Following an all-time high in clinical appointments with Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) last month, Dean of the College Jill Dolan is urging faculty to consider “compassionate approaches” to the end of the semester and final assignments.
“The toll taken by the pandemic on and off campus, as well as the exigencies of remote learning, have pushed many of our students into extreme states of anxiety or depression,” Dolan wrote in an April 13 memo to all faculty.
She referenced data from CPS Director Calvin Chin, who reported that appointments and required student hospitalizations have increased during this academic year.
In an email to The Daily Princetonian, University spokesperson Jess Fasano clarified that CPS had 1,490 clinical appointments this March alone. According to Dolan’s memo, this was the highest number in the history of CPS.
“The number of students who have been hospitalized is up by 60 percent so far this year compared to the same time period a year ago,” Fasano added.
In her memo, Dolan pointed to a number of stressors that could be to blame for declining mental health in students, including Zoom fatigue, “a very shortened spring break,” and the “anxiety of grappling with repeated incidents of racism and violence across the country.”
“We all very much want to protect the safety and well-being of Princeton undergraduates in this stressful end-of-term period,” she continued, before offering a number of suggestions for faculty to consider as the semester draws to a close.
Dolan recommended “shaving off pieces of the last two weeks of assignments,” making certain inessential readings optional, clarifying final work expectations early, and “providing opportunities for other kinds of final work or even individualized plans with students who are in very real difficulty.”
She cited recent columns published by the ‘Prince’ that speak to students’ mental health struggles and call for action on behalf of the University.
Allen Liu ’22, the author of one of the ‘Prince’ columns that Dolan linked, wrote an email to the ‘Prince’ about what he hoped professors took away from his column, “Mental health shouldn't only matter during the pandemic."
“While this semester does have a unique set of challenges, there should be more thought given to how stressors, both academic and non-academic, impact students' well-being during a ‘normal’ semester,” he wrote.
“Faculty members can, and should, play an equally important role as residential staff, peers, and administrators in supporting students' mental health,” Liu continued. “I think this starts with explicitly acknowledging the impact that coursework can have on students' mental health and vice versa.”
One first-year supported the notion that a decreased number of assignments could help students. When their math class saw a single week without a problem set, they said they immediately noticed a difference.
“I don't know if that's normal or not, but that was a real godsend. I'm surprised how much of a difference it made, which speaks to the level of workload that is usually around, [if] the lack of a single p-set makes that much of a difference,” they said.
They said they wished professors understood that students were “trying to do our best and there may be other things on my mind at any given time.” Still, they was not entirely optimistic about whether professors would follow through on Dolan's recommendations.
“You can't just send a letter and then suddenly expect students to realize that now professors are going to be filled with willingness to cooperate with the difficult juggling act that is University life,” they said.
However, not all students report poor experiences with their professors.
Another student — who requested anonymity as to not offend their other professors — told the ‘Prince’ that Marian Ahn Thorpe, a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer in the Program in Latin American Studies, stood out from other professors they’ve had during this virtual academic year.
In addition to the common challenges of a virtual learning experience, the student had to miss class due to athletic competition. They said Thorpe was flexible with deadlines and emailed them to check in about how they would prefer to make up in-class discussions.
“I feel that Prof. Thorpe's compassion is unfortunately unique,” the student said. “When I told my other professors that I'm having a tough semester, they told me directly that they couldn't give me much flexibility in the name of ‘fairness’ to other students.”
“It's not like I was given an advantage over other students, like how my other professors insinuated, but she just treated me like a human being who was having a hard time,” they continued. “I felt seen, understood, and also respected as a student.”
Ryan Vuono ’24, another student enrolled in Thorpe’s class, added that the few minutes of casual conversation at the start of each meeting “goes a long way towards making us feel less like we're just going through the motions of the semester.”
He added that, “Something I wish professors would take into account more when considering the students' workload is that we're not afforded the normal breaks from class that we would get in a normal semester. The line between what is work and what isn't becomes a lot more blurred when nearly everything that we are able to do as students is done on our laptops in our room.”
In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Thorpe said she wasn’t at all surprised by the contents of Dolan’s email.
“In class recently, there were a lot of nods of agreement when someone mentioned feeling burned out after the spring break-that-wasn't,” she wrote. “I also saw the effects of burnout and social isolation in my class at the end of the fall semester. The memo, and especially the data from CPS, confirmed that these issues are widespread.”
Thorpe commented on the difficulties unique to online learning and how she has modified her approach to interacting with students.
“I get the sense that in online learning, students feel less connected to their classmates and find it harder to stay focused,” she wrote. “These issues affect faculty too.”
“In the classroom, instructors get an idea of where students are at intellectually and emotionally because student body language provides a lot of instant feedback, and we can chat casually as people filter into the classroom or pack up after class.”
“Zoom teaching, even when everyone's cameras are on, can't replicate that,” she continued. “I've tried to address these issues by checking in with students at the start of every class period, but it's been a challenge for all of us, students and faculty alike.”
Editor’s Note: A student interviewed for this piece was granted retroactive anonymity due to privacy concerns.