Masking Lion, Lion Tight Shot

The Nittany Lion Shrine wears a mask, placed by President Eric Barron to remind students and faculty to mask up in campus this fall on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.

When Taylor Hall started her first year of classes at Penn State, she said it was an opportunity to start anew after her senior year of high school was “taken” from her by the coronavirus pandemic.

In-person classes, live events, football games — Hall (freshman-biomedical engineering) experienced none of these over the past year, as concerns over the spread of the coronavirus prompted many high schools to transition to remote learning. She said she had no official prom, no normal graduation and none of the staples of an ordinary senior year.

With Penn State resuming in-person activities this fall, Hall said she’s optimistic about her mental health, which she said took a downturn during the height of the pandemic.

And Hall isn’t alone in that sentiment. Seven of 11 students surveyed — more than 63% — said the pandemic had a negative effect on their mental health.

Emmaline Fogal, president of Lift the Mask Club at Penn State — an organization dedicated to eradicating the stigma behind mental health through conversations and creating “comfortable” environments — said losing a year of the in-person college experience “hurt.”

“We all have had different losses during the time,” Fogal (junior-psychology) said. “During those losses, we were kind of separated from everybody and didn’t really have the place to talk about it or get it off our minds or deal with it in the best way.”

For student Sanai Wallace, loss came in the form of routine — something she said used to greatly aid her mental health.

“[The pandemic] kind of threw me off,” Wallace (freshman-nursing) said. “I was not as productive as I could be because I didn’t have a strict routine.”

In-person classes, Wallace said, were an integral part of her circadian rhythm, but she didn’t get to experience them during the height of the pandemic.

“I am not an online learner,” Wallace said. “I have to be in the classroom.”

Wallace wasn’t the only student who said they missed in-person activities like classes. Amelia Sokoloski is involved in several campus organizations, including the Mock Trial Association, and while she said she was able to maintain connections with members of her organizations, her generic social interactions were limited.

The culprit, according to Sokoloski (junior-political science and history), isn’t the coronavirus, however — it’s Penn State itself.

“I think it would have been better if the university had provided for the students who were on campus,” Sokoloski said. “There was nothing to do. There were ways for people to meet each other and be safe on campus, and [the university] didn’t take advantage of [them].”

Being on campus, Sokoloski said, was “more isolating” than being off campus, contradictory to the university’s superficial portrayal of student life and the “big deal about the community on campus” Sokoloski said the university makes.

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Sokoloski said she believes action by the university to improve the social situation on campus “would have had a lot more positive impact on the students on campus” during the height of the pandemic.

Having experienced a mostly virtual freshman year, Kyle Skrapits shared many of Sokoloski’s experiences and sentiments.

“My first semester was rough,” Skrapits (sophomore-landscape architecture) said. “It was very hard to meet people. I felt like I was alone.”

Meeting people is an integral aspect of the college experience, Skrapits said, and because he didn’t get to experience the full extent of Penn State’s social potential, Skrapits said he believes students “deserve a refund” for “getting ripped off” by tuition prices.

But Skrapits said he doesn’t blame the university for his lack of experience — he blames students who refused to follow Penn State and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mitigation guidelines.

“I followed the guidelines pretty closely but not everybody did,” Skrapits said. “To go on social media and see those people having a great experience and me having the complete opposite, it’s defeating.”

Ashley Lebron said seeing others on social media living their lives and having a great time made her question herself and what she was choosing to do with her time — not only out of jealousy but also out of concern for how those not abiding by CDC regulations were impacting her experience as a senior in high school.

“Everybody was either starting a new business or doing whatever,” Lebron (freshman-secondary education) said, “and I was just trying to survive my last year of high school.”

And as they enter the fourth week of the fall semester, surviving is what Lebron and Hall both said is their current goal. For Hall, that begins with protecting herself from contracting the coronavirus, she said.

“I’ve definitely felt very overwhelmed in my classes,” Hall said. “I could not imagine what would happen if I were to catch COVID.”

Imagining wasn’t so hard for Hall’s friend, Shenandoah Winn. She said she’s at risk for the virus, so the thought of contracting it stresses her out, she said.

“You don’t know what’s going to be happening to your body and how you’re going to react to the disease,” Winn (freshman-biomedical engineering) said. “Everything together makes me very anxious.”

Winn said catching the coronavirus is the source of “a lot” of her mental health problems and anxieties, which begin with the prospect of her missing class from contracting it.

