The pandemic drastically changed the majority of our college experiences here in the WCU community. Adapting to this new lifestyle for an extended period of time definitely changed students’ lives, but have you ever considered what it was like for your professors? I recently interviewed English Professor Stacy Esch, who gave me some really amazing insight and life advice on what it was like being on the other end of the Zoom screen throughout the pandemic.
How has life been affected from the start of the pandemic?
It’s been affected so deeply. There’s kind of just a life before and life after in my mind. I think when everything shut down, we couldn’t imagine it would shut down for as long as it did. Even just the sense of school going virtual. That in itself is just so strange, because nothing like that had ever happened before. I just feel lucky that I could continue to work. The problem for me was that in March 2020, I got pretty severely ill. It wasn’t diagnosed [ COVID-19], but I just had all the symptoms of COVID. I ended up going to the hospital because I couldn’t breathe. I think it was just a combination of being sick. This endless cough, not being able to breathe, the anxiety. It was all just very, very scary. It took me a really long time to recover from that illness. So I worked that following semester completely asynchronously for my students and [I]. It was the only way I could handle it. My students were struggling every bit as much as I was.
Are you immunocompromised? Did that play into how you lived through this? (Disclaimer: I was aware of Professor Esch’s history due to previous conversations)
I had cancer treatments over a decade ago. I’m not having cancer treatments now, so I’m not as immunocompromised as someone who’s going through treatments now. My cancer treatments have left me with certain conditions that make my health not as strong as I’d like it. I would say I’m slightly immunocompromised, so it was a real fear. It was a fear of after having to go through all that treatment and coming out on the other side of that, that this thing like a cold could take you away. My anxiety flew off the charts those first couple months of the pandemic.
Of what the time of the pandemic was, what did you make of it?
I would say overall it was positive. I’ve always had a close relationship with my husband, but we got even closer, which I didn’t think was possible. We were always here for each other. We have plenty of space to work independently and do our own things. That immediate relationship and with my child too, even though we weren’t able to get together as much, there was still that closeness that we felt. My pets saved both of us. They loved having us around constantly, they’re so spoiled now, we’re so happy to have had them here. My husband is also an English teacher, but he took an interest in cooking and even more writing than he did before. After that initial problem with breathing, as we went into the 2021 academic year, it was more different than anything I’ve ever done. Teaching students from my kitchen. Starting class talking about the weather and the birds chirping. All of those things were really absorbent to me. A lot of people talk about how they developed hobbies throughout the pandemic. I’ve always had art as a hobby, but I got a new iPad and I do digital art everyday. Maybe it’s a kind of therapy, but I also couldn’t live without that.
How was virtual learning for you?
I honestly really liked it, but I know it’s horrible for my students. So I always kept that in the back of my mind. If online learning is something that you choose, it’s great. It opens doors that would’ve been closed. But if it’s something that you don’t choose, I really thought that was a hard go for students. Even now being back in person, I still see students struggling getting back to the classroom as the space it was before the pandemic. In the fall semester, I had classes where half the class would be present. It’s really discouraging for everybody. I just don’t know what the answer is when they aren’t sure how to get back in the classroom. Trying to meet students where they are and [learning] how to adapt. I got used to teaching in my home, too — that was comfortable for me. Being in masks in the fall semester, it really impacted my teaching. I think the pandemic has changed my attitude in more subtle behind-the-scenes ways. I try to see the classroom as a way to disengage from the turmoil for a while. People are pulled in so many different directions in life, [so] to just concentrate on one thing is kind of a relief.
Would you say anything you learned teaching virtually carried back into the classroom?
Well, in the fall, I opened up the opportunity [for students to attend] a Zoom room […] when they can’t make it in person. These issues with attendance aren’t going to go away. So opening these rooms allowed students to not worry so much about not being able to make it, whether they’re ill or mentally they just need a day. Something more concrete I’ve started is class polls. That allows students to be interactive and I think students have more confidence in expressing their opinion. That was something I started on Zoom that I see is working well being carried into the classroom.
How would you say your mental health has changed since the start of the pandemic?
I think anxiety is such a huge problem for a lot of people. My anxiety went off the charts in the beginning, which forced me to look the problem in the eye. Maybe it started off as background anxiety, but […] it became so bad that it just kind of took away your ability to function well. The crisis of that pandemic kind of forced me to acknowledge that anxiety and get help with it. I feel a lot better now than I ever have with that. I feel like the crisis of it left me with something really positive on the other side. That’s what I would hope people would understand with mental health problems, is that you’re not always going to feel your worst. Anxiety can catch up to you sometimes, but if you can face it and work with it, then you’ll come out a stronger person on the other side of it. I hate to find a positive in something so horrible for so many people, but anxiety can get better and it will get better.
How are you feeling about what seems like the pandemic may be coming to an end?
I’m looking for things to go back. COVID-19, or other strands of viruses, could enter our world and we just have to adapt to that. Maybe we’ll adapt to wearing masks only sometimes, when it’s deemed we need them. So hopefully we wouldn’t go back but we would just go forward with a better awareness of how to deal with it. Hopefully coming to the end of the crisis part of COVID-19 — yes, that feels good. But I don’t want us to feel so good about that that we forget we’re learning from it. When I think about my classes, I don’t know if I can expect students to go back to the way they were. The world isn’t the way it was before, we just have to find a way to move forward. Expectations, abilities and environments are different, so what can we do to make it work?
Yasmin Schepis is a fourth-year English B.A Major with minors in Journalism and Literature & Diverse Cultures.