courses through Zoom. The professor took on an additional role of teaching her colleagues how to navigate remote learning, while filling the roles of a parent.
“The biggest challenge with me for the pandemic, especially at the very beginning, was child care,” said Subijanto.
Prof. Marcus Johnson of Baruch’s Political Science Department said he felt pressured by high expectations in not only his professional, but personal life. “Personally, my partner who is now my fiancé was living in Portugal and we were doing long distance and the first thing I was thinking with her personally ‘how long was I going be apart from my partner?'”
In January 2021, CUNY Chancellor Felix V. Matos Rodriguez announced that CUNY was putting forth a reopening plan for the CUNY campuses for the fall 2021 semester. Students also received a link to a fall 2021 survey, testing their preferences on class models and safety for the upcoming semester.
With an announcement of reopening on the table, the CUNY community looks towards the days when the hallways and classrooms are filled with a sense of normalcy and their mental health struggles will diminish.
“Take breaks, find your productivity time, let it be in the morning, afternoon, nights. Talk with a friend or therapist if you are feeling down,” Castro said. “Reach out for help if you need help with school, do not hesitate to reach out to classmates and professors. This too shall pass.”