I very vividly remember the first mentions of Covid-19. They were rather confusing and terrifying: ‘New virus discovered in China’, ‘60 thousand patients in Wuhan’, ‘First Covid-19 cases in Europe’… I was in my second year of university and, retrospectively, life was pretty simple back then. The active person that I am, I was attending classes, going to house parties, and getting ready for a kickboxing competition. Among my peers, the Coronavirus was mentioned jokingly or as an excuse for small talk. The idea of a global pandemic was close to fairy-tales: entertaining and creepy, but rather absurd.
And then the lockdown in March 2020 came. At first - it was almost a relief: my remaining lectures and exams for the semester were canceled. I had more time to complete the remaining study projects, more time to relax, and more time for myself. Yet ‘more time’ quickly evolved into ‘too much time’. Especially after spring break started, I found myself living alone in a big student house, restless and isolated.
Finally, after many months, I slowly adapted to the changes the pandemic had brought to my everyday life; I had to. But deep down I am aware that what is happening is not an isolated moment. It’s a new breakpoint, which is introducing real and lasting effects on my, as well as other students, futures. It will shape and toughen my and future generations.
My point is that it’s meaningless to be reminiscent of the alleged ‘normal’, pre-pandemic past. Instead, I reflected on what I can learn from the experience of the past year, and how I can use this knowledge in my post-pandemic future.
1. Sleep is...work?
I’m sure many of us students have at some point fallen into the trap of staying up till 3 am and then sleeping until 11. For me, the situation spiraled out of control as there were no definite plans or appointments to attend to. I no longer had my German lectures at 10 am and kickboxing practice at 6 pm - everything was instead recorded online and made accessible any time of the day. So I opted for doing these activities during my favorite time - night.
You may have heard about Revenge Bedtime Procrastination. In simple terms, it describes the situation in which, even if you crave sleep, you opt for scrolling through your Instagram, watching YouTube, or another form of passive-participation activity. After you realize it, it’s 2 am and you are unhappy and sleep-deprived.
It is strongly linked to another concerning statistic: Almost 40% of the adult population have experienced sleep problems during the pandemic. It seems like the anxiety you built during the day seeks an escape at night. It affected me as well - after not doing much during the day, I was rushing into studying at night. I failed miserably though - getting neither work done nor good sleep.
That’s why healthy sleep hygiene has never been more important. A good sleep routine and duration is a basic need, and one of the most effective measures to get us through this pandemic. As many studies found, lack of sleep leads to further problems, especially for our mental health. In times of Covid-19, exposing ourselves to additional risks for our mental wellbeing is surely the last thing we should strive for.
Going forward, I won’t be so careless about pulling an all-nighter anymore, nor about going to sleep at 3 am. It doesn’t mean that I’ll stop attending parties or spending a late study session at the library. But for sure I will be more mindful about my sleep time in general. I realized that sleep should not be sacrificed for the sake of studying or working. Good sleep actually requires making a conscious effort. In the next point, I explain how to achieve that through effective time management.
2. A good timetable is a key
I never paid attention to scheduling. As a student, I always used to follow timetables made by others - my lectures schedule, and my work schedule. But the sudden lack of those appointments during lockdown disturbed me more than I realized. Suddenly I could spend days and days doing whatever and whenever I pleased. Soon enough, I felt incredibly lost. That’s when I realized that people are naturally programmed to function through timetables. The other end of the spectrum is when I see classmates organize their appointments in excel spreadsheets.
This type of mastery (or perhaps pedantry?) is only achieved by some of us. But at least roughly planning my meal schedule (3 times a day!), exercise time (20 mins a day at least, even if it’s just for a walk), and sleep routine (9 hours a day - I’m a sleepyhead!) is a bare minimum to keep me going and active during the lockdown.
Good time management won’t solve all your problems, but it surely will solve some. Sticking to a certain time to go to sleep each day - preferably as early as possible - allowed my body to develop my body clock and reduced some of my sleep problems. Similarly with eating times. After a week of sticking to a meal schedule, I began to realize that the timing of my appetite regulated itself. Pure magic!
An effective timetable will include a reasonable amount of exercise and self-care as well. Ideally, exercise could be done in the morning - it will get you energized throughout the rest of the day. If your living situation and potential lockdown regulations allow, consider exercising outside. Studies show that getting sunlight before noon reduces stress levels and helps with sleep problems. Even if it’s a short walk - it’s worth it.
3. How online teaching is and should be
Before the pandemic, my university lectures tended to last from 50 minutes to a whopping 2.5 hours. It was somehow achievable in a face-to-face setting, with breaks and what-not… but online? With my microphone and camera off, it was easy to go on YouTube or chat with my friends. Before I realized it, I was mentally checking out after the first 20 minutes of my lecture.
