It’s the (dreaded) finals season for college students all across the U.S., and I’m burned out like I’ve never before. If I were a match, I’d be a tiny piece of blackened wood by now. The piece you don’t bother throwing in the trans and just leave inside your candle. I feel no urgency despite deadlines lining up, ready to ambush me. Nothing gives me energy anymore: not the long walks under the hard-to-catch winter sun, not the sleep schedule I’ve finally managed to fix, not my morning coffee despite all the new ways of making it TikTok tutorials have taught me.
I’d be making a mental list of the last-minute gifts I need to buy before packing and catching my flight to spend holidays with my family. I’d be excitedly procrastinating on my finals by looking up the secondhand textbooks for my classes next semester. I’d be in anticipation for the winter break and, halfway through, for it to end. At the very least, there would be an incentive to get through finals in one piece. This finals season there’s none.
The other day I was FaceTiming with a friend for a study session which didn’t happen. After a tearful rant about all the papers we felt too exhausted to write and all the information our minds felt too full to accommodate, she said “I know the pandemic isn’t going to last forever but it feels like I’m studying for a future I’m not going to really have.”
Her words suddenly gave a very neat description to the way I’ve been feeling cornered by the expectations to pull off all the things I’ve been capable of before the whole planet fell silent. Being a student right now feels dystopian: you’re seated in a corner of a room with your entire world shrunken down to a screen. It’s full of faces and name tags. It’s full of voices and muted mics. It’s full of life and none of it can hug you, or go get coffee with you, or scold you for staying in the library after-hours.
While being in college and complaining about schoolwork comes as an enormous privilege not many have access to, it’s been nothing like we, the current students, envisioned our university years going. Of course, we should be grateful for and mindful of the fortunate position we’re in, which doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to struggle and grieve all the things we thought were going to be a part of this time in our lives.
Hundreds of thousands of college students and recent graduates have been going through a collective trauma, which can’t be brushed off. Last spring’s alums will never feel the rush of having your name called during the graduation ceremony. Twenty-twenty first-years will never have stories about those orientation friends they’ve made and forgotten by Christmas.
Senior athletes will never have another shot at their final crew or varsity season. Sophomores, who just got used to adulting, will seldom have the experience of finally moving in with friends. Not to mention all those, who have been tuning into their Zoom lectures while a loved one fights for their life on a ventilator or had passed.
The compartmentalization, the dissociation, the fresh trauma boiling underneath the surface — how do you even begin thinking about grades? How do you plan for your future if you’re afraid of what the future holds? Assembling my spring semester schedule had me too anxious to begin for weeks and, when I finally forced myself to do it, I had a panic attack with thoughts like “what if somebody dies by then” playing on loop inside my mind.
Recently a professor of mine told us it must be easier to study from home than it was on campus. Nobody in class agreed, which got me curious. The next day I posted a poll on Instagram, asking which semester people found to be harder: last spring or this fall. 63% voted for this fall being worse and a friend of mine texted me to share her thoughts.
“We’re still in a period of utter confusion,” she wrote. “Now that we stay in one spot, extra care must be placed into relationships. If at home, you have family obligations. If alone, you need to keep all your connections alive.”
Yet again I had a friend tell me the exact thing I was thinking. Everything requires more energy these days. Nothing feels familiar, all tasks take figuring out as if we’ve never performed them before. I’ve been navigating constantly being with my family after four years of living alone and it isn’t easy: petty fights break out, the concern of getting my parents sick keeps me up at night, the lack of privacy has me constantly on edge. None of it makes being a student easier.
We’re all going through an uprooting of our lives and our losses deserve to be honored. We, as a group, aren’t okay. Not a single friend of mine feels fine right now. Even the stress of finals doesn’t seem familiar, no matter the amount of semesters we’ve gone through. It’s a new worry of how to push through yet another thing we have no mental capacity or physical energy for.
A couple of days ago I was browsing the web for stories of students like myself, who have the hardest time focusing in class or can’t sleep because of constant anxiety making my heart pound violently against my ribcage. Eventually, I stumbled across a survey by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, according to which 81% of current college students have been coping with anxiety during remote learning. No. We aren’t not okay.
We’re drained, scared and living a life of unknowns with no manual to guide us. Trust me, every college student in your life could really use kind words right about now. Ideally, our colleges would cancel finals… If not, an encouraging text would suffice.