Both Winn and Hall are currently enrolled in a chemistry lab, which they said is in person because of the experiments they must complete. While there is a make-up day, according to Winn, Hall said missing more than one or two lab days would force her to drop the course and retake it, as there would be no way to make up for missed work.

Neither Hall nor Winn said they had reached out to their professor out of a fear of unresponsiveness due to the large class size.

Hall said she wishes “there could be more options presented” if students were to contract the coronavirus and be forced to quarantine for up to two weeks or for students who don’t feel safe attending in-person classes and other activities. And Winn agreed.

“The school could be doing better with helping this [anxiety],” Winn said. “I feel like I have to be so much safer because I'm high risk, and I don’t want to [have] academic penalties [for] having COVID.”

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University spokesperson Lisa Powers said via email the university offers several resources to aid mental health, including Counseling and Psychological Services, WellTrack, Life Hacks with CAPS, CAPS Chat, drop-in CAPS groups, the Penn State Health Promotion and Wellness, free wellness sessions, the Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community and the Penn State Crisis Line and Crisis Text Line — reachable at 877-229-6400 and by texting “LIONS” to 741741. CAPS resources are available at any time, including the resources in its virtual library, Powers said.

CAPS also offers training to students that teaches how to deal with distressing situations and crises, and a similar program called the Red Folder initiative exists to provide the same training to faculty and staff, according to Powers.

Students in distress may also be referenced to the Office of Student Care and Advocacy, Powers said, which works across the university on a number of wellness subjects, such as physical and mental health and food insecurity.

While CAPS and other services are available 24/7, Powers said 911 should be dialed for “urgent or life-threatening emergencies.”

“Penn State cares deeply about the mental health of our community, especially as we continue to face the circumstances of the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” Powers said in a statement. “Often, college is already a stressful time of transition for many students due to the significant changes they may be experiencing, and COVID-19 has presented itself as an added layer of complexity.”

The potentiality of a return to remote learning is the most worrying aspect of the continuing pandemic, Fogal said.

“We kind of have the taste of freedom and the taste of normal life back now,” Fogal said. “If it gets taken away, it’s going to hurt double than what it did the first time.”

The hurt is made even worse because of the hard work put into following guidelines while attending classes, studying or attending social activities, Hall said.

“It’s tough when you’re working hard in school, and you have the possibility of your classes going remote,” Hall said.

As part of the at-risk population, Winn said all other worries pale in comparison to contracting the coronavirus in the first place.

“I’m very anxious about what can happen to me if I do get COVID,” Winn said. “There’s a big chance I could die.”

Wallace said her grandmother, an at-risk individual, caught the coronavirus and dealt with health complications for about a month. The period was “very stressful” to Wallace’s mental health, she said.

In the case of a student death, Powers said the university shares its “deepest condolences” and begins collaboration between several departments — including CAPS, Student Care and Advocacy, the academic school the student was enrolled in and more — to aid with grief and coping.

“Any loss of a Penn Stater is a tragedy that impacts many people, including friends, family, peers, faculty and more,” Powers said.

Yet not all students were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Ali Butt said living through the pandemic was actually “a pretty cool experience.”

For Butt (senior-mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering), the ability to quarantine without in-person obligations allowed him to get work done the way he wanted and when he wanted, he said.

With his extra time, Butt said he took trips, climbed mountains, went to the beach and had fun with those he cared about. The low cost of gas and other commodities during the pandemic was helpful too, Butt said.

“It was nice to have the time off, to be with friends, family, whatever,” Butt said. “You could wake up every day, and it was a vacation.”

Though Butt lost his job with the university at the onset of the first lockdown, he said Penn State still paid him, allowing him to essentially do whatever he wanted, he said.

Most beneficial for Butt, however, was his older age, he said. He was already 21 and a junior when the lockdowns began, so he said he didn’t miss out on any experiences — nightlife or college.

Butt said his friends were in the same position he was.

“We were kind of already mentally graduated at that point, so it didn’t really matter to us,” Butt said.

Good, bad and ugly, Fogal said the best way to move forward as the pandemic continues is acknowledging the situation by talking about it and the intense emotions surrounding it.

“We can’t break the stigma all by ourselves, but if we get used to talking about it, and we get used to sharing our ideas about it and what we’ve been through, then I think it could have a big impact.”

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