Almost Derailed by the Pandemic

Losing my dorm room, taking asynchronous Zoom classes, and graduating into a changed world rattled me. But therapy, tutoring, and the vaccine helped me get back on track in time to graduate college.

by Vinay Hinduja

Redd, Unsplash

Last year I was in the spring semester of my junior year at Queens College when COVID-19 shut school down. At first, I was excited that I wouldn’t have to wake up early for class anymore. Then I found out I was getting kicked out of the dorm—which was my home.

For the past three years, I’d been part of the Dorm Project, a program that allows New York City foster youth in college to stay in dorms year-round. We also receive benefits such as free tutoring, guidance, and emotional support from a College Success Coach.

Because it was my third year in the Dorm Project, I had a single room. I shared two bathrooms, a kitchen, and living room with three roommates, who also had their own bedrooms. I’m introverted, so constantly being around people, even people close to me, can be exhausting. I felt blessed to have my own room and considerate roommates.

When I needed to focus on my homework I went into my bedroom. If my roommates were getting rowdy in the living room, I asked them politely to lower the volume, and they would say, “my fault” or “my bad, bro” and quiet down. We communicated well, so noise wasn’t an issue.

In late March, the Dorm Project abruptly told many of us to leave. Our dorm also housed students who weren’t in care, but most of them just went home to their families.

Many students in care panicked about becoming homeless just as a pandemic was hitting our city. I panicked too: After I moved to the dorms, my foster mom, Nadia, rented my bedroom out. I worried she wouldn’t have space for me. I called Nadia and told her we all had to leave.

She said immediately, “No problem; are you all packed? And when should we pick you up?” Relieved, I told her I’d be ready the next morning.

After I finished packing, my roommates, my fellow Dorm Project students, and I sat in our living room in silence. This would be the last night we’d hang out here. Unlike me, they didn’t have places to go yet. The next morning, sadness hit me hard. We were parting sooner than I expected, and I hoped they’d be OK.

Pushed Around by Sound

Moving into my foster parents’ house was different than when I’d first gone into care with them, three years earlier. An employee of a friend of Nadia’s is living in my old room, so I stay in the living room with my foster brother. We alternate nights sleeping on the couch and on the floor. (My friend Parm let me store my belongings in his garage.)

Staying in the living room didn’t seem too bad at first. Then I realized I need silence to really focus on my schoolwork. I get distracted easily; when there is a lot of noise it feels like my thoughts are being drowned out.

What really hurt me in the econ classes is that I had no idea how to correct the mistakes I made.

I’ll be sitting at the dining table on my laptop, while my foster brother screams at the Xbox because he lost a multiplayer video game. My foster mom is at work most days, but on her days off she’s often on the phone in the living room, talking and laughing loudly. My foster dad might be snoring loudly through a nap on the living room bed. The man who rents my old room usually just stays in there.

I’m pushed from room to room by the noise. I use headphones while doing my schoolwork, but sound leaks through. Plus, my foster parents and foster brother ignore the headphones and try to talk to me. They get mad when I don’t respond. I’ll work in the kitchen until somebody wants to use it, then I’ll sit on the floor by the stairs with my laptop on my lap.

Straight A’s at First

Besides the lack of privacy and quiet for concentration, my classes themselves are harder, especially the asynchronous ones. Last spring semester, I took only English classes; that’s my major and the subject comes easily to me. After we went remote in March, all my classes were synchronous, meaning we participated in Zooms with our professors at a set time.

Transitioning to remote learning was difficult, but my professors tried their best to make the concepts and topics as explicit as possible. We could ask our questions when we met on Zoom. In spite of the challenges at home, I ended up with straight A’s in the spring of 2020.

Because of that success, I felt confident going into the fall semester. But a few things threw me off track. Going into my senior year, I still needed 30 credits to graduate this spring. It’s important for me to graduate on time, because of my little sister. Before my family fell totally apart and I went into care, I managed to get my sister to our grandparents in India. I want to get a job as quickly as possible so I can bring her back to the United States in case she wants to pursue a college degree here.

Instead of taking random electives to get my credits, I decided to double major in economics. I’ve been worried since COVID started about getting a good job with my English degree. I thought that an economics degree could help me get a job in finance. I scheduled a meeting with an academic advisor and he told me to try out economics 101 (macroeconomics) and economics 102 (microeconomics) before declaring my double major.