Research conducted by Johnstone and Percival in 1976 showed that students’ focus rapidly declines after 18 minutes. TED talks, for example, follow that 18-minute rule. On the other hand, the average information-oriented attention span declined from 12 seconds to 8 seconds over the last 30 years. It is all to be blamed on an overabundance of stimulus in modern society - partially due to social media. That suggests that modern lectures should be even shorter - or should they? I personally wouldn’t complain if they would. But there must be another way lecturers can trigger my attention. Especially, if this attention is focused on a small screen.
First of all, I stopped blaming myself for my short attention span and lack of focus. It is not my nor anyone’s fault, but a global trend, caused by a plethora of information and distractions. Can I blame myself for checking Facebook notifications, if I was not the one to send them in the first place?
I started exploring different methods that lecturers can apply to increase students' attention span. For instance, splitting a long lecture into shorter, approximately 20-minute pieces. Those are separated by short ‘social-media breaks’ in which you check your notifications and social media accounts. Another method is to engage participants through quizzes or group work. In both cases, creativity and dedication from the lecturer are essential.
4. How to maintain mental health
Self-care was always really important to me, but quarantine made it hard to prioritize it. Common ‘feel-good’ activities, such as meeting with a close friend, taking myself on a lunch date, or planning a short getaway was unattainable. Moreover, the lack of physical lectures and any other obligatory events made me feel unworthy of having a dedicated ‘me’-time. Prolonged stress added to that as well, caused by the uncertainty and isolation.
A mental health crisis among youth became increasingly relevant during the Covid-19 lockdown. It was no longer to be ignored - An astounding 56% of students were moderate to extremely concerned about their mental health, and the same percentage experienced anxiety. At the same time, only 38% of those surveyed felt that their mental health was taken seriously by their school/university. Although the studies were conveyed in the USA, similar rates can be found in similar contexts.
Talking to friends is essential to maintaining good mental health. Even if it’s through a video call, the feeling of comfort is similar. Close and satisfying social bonds are confirmed to be one of the major factors of one’s happiness, confirmed by multiple studies (and here).
5. The job crisis is real
We all know that having a bachelor's degree does not guarantee a job anymore. Even people that completed a master's program struggle to find work they want and like. One important factor in the job market for recent graduates is to have been involved in extracurricular activities and training. That is why, before the pandemic hit, I was busy taking part in multiple student societies and volunteering groups to further polish my CV. However, it’s almost impossible to do most of such activities in the current situation.
A similar situation takes place in the job search for recent graduates. Young people are not only more prone to job loss during a pandemic but are also less likely to be hired. Over 60% of leading companies slowed down their graduates-recruiting schemes due to the coronavirus crisis. That has created staggering rates of unemployment: one in four young people is unemployed and unable to find a job. That rate is twice as high as in any other age group.
Do I worry about finding a job after I graduate? Yes, just like most of my friends. I experienced the struggle earlier this year when I was looking for an internship. Only after sending over 100 applications and waiting 4 months, I was finally able to secure a work placement. All that while studying full-time, having a part-time job, and without any real help from my university.
One silver lining of the current situation for students is that over half of employers under the age of 55 perceive online education as equal or even better compared to on-campus education. It’s at least one positive drop in the bucket of rather grim facts. The job market is changing and young companies have a better understanding of online education, as well as productive remote working arrangements.
For me, having experienced the obstacles of finding a work placement during a pandemic, I surely have toughened up for upcoming job searches in my future career. Attractive job opportunities always exist- but finding and securing them requires a lot of effort and skill - a challenge I must prepare myself for.
6. You are more similar to the elderly than you realize
Since the start of the pandemic, I connected with my grandma as much as I never did before. Suddenly, we shared more aspects of our day-to-day life than ever before: both stuck alone in a house, unable to meet with anyone or participate in group activities. With no more opportunities to hang out, travel or work, many other students also picked up ‘granny’ hobbies - knitting, sewing, gardening, and cooking. Such activities bring peace in this overwhelming world - a feeling experienced by us students and the elderly alike.
The pandemic also led to some unlikely friendships - such as those through the ShareAmi scheme. Care home residents in France were linked up with language students studying French. While the first group struggled with the isolation caused by the lockdown regulations, the latter could not participate in regular student exchange programs and feared that their language skills may decline. Connecting them was a win-win match; the scheme became so successful that more than 6.800 students around the world applied. Novel concepts like this one may outlive lockdown itself and spark future intergenerational and international friendships. Who still claims that we don’t care about older generations?
A close bond with my grandparents brings me inner peace and helps me connect with my roots. The pandemic both made me feel thankful for the elderly in my life - because some people do not have that privilege - as well as more responsible for them. I understood that my actions have consequences for the elderly’s health and safety. Moreover, being in isolation myself, I realized how destructive and saddening the situation must be for them as well. I now check on my grandparents regularly - even if it’s a short talk, it means a lot to them. Plus, I no longer view knitting or gardening as boring. It’s immense fun!
Thank you for making it through this article. I know it contained a lot of rather sober topics and terms like crisis and pandemic - but I intended to shed an optimistic light on the future. I truly believe that the best we can do is to learn from the pandemic, so we can shape the world better after it passes.