By Jennifer Bell
May 11, 2021
Students at Michigan State University, like the rest of the world, have been living through the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year now. Students have been taking classes online since March 2020, are living in various states of isolation and are navigating job losses and financial strains. Many students have lost family members to COVID or have contracted COVID themselves, adding an additional layer of grief and stress to their college experiences.
On top of all this pain and trauma, students have been taking the same course loads and paying the same high pre-pandemic tuition rates despite being completely online. The compounded trauma of the last year, combined with the lack of financial or community support from MSU, has led to staggering levels of stress, burnout and exhaustion in the student body. MSU cannot put the same level of academic and financial stress on students during this time and expect them to be okay at the end of their education.
Dr. Casey Miles is a professor and academic advisor for the professional and public writing program at MSU. She says the majority of students she works with feel overwhelmed and burdened by the workload of their classes, jobs, internships and family responsibilities. Faculty members like Miles are also experiencing intense pressure from the university to perform at pre-pandemic levels of productivity.
Reflecting on these unrealistic pressures, Miles said, “We just can’t. We are afraid beyond being afraid. Early, early in the semester we were at burnout burnout. So we were burnt out from the first burnout. And we are now at another, we’re at burnout burnout burnout.” The fear and burnout have decreased productivity in everyone, and Miles believes that this lower productivity is not only expected but an appropriate response to the stresses of the last year.
Jenna Merony is a senior at MSU who has struggled to balance her energy and motivation in the all-online environment. She would have weeks of high motivation when she woke up around six or seven in the morning and would spend most of her day in classes and working on her laptop. After those weeks of meeting the demands of her schedule, she would feel exhausted and spend the next week struggling to work at all. Merony is a high-achieving and engaged student, but given the circumstances, she has found it hard to perform at the level she would like.
She reflected on some of her experiences, saying, “My brain is not functioning, and then I’m not really taking in anything. And then the projects on top of that stress me out, and I feel like I’m doing everything wrong.” All this pressure has put Merony in a position where writing in her classes feels like a chore when prior to this year, it was her passion. She feels frustrated at her exhaustion, lack of creative energy and the pressure from her classes.
Miles and Merony’s experiences are reflective of the collective burnout experienced by MSU students and faculty. The last year of the pandemic has been marked by extreme fear, stress and grief––all of which are being largely ignored by MSU, who is carrying on as though everyone is still okay.
Academia is already a demanding and unforgiving environment, but the last year has pushed many to be burned out, apathetic and overwhelmed. Now is a time for empathy, financial lenience and lower demands–––not rigorous academic pressure and high tuition rates. MSU needs to acknowledge the student and faculty experience and change their practices to support the community, not their funding.
If you have been feeling overwhelmed or disappointed in yourself and your inability to work at a level you once could, please know you are not alone. This year has been incredibly hard in so many ways, and we are all doing the best we can with what we have.
Jennifer Bell is a third year undergraduate studying professional and public writing. She works as the undergraduate media coordinator and a writing consultant at the Writing Center at MSU. When she’s not working, Jennifer can be found listening to podcasts, wandering the outdoors or escaping into a book.