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CAMPUS CULTURE

Returning to Campus After COVID-19: Trauma Isn’t as Easy as CSUF Thinks

By Stepheny Gehrig

Although we all have had a difficult time adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic, returning to normalcy might be even harder for some. Despite the severity, being touched by COVID-19 can leave lingering doubts in some.

Personal Losses

Jessica Bennett, a fourth-year liberal studies major with an emphasis in elementary education; Paola Saldana, a fourth-year English major; and Jennifer Aguilar, a fourth-year psychology major and human services minor, have had seemingly different experiences with the coronavirus, yet they walk away with the same concerns with the returning to campus.

“Now, as we’re kind of transitioning back to normal — but what even is normal — I just feel it’s like ‘OK, everything’s fine now.’ It’s really not.” Bennett said.

In March 2020, Saldana and her family fell sick with the coronavirus and her mom was in the intensive care unit for about a month.

January 2021, Bennett’s grandfather passed due to COVID-19 pneumonia, and her father was admitted to the hospital due to COVID-19 that same day.

In January 2021, Aguilar lost her father to COVID-19.

From sending messages to their parents’ work to taking on household duties, Saldana, Bennett and Aguilar took on more responsibility while maintaining their own mental and physical health. For each, the effects of COVID-19 were detrimental.

Paola Saldana

Saldana said that she felt so overwhelmed that she decided to drop the spring semester classes that she was taking at Fullerton College to help her sister transition to Zoom and help her parents with paperwork.

“I had my mom in the hospital, I had Zoom, I had to handle all this paperwork for my parents and then I got sick,” Saldana said. “I ended up just dropping my classes that semester because I fell behind and I did not have the energy when I was sick.”

Returning to in-person instruction was a major stressor, especially since mask requirements were not official until a few weeks before the 2021 fall semester, Saldana said.

 “I’m going to be taking all these classes with all these people, obviously the classrooms aren’t really big for us to be social distancing,” she said. “I felt a sense of relief, just because I knew whether the person is vaccinated or not, they’re going to have to wear masks.”

Jessica Bennett

The emotional toll that Bennett experienced was strikingly similar to Saldana’s. In a heart-shattering interview with Bennett, she explained that losing her grandfather and seeing her father in the hospital was a traumatic and challenging experience.

“It was very scary because it’s my dad. He’s this strong guy, he runs marathons, he does triathlons,” Bennett said.

As everyone is attempting to transition into a pandemic-free world, Bennett said she feels as if she has not had any time to process what she experienced, which has affected her academic life.

“Everything has been carrying on and I’m watching everything happen,” Bennett said. “I feel like there’s a pressure to stay on track, but I can’t. I am struggling.”

Jennifer Aguilar

Aguilar mirrored the same sentiments. After losing her father, she said that communicating with her family and friends and knowing she has people who support her creates a sense of comfort, but there are still days when it’s hard to stay focused.

“I went through something that I never thought I’d end up going through at this age,” Aguilar said. “The situation just makes it worse if you bottle it all in and don’t let your emotions out.

The grieving process, especially when dealing with college work, can be one of the most challenging things to experience. To go through her grief healthily, Aguilar said she began to write about her memories in a journal.

“Even when I just felt like crying or was just angry at the world that I no longer have my dad physically here with me, I would write a lot of the memories that I could recall,” Aguilar said.

CSUF Policies

Bennett, Saldana and Aguilar shared the same attitudes regarding dealing with grief and fear while on campus. They emphasized their own needs to keep a positive attitude but addressed that some days can just be hard days to go through.

“It’s definitely difficult because there are some days where I just want to cry all day, I don’t want to do anything,” Bennett said. “It’s hard to get things done without thinking of 20 other things that I have to do or me being sad about my grandpa or things that could have happened with my dad.”

While Bennett stated that she would like to see more outreach from faculty and staff at CSUF, Saldana said she would like to see more understanding from professors.

“It’s a campus-wide effort from admin,” Bennett said. “I feel like we just get an email that’s like ‘Hope you’re doing well, Titans. Here’s some resources.’ Why don’t we see the president checking in?”

Saldana not only highlighted the importance of mandating masks on campus to keep others safe but brought up that having the option for online instruction can lessen students’ anxieties regarding COVID-19.

“I would appreciate it if the mask mandate lasted not only this semester but until we pretty much eradicated COVID,” she said. “(Online instruction) would be better for students who are more cautious or want to be safer instead of wanting to be in person.”

Grief, fear and anxiety are abundant in the 2021 fall semester — the first in-person semester since spring 2020 — and returning to campus has been difficult for everyone who has been affected by COVID-19.

School is not the only stressor that we have, and returning to in-person instruction can worsen our mental health. Even with Counseling and Psychological Services on campus, the rush to in-person courses shows Cal State Fullerton’s disregard for our health and their experiences.

Returning back to campus is not as seamless as the university makes it out to be.

“We’re all just surviving,” Bennett said.

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