How to Survive College – and Thrive – in Quarantine

Two weeks ago (as I write this), my university closed its doors and moved classes online. It’s taken me all of that time to feel like I have a handle on how the rest of my semester will go, in quarantine. Students across the country are also reeling from the sudden shift. Students choose face-to-face classes over online classes for a reason. How do you succeed when everything you counted on – from a set schedule, a network of friends, and a degree of independence, to graduation – has been ripped away?

Take time to feel what you feel

Maybe you’re angry. Shocked. Sad. A lot of students are grieving – especially those whose graduations have been canceled. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s valid. Take some time to feel it. Write about it, go outside and throw a ball against the wall, go for a run (if you can do so safely), cry, binge watch your go-to show . . . let it out. If you don’t, whatever you’re feeling is just going to get in your way.

These times are anxiety-provoking, even for people that have never had to deal with anxiety before. Did you know that mindful meditation can actually calm your central nervous system and fight anxiety?

Some students are dealing with chronic mental health issues. Suddenly being confined to your home, alone, is NOT a good situation for someone dealing with depression. If your illness is preventing you from getting anything done, first: be kind to yourself (I speak from personal experience, here). You can’t help what’s happening inside your body any more than someone with the flu. Now, more than ever, you need to do the things that help keep mental illness under control: a good schedule, plenty of sleep, regular, healthy meals, exercise, and meds if you take them. Set up a time to talk to someone on the phone or via an online video service. Seek online therapy if you can. Contact your professor if you feel comfortable doing so.

Set up a schedule

I stink at schedules. Really. Today I dug out the personal planner I bought in January and have barely used. But now we’re all stuck at home, and the temptation to sleep until noon and stay up until 4 am is strong (I’m pointing at myself, here). But it becomes far too easy to let things slide when you don’t have a schedule, and that leads to feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

With face-to-face classes, you have a set time to attend class. Perhaps your professor takes attendance or notices if you are missing. Perhaps you have a roommate or friend that you go to class with, or your time on campus involves socializing with people you don’t see otherwise. Maybe you have a charismatic teacher that you really like interacting with. These are all powerful motivators to go to class.

I can’t help with missing out on the socializing. But if you create a schedule for yourself – a time when you check your email and check in on your course – then you’re far less likely to let your coursework slip and get out of control.

If you can, set aside the time you would normally have spent in class to deal with course material and do the homework. If your coursework exceeds that time, set aside specific times of day to deal with it. Or create an entirely new schedule, but make the time explicit. Don’t just wait for it to happen. It’s too likely that it won’t.

Right now, get out some paper and access your syllabi. Write down all the due dates for each class. Look at how your professor is structuring the new version of the course and schedule times to watch lectures, read files, find readings – whatever you need to do. Write down specific days and times of the day you will check your email and your learning management system. Lay it all out for the next few weeks. I’ll wait.

What to do if you don’t have access to the internet or technology

Not all students have equal access to reliable technology or internet service. Fortunately, internet service providers have stepped up to provide free internet to students who need it: check out this article for more information and a list of participating providers.

If you don’t have a reliable home computer, try your public library (if it is safe to do so and it is open). Let your teacher know, and if you don’t get a helpful response from your teacher, contact student services. Your college needs to know if it has students who cannot complete the coursework. It isn’t your fault campus has closed. They need to address equity among their students. Make your voice heard.

If your internet is slower or doesn’t have much bandwidth, check out the link above and see if you can improve your internet capability.  If you’re sharing a computer, everyone needs to write out a schedule so that each person can get their work done on time.

What to do if you are a caregiver

If you are the parent of children who are suddenly at home 24/7, I feel for you. The internet is awash with photos of parents playing games with or homeschooling their children. It’s OK if you don’t have time to do that. It’s OK if you have to turn on cartoons or allow way too much time playing video games. It’s only for a few weeks, and they will survive unscathed. They really will. If you have a child that’s too young for distraction, then you may need to let your professors know if you can’t get the work done and seek alternate ways of completing the course.

If you are caring for someone who is ill, let your teacher know. We are in uncharted territory, and if students can’t complete coursework because they are dealing with this crisis, we need them to speak up to their professors and to the administration. Make yourself heard.

What to do if you are quarantined with people that don’t understand college

This one is tough. Your family or significant other may mean very well, but they don’t understand how much work it takes to pass a college course, how traumatic this shift has been, and how much more work taking an online course may be. There will be those out there that think that being told to stay at home without a job is living the dream. But it isn’t, and you have work to do.

Start with that schedule. Block out more time than you think you will need, and if possible, schedule that time when you will have fewer interruptions. Make sure that schedule is visible and explicitly conveyed to those around you. College is your job. For some, it may be a second job, but it’s still a job. It’s also a job that you paid for the privilege of having, and that money is already spent. The only way to get your money’s worth is to finish the semester. The more you have that firmly set in your mind, the easier it will be to be firm with others. “This is my job. Please allow me to do my job.” Practice saying this.

