Reaching out and coping during the pandemic

Seven months into this pandemic, there is no clear end in sight. Everybody is feeling stressed well beyond what we see during a normal October. This week saw the publication of several articles about students and stress related to the pandemic, and the results are alarming:

  • With more data now available, the National Student Clearinghouse announced that nationwide undergraduate enrollment has dropped by 4% compared to last year; freshmen had the biggest decline at 16%.
  • In another study, 44% of students reported stress, anxiety and loneliness as their biggest challenge this fall, while 71% said online instruction negatively affected their ability to learn and 40% expect COVID-19 to have a negative effect on their mental health, according to the Strada Center for Consumer Insights. In the same survey, only 38% of students from households with income below $50,000 a year agreed with the statement that “Getting more education or training would be worth the cost.”
  • In a smaller survey with open-ended questions, students reported struggles with online learning and worry over internships and jobs. They expressed strong emotions that included anxiety, fear, anger, dread, confusion, apathy and hopelessness.

These challenges are not unique to students, but as an institution of higher education, we are in a unique position to help them. Additional articles provide insight into how we can do that, and social interaction is a common thread. In an open letter to university leadership, more than 100 experts in public health, social sciences and mental health remind us that students are “human beings who are still maturing and need social and physical contact to remain healthy.” We all need contact, but because of COVID-19, that contact needs to be intentional and careful.

One NMSU senior recently wrote: “Faculty don’t know how much it means to students when they reach out. Even the simple act of sending us an email to see how we are doing or to see if we need an extension on an assignment shows that our professors care about us and our success.” This student has found that his concentration, and his adherence to deadlines, have suffered. He recommended that faculty begin a compassionate conversation with their classes about how to cope – and communicate – when students get overwhelmed.

The simple and humane act of reaching out to students and colleagues helps all of us cope and keeps us connected. For example, one department on campus has begun calling staff regularly just to check in on them and their families. Over the past week, I’ve reached out to speak with several students. It was evident from these conversations that our students are struggling to cope, and they want someone to hear them, someone to care for them, and someone to help them. During this difficult period, it is not easy to find the time, energy and will to lend a helping hand to students and colleagues, but it is the right thing to do. It is more than worth the effort, and it is always hugely rewarding.

On a larger scale, it is possible to plan events with a lower risk of COVID transmission. Notably, ASNMSU and the Alumni Association both have COVID-safe activities planned for Homecoming for next week. Just because we aren’t having a parade does not mean we cannot celebrate Aggie traditions.

And while we are in caretaking mode: I encourage you to thank the people who are on campus every day keeping our services open, our campus clean and beautiful, and our community safe and healthy. We owe them all gratitude for their service, and I sincerely thank all Aggies for the role you play at NMSU.

A reminder: On Monday, Oct. 19, please tune in to the State of the University Address at 3 p.m. via Zoom or Panopto for an update on this year’s progress on NMSU LEADS 2025. Chancellor Dan Arvizu will join us with additional comments. The Tuesday town hall will start with general questions and comments before a discussion about institutional research strengths and emerging areas of research at NMSU. Join University Research Council Chair Tanner Schaub, Associate Vice President for Research Phillip De Leon and faculty panelists for this critical discussion via Zoom or Panopto. Submit questions for the panelists here in advance.

Be Bold, Be Kind, Be Safe.

Go Aggies!

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