“You keep depressed, or you face the reality”

University students and teachers work together to fight against the consequences of the lockdown in Spain

 

“University makes me be more anxious than the pandemic” the headline of the article published in the Spanish newspaper El País says. Indeed, university students in Spain have been struggling with the online learning and the psychological effects of being isolated since the closure of the universities due to the famous, fearsome lockdown.

Irati Elosegi (21), who suffers from a previous anxiety disorder, is a university student from the Basque Country, a region located in the north of Spain. Due to some family issues, she had to leave home and find another place to live. Unfortunately, she had to move twice for reasons she prefers not to tell. Since then she lives alone, far from her university, family and friends. She left her life behind, and studying at home makes her feel even further from her loved ones than she actually is.

Mental health and physical distancing

Irati’s one confession is that being with her college mates and friends is what she misses the most. Actually, she thinks it is really important to be in contact with people because, in her case, it is a way of keeping herself “distracted” from her problems.

“Spending time with my mother, my friends, and being in contact with many other people was a way of escaping my situation. I used to have the opportunity to forget about it for some seconds.” In that moment, the 21-year-old girl opened her heart. “It was taken away from me from one day to another. And to be honest, it was really difficult for me to deal with that.”

Apparently, she is not the only one who is affected by the isolation. The academic dean of the Basque Public University (UPV/EHU) Juan Esteban Arlucea affirms that many other students who are coping with anxiety have turned to him. He explains that it is probably connected to the change of the social learning system, in which students learn surrounded by classmates. But now, it is a lonely learning system. “Lonely because I am alone in my house. And also, I am in my house not being able to go out into the public space to be able to relax, to move,” he says.

University teacher and expert in language comprehension and emotionality processing, Isabel Fraga, is doing a research with her team on how the pandemic affected students. For now the team has only got preliminary results, but they are still working on it. A big “discovery” for her team is, indeed, how students miss the social contact. Fraga points out that the students do not get fed just by the contact through social media. In fact, they really need social contact and to share real things. “The social part is basic. With this, I am referring to the social support for the fundamental needs to be guaranteed for everyone,” she claims. “From then on, everything depends on the psychology of the person.”

Fraga also says that she would not call it ‘social distancing,’ but ‘physical distancing.’ “It has been possible to ‘cut’ the social distancing thanks to the social media, which has been an advantage. But what we have now is a physical distancing. And that’s what is difficult for the students.”

Jon Eskisabel (21) is another student from the Basque Country who feels that being isolated has affected his mental health.

“Sometimes when I was at home, I started thinking about my classmates and friends, and all the people I used tosee when I went out, and after that, I realized how much I missed that. And suddenly, I started crying for no reason,” he said.

"Stress is difficult to manage in these corona times" — Maider García, history student at UCM

“Stress is difficult to manage in these corona times” — Maider García, education student at UPNA

A study made by the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) claims that the mental health of young people between 18 and 39 years reflects a lower emotional self-care and have more anxiety, depression and feelings of being lonely. This research has been made during the second week of the lock down, between days 21 and 29 of march.

Managing mental and emotional issues at the same time has been the hardest part for Irati. For example, spending time with herself.

“When you are a very anxious person, it becomes quite hard to spend time with yourself for 24 hours. You have to learn new tools to do that; you are forced to do it.” There are two options, she says: “You keep depressed, laying on bed for the rest of the day, or you face the reality.”

Fraga declares that the student’s perception of their own anxiety level has changed from 5 to 8, in a scale from 0 to 10. This fact indicates that these students are already in a moderate or low-moderate level of stress. And it has increased due to this situation.

On the other hand, Fraga suspects that the anxiety is not only because of the lockdown. “I think that they have to deal with a lot of things: anxiety, uncertainty, the socio-economic situation, the pandemic… and it is also related to the academic activity, with the university work and the worry about the results of the evaluation.”

Excessive workload and technical issues

Elosegi says that she realized the workload from university was becoming almost bigger than ever. “In the end, it was the only way for them to evaluate us.” She explains that more things are being added to that way of evaluating students. “Some teachers do not take into account the assistance, but some others do, and they evaluate you lower because of that.”

