By: Emily Gursky

The fall semester for Mount Saint Mary College students was anything but ordinary this year. Flip-flopping schedules, unforgiving professors and time management wake-up calls have all added to the stress of being a college student this fall.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a daunting threat for Americans since the beginning of this year. Many did not know what to expect week to week. As it turns out, the fall semester would be no different. Robbie Stratakos, 21, is an MSMC senior who’s had a mix of fully online and hybrid classes this year. He described the past few months in one word: unique.

“I’ve gotten a mix of different types of learning this semester, and I often don’t know what to expect a lot of the time,” said Stratakos.

Although he didn’t have much difficulty transitioning to this new normal, Stratakos did state that he’s had a heavier course load the past few months than in previous semesters. He suspects this is just another part of the online learning experience, but it is still straining, nonetheless.

What’s also impacted students has been the cancellation of extracurricular activities, including sports. After the Skyline Conference announced colleges would not have competitions during the fall, student athletes anxiously awaited news with hopes of having at least a practicing season.

Daley O’Keefe, 21, another senior, has been a member of the MSMC Women’s Swimming Team since her freshman year. The team’s rigorous schedule of one-to-two practices each day along with weekend meets has always been an outlet for stress and a source of time management for her. Having essentially no season this fall has now become a source of additional stress.

“It’s definitely impacted my mental health a lot,” she said. “I don’t have a way to de-stress like I usually do.”

Without traditional sports seasons and other extracurriculars, students are missing out on many opportunities for social interaction as a result. Dr. Strauchler, Assistant Dean of Student Support Services and Director of Counseling, argues that these opportunities are a very important part of the college experience, and the lack of social interaction is the biggest source of stress for many.

“For a lot of students, that’s a bigger loss for them than any change to their academic environment,” he stated.

Although they may be physically isolated now more than ever, students are not alone in this. Counseling Services at the Mount has adapted their accessibility to comply with COVID-19 protocols by providing telecounseling over Zoom, an interactive online screener and private office rooms for students who need a quiet space for sessions.

However, even with the added stress of the pandemic this semester, the number of students reaching out has not necessarily increased, says Dr. Strauchler.

“There’s definitely been a steady flow and as the semester’s gone on it’s increased, but it still doesn’t match the numbers we would have in a normal semester,” which he attributed to lower enrollment and less students on campus.

This has been the case for many college counseling centers, according to the Penn State Student Affairs Center for Collegiate Mental Health. New findings published on Sept. 8 showed that student outreach spiked in March of this year immediately following many schools’ transition to at-home learning; two specific complaints were, “it’s hard to stay motivated for my classes,” and “my family gets on my nerves.”

However, it was also reported that student distress soon leveled out, and generally matched the data from 2018-2019. In other words, college students were not necessarily reaching out to their counseling centers more than they would during a normal year, contrary to popular belief.

With this in mind, Dr. Strauchler still stresses the importance of kindness and taking advantage of resources if students are in need. As he looks ahead to the spring semester, Dr. Strauchler hopes “that people will be kinder to themselves and look after each other.”

Going forward, MSMC students and faculty will aim to continue making the best of their situation, with hopes of a continuing emphasis on both mental and physical health.

“Try to make yourself happy,” says Stratakos. “If we work hard and do whatever we can, something interesting will come out of this for every single one of us.”