By the second week of the semester, the migraines had become unbearable. I had experienced the occasional tension headache before. But these migraines were daily and unrelenting—it felt like my heart was beating inside of my head.
I had been working on my PhD research remotely since March, and in September I began my first remote semester of law school, which meant I was on Zoom for most of the day. I noticed the migraines worsen over the course of the week, exploding by Saturday morning and fading on Sundays.
My professors encouraged us to keep our videos on—seeing our expressions and body languages helped them see how students were receiving the material. Smiling, I realized my teeth were clenched the entire time I was in class, sending shooting pain through my head.
But the physical challenges of school during a pandemic are eclipsed by the mental ones: While I studied, California’s wildfire season, the worst on record, never really stopped. People kept losing their jobs in a global recession. Images of freezer trucks being used as makeshift morgues for hundreds of Covid-19 victims flashed across my screen.
My own experiences were only affirmed by my on-campus job. As a learning consultant at Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning, I work with a team of student employees to help undergraduate and graduate students develop growth mindsets, reading strategies, and skills like time management, resilience, note-taking, and dealing with procrastination and test anxiety. I’m also a peer academic coach, so I meet one-on-one with students to tackle challenges related to their academic growth.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve met with over a hundred students. Many are first-generation or low-income, like myself, and many do not have a space at home conducive to studying. Some need to take care of their siblings. Some are experiencing increased mental and physical illnesses. Many feel helpless, disconnected from their friends, and frustrated as they try to keep up with computer assignments that frequently glitch on them.
Their TAs are just as overwhelmed, and can’t do much to help. Some of my students have been too distracted and anxious to focus on their seminar papers. Others are living in time zones that have them in class at four in the morning. Many Black students feel the emotional weight of racial injustice. Young queer students living at home with families they haven’t come out to yet are just trying to get by, day by day.
In Stanford’s case, undergraduates are generally not permitted on campus, but graduate students have been expected to be. For grad students with disabilities or preexisting conditions, being on campus has been a nerve-wracking game of Covid-19 roulette. To make matters worse, students are unable to access mental health services, which were already burdened and inadequate before the pandemic began.
I try to help where I can, but there’s not much I can do to alleviate my students’ pain.
In the last few weeks, though, these inequities have only accelerated. I am struggling to keep up with how many of my students have relatives who have contracted Covid-19. Several have relatives still in the ICU. Some of them have had to quarantine themselves because of this and await their own test results.
This was probably to be expected, as at least one in every 15 Americans has now tested positive. I can only tell my students that I am here for them, and that they should prioritize their health and well-being—we’ll take care of the academic stuff later.
But I wish faculty and university administrators understood these challenges, or at least listened to these stories. Final exams tend to lose their significance during global chaos. As a student myself, I’m not exactly sure how much legal doctrine I can retain when it seems like the world is falling apart.
Once, when I shared this fear with a third-year law student, he stopped me from continuing. “No one is doing their best work right now,” he said. He’s right. If there is one thing I have become sure of, listening to my students and being a student myself through a pandemic, it’s this: Our academic performance is not a reflection of effort but of the world we live in right now.
Schools do not make it easier on us when they insist on a traditional grading system, or when—as in Stanford’s case, just this month—they encourage undergraduate students to move back to campus, only to cancel plans two days before the semester starts.
There are many ways professors and administrators can support their students. They can make the effort to get to know them personally, to better understand their physical and emotional struggles.
They can assume that every student is taking on some additional burden this year, whether that’s helping watch younger siblings at home, taking on extra work to support their now-unemployed family members, bearing the constant worry for their at-risk parents who are essential workers, mourning their grandparents, or simply dealing with isolation and mental illness. The realities facing students are hard and exhausting.
Professors and administrators should be aware of these realities; they have the power to adjust coursework and class expectations accordingly. They can offer themselves as resources for their students. They can share some of their own strategies for resilience. They can reassure their students that they will help them pass their classes, and that they can feel safe talking about the challenges without judgment.
I wish that Stanford had changed its exam policies leading into the last month. Even more, I wish universities everywhere treated their students with compassion and kindness and acknowledged the incredible grief that everyone is experiencing. I wish grades were continuously kept at a credit/no-credit standard until the pandemic is brought to heel. In an ordinary year, grades might be an indicator of effort, though even this isn’t always the case. But this year, there’s no question that they are not.
At the end of one of my last classes this quarter, my professor did something few others did, and more should follow her lead. She took a moment at the end of class to thank us for our engagement. She emphasized that the first quarter of law school is a trying time in ordinary circumstances, let alone under the amber and smoky skies of California’s devastating wildfire season, with a raging pandemic, the ongoing struggles for racial justice and against police brutality, the contested presidential campaign and drawn-out election results, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing… her voice trailed off, and as she did, I realized indeed just how much had taken place this fall.
She was also the only professor who acknowledged these events throughout the quarter, sharing suggestions for building resilience, such as connecting with our communities, taking time to find meaning in our daily activities, and trying to rest.
As she spoke, I felt my shoulders collapsing. My video was on, but I wasn’t smiling this time—my clenched jaw could relax for a moment. I was relieved that someone else had voiced what I’d been feeling personally and seeing in so many of my students: that these are awful times for everyone. We shouldn’t be expected to excel academically. Surviving is, in fact, a good goal right now; that it alone is enough.
No one is doing their best right now. And that’s OK. Universities can support their students—and that begins with recognizing that we aren’t living business-as-usual. At the very least, they could treat us with the compassion, and humanity, that a global pandemic requires.