Create a space for yourself. That might be on the couch with headphones. If you’re lucky and you have a space you can close off for yourself, even better! Put a sign on the door that indicates when you shouldn’t be bothered. I can’t guarantee that they will respect it – my family has a habit of walking in even with the sign – but perhaps it will help.

What to do if you become ill (or homeless, lack food, etc)

This crisis is hitting a lot of people hard, particularly those working hourly wages at businesses that have closed. And statistically, we know college students will become ill and some will die. (That may be the hardest sentence I have ever typed in my professional career.)

I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay in touch with your professor and with your university. As I’ve said, above – make yourself heard. Colleges and Universities need to know the extent of the problem so that they can make decisions about how to handle them. If you become ill, are caring for someone who is ill, or have some other type of negative major life change, your priority should be yourself and your health. Let your professor and your college know, and then focus on yourself. We all want to keep you around.

What’s going on behind the scenes?

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that this is an unprecedented situation. It really is. I’ve been around for a long time and if you’d told me at the beginning of the semester that the entire higher education system was going to close its doors and go online, I’d have told you that was a very unrealistic movie plot. And yet, here we are.

Although we talk about higher ed as a “system,” in reality it’s made up of a lot of individual units and systems, each with its own governance and subject to the governance of the states in which they reside. University administrators have been calling the shots on how campuses respond, and those decisions have varied widely.

Here are some of the differences between colleges and universities:

  • The time faculty was given to transition from face-to-face to online or “remote” instruction. Some faculty spent their spring break transitioning their classes, other schools shut down for a few extra days, and other faculty had days or hours to respond.
  • The type of instruction expected by the university. Some places are asking instructors to use their best judgement for content delivery, some are insisting on “live,” synchronous instruction to preserve a sense of schedule, and anywhere in between. Some of these expectations are straining faculty skills, student access, and technology to the breaking point.
  • Grades. Some universities have transitioned to pass/fail and others retain their normal grade structure. Some professors are altering their personal grade structure to favor students. This is being done to promote equity – to create an equitable environment for students who have different access to technology, time, and the internet.
  • Residency. Some places have closed their doors entirely; others aren’t closed yet at all (as I write this), and still others have allowed students to stay if they are international students or have no place to go (some students don’t have homes to return to).

Finally, you’re no doubt aware that your professors are not all equal in their grasp of modern technology. Some (like me) took to online learning early and feel quite comfortable there. Others don’t use learning management systems at all. Some of your professors will transition to online instruction gracefully and others will not. I’ve heard horror stories – professors that are insisting on academic “rigor” and putting even more stress on their students than they did before, professors so concerned about cheating that they don’t know how to write exams, etc. Even with my experience, it took me a lot of thought and some experimentation before I arrived at workable online courses. And they may yet change as the semester progresses.

Your teachers are human. Every last one of them. That means we are fallible. We will make mistakes. Hang in there with us, and we will get through this, together.

A note to my students

I am profoundly grateful that we had made it to a point in the semester where the class had gelled and I’d gotten a chance to know you as individuals. I’ve heard some teachers reporting that their students feel like they don’t matter. For myself, and the people I am proud to call colleagues, that could not be further from the truth. I feel as though I have been torn away from my students, cheated out of time with you, and it is traumatic. I’m adjusting as I put my effort into getting material to you in different ways, but now instead of scanning your faces for hints of understanding or confusion, I’m obsessively re-loading pages and watching counts as students access files and videos.

I could not be more proud of my students. I want to leave you with this one last thought:

This is your world. Fight for the life that you want to live.

– Dr. Smith


2 thoughts on “How to Survive College – and Thrive – in Quarantine”

  1. Getting sleep is an understatement. I’m not the kind of student to leave everything for last, but all-nighters still became quite prevalent during finals – in a normal quarter. I have had my hand in a brace for overuse and have fainted from sleep depravation and low blood sugar. The all-nighters began right from the start as three weeks were compressed into two. The rules of the game never changed even if we’re playing a wholly different game. I’ve been thriving – at least when it comes to grades – in most of my classes but one due to the heavy amount of work that we’re given. I sent an email to that class’ professor two weeks ago to review a thesis statement she told me to correct. No answer. It had been awful. The idea of running or taking a break is just not a reality. I barely even talk with my dad who is staying with me. It would honestly be worse if he wasn’t around and I still get no sleep. 22 hours awake is completely normal every day. This entire thing has been awful and has taken a toll. The biggest lesson I’ve gotten from uni – and this is not my first rodeo – is that all is for naught. I came in positive. I leave a nihilist.


    1. Anvil – I’m sorry to hear that this is your experience. I know that some professors have decided that the way to handle this situation is to pile on the work, and that’s not OK. Please take care of yourself as well as you can.


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