The sun is beginning to set over the academic quad, turning the sky a mix of blue and orange. Lauren Casagrand, my roommate and best friend of 12 years, is sitting in an adirondack chair, looking out at the trees that line the pathways in front of Recitation Hall. As a fourth-year Early Elementary Education major, this is the building where she spends most of her time, and seeing it in the fading light on a Saturday afternoon puts it into a new perspective.
“I remember, actually, the first night I got to [West Chester], I was too scared to actually go out to eat, so I ended up not eating that night. It was very terrifying.” She laughs, but I can tell that the subject is a hard one. Lauren started her college career in the spring of 2019 — halfway through the academic year — an experience that left her feeling isolated from her peers. “I didn’t know where Lawrence [Dining Hall] was, [and] no one was there to help me.”
In March of 2020, just over a year after Lauren entered her college career, the COVID-19 pandemic became a widespread public health concern, leading to devastating effects for people all over the world.
The pandemic was catastrophic all over the world, which can make it easy to overlook the more personal struggles that came along with it. This is especially true when it comes to the mental health and livelihood of students, who were struggling to continue their education in the midst of a deadly disease that was spreading rapidly. Lauren is no different. A combination of prior life events, mental health struggles and the isolation of the pandemic came together to create a whirlwind of a year that left her defenseless and unprepared.
In December of 2019, Lauren joined the Promise Program here at West Chester University. The Promise Program “is a campus support program serving unaccompanied homeless and foster youth” who provide necessities such as “year-round housing on campus,” access to food, scholarship opportunities and more.
The pandemic was a horrible experience for all of us, but it especially affected students like Lauren, who have nowhere off-campus to live if the premises are closed, such as they were during the quarantine.
Upon hearing the news that West Chester University would extend spring break by two weeks due to the COVID-19, Lauren was originally excited like many of us were. She tells me, “We were on spring break, I was having a good time, I didn’t want to go back to school.” Then, reality set in. She continues, “[I thought] ‘oh my God…like, oh my God, what am I going to do? Where am I going to go? Who am I going to live with?’”
Luckily, Lauren was able to attain housing through the Promise Program, who provided her with on-campus housing in various locations over the duration of the pandemic. However, her living space ended up being only the first of many struggles throughout the course of quarantine. Her immediate concern, after finding a place to live, was finding a way to live on her own. Lauren tells me, “My immediate thought was, ‘I do not want to be alone’, because I felt so alone, I think, [during my] first year of college. It was very rough.”
Living on campus while most students and faculty were not there was incredibly taxing for Lauren. It was a completely isolating experience, making her feel cut off from the resources and people who could have served as a support system to her.
“It made me feel like I wasn’t even a part of the resources that I had. It made me feel…separate,” she says, matter-of-factly.
These feelings took root and only began to grow as the virtual year went on. When I ask her about her mental health, Lauren tells me, “It was a very steady decline.” The impact of the pandemic resulted in her academic performance declining as well.
“I was losing money at the time, failing my classes, ruining my GPA […] I was on a lot of academic probation for a while.” Lauren continues, “I remember I broke up with my significant other at the time, I felt like I was literally going insane. I stopped taking all my medications and stuff like that for my mental health. I stopped going to therapy. I remember moving to South Campus during that time and it was completely horrendous living there, [because] I just felt…alone.”
Lauren is cool and collected as she describes even the darkest moments of the quarantine, when the loneliness and lack of motivation left her so dejected that she considered officially dropping out altogether. “I didn’t want to be at college anymore, for real. [It] really made me think, like, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher. I do not want to be at college. I would rather drop out right now.’ And my options were not to drop out, because I didn’t have anywhere to live.”
Now, just four weeks into the first ‘regular’ semester she’s seen in years, Lauren is prepared for a fresh start. There will be no online learning for her, and she is dedicating her time to making the most of it. She is making it a priority to care for her academic success, but also for her mental health. She is attending therapy, keeping up with classwork and holding herself to a standard she knows she can meet.
“It took me a while,” she says to me. “It’s definitely been a very long process of getting myself not only in good academic standing, but also good mental standing as well. I have to force myself [to say] ‘you cannot fail’.”
Lauren looks out on the academic quad as the sun finally sets. Despite the heavy subject matter, she seems at peace in this familiar place where she is so used to spending her time. She seems ready to face the new semester with a confidence that I am glad to see. Lauren says she cannot fail, and I believe she’s right.
If you are struggling with your mental health, resources are available from WCU Counseling services. Find more information here: https://www.wcupa.edu/_services/counselingCenter/.
For more information on the WCU Promise Program, visit https://www.wcupa.edu/financialAid/promiseprogram.aspx.
RJ Jacobson is a fourth-year political science major with minors in journalism and English. RJ923931@wcupa.edu.