I’d heard that economics is concept-based. Math is hard for me, but I’m good at understanding ideas and concepts. I signed up for the two econ classes, which were listed as synchronous.

But the college reduced the number of classes being taught because of the pandemic, and both my economics classes were canceled. So I had to take asynchronous versions of econ 101 and 102. This is where academia became difficult for the first time in my college career.

Asynchronous Classes Left Me Behind

In an asynchronous class, you pick up assignments from an app called Blackboard and are given a deadline to complete them. Neither econ professor assigned us a textbook, instead posting all materials on Blackboard. In both classes, this was mostly vague notes, practice problems, and slides of general explanations.

Marcio Binow Da Silva, Creative Commons

The practice problems were supposed to help us study for upcoming quizzes and tests, but I had no way of knowing if I got any of the questions right because there were no answer keys. I’m willing to read ahead in order to stay on top of my work, but without textbooks I didn’t know what to study.

And the information built up from a foundation I never learned in the classes. For example, a lot of the problems in macroeconomics depend on calculating GDP (gross domestic product). I searched online and found a GDP calculator, hoping that I’d be able to use it as a method to study. But I had to guess where to plug in certain values to the calculations.

After the first quiz, I knew I had guessed wrong: I studied hard, but got 0/10 because the test was only GDP problems, and I didn’t know how to solve for GDP (plus there are two different GDPs, nominal and real).

What really hurt me in the econ classes is that I had no idea how to correct the mistakes I made. When I had a question, I had to ask through email and Blackboard. This is an especially horrible way to communicate if your professor is slow to respond. I emailed my econ 101 professor a question about the topic, and it took her three days to get back to me. By then we had already moved onto the next topic. I felt and still feel like I’m constantly behind on work, which makes me anxious.

Anxiety Snowballs Into Depression

I haven’t taken a math course since freshman year (college algebra). Throughout college , I’ve maintained a 3.7 GPA. To fail a simple quiz was depressing. I had gone from a rough time in high school to finally feeling smart and successful in college, but my econ class made me feel like a failure.

Plus, the pandemic was killing my motivation. I graduate in a few months, which means I have to start job hunting soon. Being thrust into adulthood and independence in a time of economic instability caused by a worldwide pandemic is terrifying. I don’t know when I’ll get back to being in class, going to the movies with friends, and taking my girlfriend on dates in the city, much less get a job and start a career.

Fear and being stuck in the house most of the day also drained my motivation. In the beginning, I didn’t even notice the creeping anxiety and depression, but it became more and more evident—I often couldn’t concentrate on schoolwork, and I put off assignments till the last minute. I struggled to get up in the morning. All I wanted to do was stay hidden under my covers.

Helped by a Therapist, a Tutor, Direction, and Hope

I’ve always felt like I was strong enough to pull myself out of any hole; I supported my family when I was 14 years old. But I had to admit I needed help. In December, I began seeing a therapist, and I feel better. She recommended that I try to find hobbies to keep myself busy and ease my anxiety. So I’ve been writing a horror novel, reading for fun, working out, and I’ve taken up cooking. I learned healthy recipes to keep my mind and body healthy.

Before the pandemic, I never studied with my Dorm Project tutor. I just had her read the novel I’m writing. But after my struggles with econ, I began coming to her with my class assignments. My tutor has helped stay on top of my schoolwork and helped me regain my confidence.

I’ve even gotten somewhat used to my home being crowded and noisy. I’ve overcome so much, and I won’t let the failure in the econ classes set me back. Even though I dropped both econ classes, requiring me to take summer classes and graduate later, I’m still proud of myself for trying.

Since I’ll be graduating soon, I’ve been trying to figure out how to set myself up for success after school. I decided not to pursue the economics degree, so I’m taking only electives and creative classes that are more stimulating, such as playwriting and a fiction workshop. These classes are synchronous, so even though we don’t meet in person, the professors have set times to meet and help us.

An English professor encouraged me to pursue an MFA in creative writing, and I liked hearing that, as writing is my passion. My plan now is to save some money working at a T-Mobile store while I work on my writing. I’ll prepare my portfolio to apply in February 2022 to MFA programs, which I look forward to attending in person. I have a vaccine appointment for a few weeks from now, and I feel much more hopeful about everything.

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