Local college students start third fall semester during COVID-19 pandemic: What they are saying

College students on area campuses say their experiences are improving despite remaining cautious as they begin the third straight fall semester under the lingering shadow of a global pandemic.

The mood on campuses is on the rise, say Ohio college students and officials, but for some mental health issues remain a challenge while dealing with COVID-19 changes.

Masks are less common among students, and vaccinations are often mandated, with most complying. But overall, there are fewer daily COVID-19 restrictions — such as spot infection testing and social distancing — compared to past years.

But students on various southwest Ohio campuses say COVID-19 is still impacting parts of their lives. Some say the virus continues to force them to change how they undergo a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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“My four-year experience definitely turned into essentially a two-year experience,” Miami University senior Joe Kyner said while pausing in his walk across Miami’s campus recently.

ExploreVideo & story: Miami University welcomes more than 4,100 freshmen to Oxford campus

“I only had my first semester on campus as a freshman” before he and millions of college students were forced into remote learning and many other restrictions, he said.

Morgan White, a Wittenberg University senior, said that while the mood on campus has improved this fall, “I kind of feel like I got my college years stolen from me.”

Kyner and White are back to in-person classes.

“Last semester of my junior year (spring 2022) that was kind of when things were getting back into the swing of things,” said Kyner. “And now, my senior year, it’s a little bit different and it’s definitely not like (pre-COVID-19) freshmen year but it’s better, I’ll say that much.”

University of Dayton senior Sofia Garcia echoed that sentiment, saying that “it’s very different from fall 2020. In August of 2020, there was an excitement just to be back on campus, but it wasn’t the campus we hoped to be back on. It was very lonely. You didn’t really see a lot of people out on campus. I know, for me, I went home so much because there wasn’t really much for me to do.”

That’s now changed, said Garcia.

“Compared to this fall, it’s a completely different ambiance. Everyone is out, everyone is talking and your class is full of people. You really have that human connection that makes college what it is. Are there precautions? Yes. But there’s a happiness in the air that wasn’t there last year or the year before.”

Students’ mood at Central State University is also improved, said spokeswoman Debbie Alberico.

“Students are more comfortable knowing what life with the pandemic has in store for them,” said Alberico.

“There are still some unpleasant distractions with social distancing and wearing masks indoors, but CSU follows CDC guidelines, which students don’t really enjoy, but they do it because they don’t want to catch the virus.”

Focus on mental health

A national survey by the Inside Higher Ed organization found “mounting mental health issues for college students have piled up even more during the pandemic.”

In the latest survey of 2,000 undergraduates by the group, they were over twice as likely to rate their overall mental health as poor (22 percent) than excellent (9 percent), with 56 percent responding “fair” or “poor.”

The survey found that nearly one in five students had struggled with suicidal thoughts during college.

“Loneliness during the pandemic was at an all-time high,” Kevin Thomas, a licensed psychologist and associate director for student wellness and counseling and psychological services at California State University-Fullerton said of the survey results, according to officials at Inside Higher Ed.

And about three quarters of college students rated their mental health as “well” prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, but nearly half (48%) say their overall mental health worsened since the pandemic, according to a Fortune magazine survey of 1,000 college students conducted by The Harris Poll in June.

None of those findings surprise Bernadette Melnyk, who is Ohio State University’s dean of the College of Nursing and the university’s Chief Wellness Officer.

The mental health of college students nationally had been in decline, and the pandemic only hastened that downward trend, she said.

Student mood at Ohio State “is on a little bit of an upswing” compared to the last two years, said Melnyk, but “we can’t assume all is going to be great now because we are turning the corner on the pandemic.”

Student mental health “worsened tremendously during the pandemic,” she said.

Suicidal thoughts jumped since spring 2020, she said, and “now we are dealing with one of three (students) who have problems with depression or anxiety.”

Ohio State has mirrored other universities statewide and nationally in bolstering its numbers of mental health counselors while also expanding the pool of contracted, private therapists schools can offer to troubled students.

Jayne Brownell, vice president of student life at Miami, said that “students are much more aware of their own mental health and the emotional well-being of their peers than they were a few years ago.”

“Every student is different, but on the whole students know that their peers struggled the past few years and that their cohort missed out on some typical experiences of being teenagers that left them playing catch up with their entry into adulthood,” says Brownell.

There was a “cultural shift” and some of the reluctance among classmates remains, Kyner said, when it comes to taking part in traditional, large crowd school activities like attending Miami sports, on-campus concerts or large crowds in popular Oxford bars.

Pandemic tougher on upperclassmen

Kyner said the situation has been particularly tough for seniors like himself, who unlike his younger classmates have known nothing but college during COVID-19 restrictions with no experience of normal college life and its freedoms prior to virus’ onset in March 2020, says Kyner.

“My freshmen year, going out was way different from what going out is now,” he said.

Kyner graded his college life pre-COVID as a “solid A-minus.”

“Now I would give it a C-plus, B-minus,” he said. “It’s not where it was but it’s also hard my class knew what college was like prior to COVID but whereas now everyone a junior and below don’t know what college is without COVID being a factor.”

Miami senior Simone Mardell echoed her fellow upperclassmen in describing the mood on campus.

“I missed out on my entire sophomore year. I’ve never had a full year (on campus) until my senior year, which is crazy to think about,” said Mardell.

“But it could be a lot worse. It was really hard for freshmen who didn’t get to experience their first year or (past) seniors who didn’t get a proper send-off or graduation.”

University of Cincinnati junior Connor Utt is grateful college life is now closer to what he envisioned as a high school student.

“It’s much better now than it was my first two years,” said Utt as he took a break between classes by reading in the stands at UC’s Nippert Stadium.

“My first year everything was online so if I had to give it a grade it was solid D. Last year was much better but it was still cramped with (at times mandatory) masks and all the other rules we had to abide by, so I’d give it a B minus or C plus.

“This year it’s been what I expected and I’d give it probably an A.”

Life is now also better on UD’s campus, says Garcia.

“Everyone really loves being back on campus with all of their friends, because the last two years some of them chose to stay home,” she said.

“You’re just happier now you have more of a human connection than being stuck in your dorm room having your food delivered like in the fall of 2020. Now, we can eat with our friends, chat, do all the things college entails without having as much worry about COVID.”

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