According to the 21-year-old woman, some teachers are very strict, so students have to attend lectures, do all the assignments, and hand them in on time, despite having to deal with more mental hardships. “It was very tiresome, at least for me.”

Another higher education student, Lierni Larrañaga (19), confirms that the amount of work has been tiring for her. “The online classes last longer than the face-to-face ones, and we noticed that they are more exhausting for us. Apart from that, the workload is very heavy. Now we spend more hours and we do much more work.”

Actually, teachers and headmasters are aware about this problem in the UPV/EHU. Txelo Ruiz, the vice chancellor of students and employability, says that they received many complaints from students. “The responsibles for teaching have been informed about it and now we have taken the measures to make that workload lighter.”

Arlucea recognizes that there has been an hyperinflation of the work demand. He explains that the university had to readapt the system to a non-face-to-face one. They decided to apply the continuous evaluation system, so that the students could be evaluated by doing three or four assignments. “It’s four big assignments. But multiplied by five or six subjects,” the academic dean admits.

Some students’ studying set-ups

 

But after the storm, the calm didn’t come to Irati. She has been having technical issues too. She points out two types of problems: the slow internet connection and the computer. She had to buy more internet data for her phone. Also, her computer got broken after warming-up problems.

“When I realized my laptop wasn’t working, I wanted to die,” she said, being absolutely honest. “Lots of things came to my mind, but the one that scared me the most was to think of how I was going to finish all my assignments for college.”

Elosegi tried to contact her module teacher. As soon as she did, she told the teacher what had happened, hoping that the university could lend her a computer for a few weeks. But that computer never came. So she had to face the extra cost of buying a new computer when she lost her job due to the lockdown, lived alone and had no income. But still, she had to wait for two weeks to buy a new computer.

Another university student named Naia Vazquez (20) also had to cope with some difficulties with her computer while doing an exam. “I was exporting a video for an exam, and suddenly my computer got blocked for ten minutes more or less. I emailed the teacher, telling him what had happened to me.” Some weeks later, Naia was told that the teacher did not accept her work.

On the other hand, Arlucea defends that teachers must be sensitive and understand that the students may have problems out of their own control. As an example, not having an Internet connection.

“There’s a percentage of the student body who hasn’t had access to train themselves additionally to do assignments of good quality. It’s not fair that to be reflected in their mark.”

Students and teachers: one collective 

“The module teacher of my degree, Ana, was very understanding. The director of studies was aware of my situation and so did the other teachers. They let me know that they would be there to help me whenever I needed it. She gave me her personal number and sent me the assignments and notes for that via email,” Irati said with a calmed voice.

Both students and teachers seem to be very conscious about being in the same one fight against the consequences of the COVID-19 impact on higher education. But if there’s something to be really conscious about, it’s that you can always learn from every situation, no matter how awful it is.

“We are a collective of students and teachers” Arlucea said confidently. He also adds that they have to be conscious about the issues that might affect the academic situation of the students and know how to deal with it, with something that is usually forgotten: generosity and empathy. “We’ll try to ford this academic anomaly in the best way we can in order to involve the student body as little as possible. And we have to adapt for that.”

At the same time, UPV/EHU’s vice chancellor of students and employability highlights the ability of the university to adapt to new circumstances.

The psychologist Fraga supports the idea of walking with the students. Not to act like their parents, not to overprotect them, but walk along the path with them while they mature. She also talks about thinking of the common good. “It’s the group, as a whole, what really matters. So then, we’ll have to fight for kindness, for those who are coming behind.”

“I feel more powerful now than before the lockdown,” Irati said, nodding her head with a smile on her face. She has learnt to prioritize herself by taking care of it and also working on it. And she learnt to work on uncertainty in a healthy way, to deal with that fear. But mostly, she made a valuable reflection:

“The education system doesn’t take into account all the realities. Nobody has 10 computers at home, and not everyone can pay for an internet connection. The reality is that the working class has the income it has, and we’re unemployed, without having been paid yet. We have to help each other, as a non-individualist-community, not to let pay the ones who always do.”