A Time for Empathy, Understanding and Self-care: How Social-Distancing and Antioch’s Online Transition is Affecting Students

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I’m sitting in a chair, hunched over my desk obsessively analyzing my reflection. My newly meticulous nature is exhibited in the incessant way I manipulate the few wisps of hair that frame my face. I’ve always been one to put care into my appearance before I leave the house, but this feels different. I stare back at my reflection. It’s a bit pixelated and every blink or slight tilt of my head is slightly lagged. I can’t keep from wondering if the person staring back through the small screen of my laptop is me.

I turn my attention towards the small mirror placed at the back right corner of my desk. The reflection is much more familiar and I don’t need to touch my face for confirmation. After a few breaths I focus back on my laptop. It’s uncomfortable how every action I take and word I speak appears to be another entity. It’s strange how the interactions I have with others through a screen have become surreal. I’ve never recalled a simple FaceTime call or Zoom meeting to lose the connectivity that was once so deeply appreciated and looked forward to. In favor of a ‘face-to-face’ conversation, I’d taken to the standard phone call, finding that the simple pleasures of hearing a familiar voice allows me to be present with another person. Has social distancing truly affected me this much? 

Photo by Suhyeon Choi

My spiraling thoughts are distracted for a moment as I release my hair from the tight way it was pulled back in an elastic band. I had cut it a few weeks ago, perhaps out of restlessness or maybe the fact that I can’t go a year without chopping it above my shoulders. I don’t really know, but I haven’t taken much time to reflect upon it. If I look at the big picture, it’s not about the way I look, but more about the way I feel. I knew millions around the world were struggling with mixed emotions, but I still couldn’t help wondering what they were thinking about. Did they twirl their hair in a pixelated and lagging reflection? What if they didn’t have hair long enough to twirl, or a better webcam and more secure internet connection? 

I realized that I was stalling, and that I was also trying to assure myself that I would be talking to a person in real time. I clicked open a google doc and arranged my screen, the Zoom page and browser parallel. I unmuted my audio and turned on my video, asking if the person through the screen was ready to begin our interview. I tried to ignore my reflection. 

I had the opportunity to interview two students from Antioch Santa Barbara about their experiences in academics during the closure of our campus. As a student myself, one of the main concerns I have during the quarantining and social-distancing measures is the way colleges are adapting to the complete shift into online learning. I personally enjoy online courses and have no difficulty spending most of my time indoors, but I’ve recently noticed my fatigue increasing. I’ve noticed it in some of my friends and co-workers as well, who are also students. I am left wondering daily on how they and their loved ones are coping during this pandemic. Is this new platform a positive change or has it become an additional challenge in this environment? 

I first spoke with Julien, who is pursuing his Masters in Clinical Psychology. Julien shares that he’s doing the best he can do to get through social distancing, but Antioch’s campus-wide shift to an online platform is challenging. He feels that he isn’t as successful when he takes online courses and tries to avoid taking them, but now has no choice.

I tell him that I agree and we share a moment of understanding. It definitely requires extra effort to stay organized and be proactive when taking online courses. 

I asked him if his major has been affected or if he has noticed a change in his classroom environment. Julien sighs and tells me that it’s been difficult. His program focuses heavily on group discussion and acting out therapy sessions with other students. He admits that it doesn’t translate the same online. The use of body language and eye contact are often expressed differently through a Zoom call, so it’s a whole new learning process. He feels that each professor is handling this transition in their own way, but Julien believes that utilizing the breakout rooms more often during Zoom sessions is something that would be very beneficial.

However, Julien has also found that there are positives to shifting onto an online platform. Online therapy is becoming more popular, so this provides him a unique opportunity to practice something that he wouldn’t have before. 

Photo by Gervyn Louis

We also discussed how fortunate we are to be in a small university, so it’s easier to get in touch with faculty. The university and professors have been very understanding and from his perspective, it helps that Antioch is geared towards students with families. In addition to the support Antioch provides, Julien is also grateful for the support of his family.

Towards the end of our interview, I asked Julien if there is anything he does for self-care. For Julien, he tries to exercise at least once a day to expel all of his restless energy. He tells me that it’s important to find the small things that you can control. It’s something that makes me think about the things that I’ve been doing, or could do, during this time.

After talking with Julien, I was still curious to see how other Antioch students were fairing. I had the pleasure of interviewing Bebhinn, who is a BA student majoring in Liberal Arts. The interview started off with a few laughs intertwined with sympathy. Bebhinn shares that last January she had broken her knee and had to go through a social isolation where she didn’t leave her home for a few months. Her misfortune the prior year has made the current situation less difficult because she had to experience a period of being stuck inside. She’s especially thankful that she can get around her house this time.

Photo by Jade Seok 

When I asked about her thoughts on Antioch’s transition to an online platform, she says she feels lucky. This quarter, Bebhinn is doing an Independent Study. She explains that in comparison to a standard course, she “doesn’t have all the structural restraints or challenges” and gets to follow her own design. 

Bebhinn is passionate when she talks about her Independent Study, and I can feel the emotion through the screens separating us miles apart. It’s exciting to hear her describe what she’s doing for her substituted science course, which focuses on designing pollinator garden spaces and journaling her progress. Bebhinn smiles, telling me that she’s using community gardens in Lompoc and Santa Barbara to work with vegetables, pollinator plants and flowers. She’s grateful for a course that encourages her to spend time outside during this time. 

We move on to discuss another course that Bebhinn is taking. She feels that there is a noticeable difference between an in person and online environment that can make the latter challenging. The heavy emphasis on Zoom has become fatiguing, but more importantly, she expresses a slight self-consciousness in class. On an online platform, communication is different and Bebhinn finds that natural banter is interrupted. It’s an unfamiliar situation when she has to decide if a question is worth being asked during a lesson. She tells me “is this something that I can just figure out on my own, or do I need to interrupt the class?” 

Something that Bebhinn says connects with me. I ask her why she used the word interrupt because normally a question wouldn’t fall under that description. We discuss how exhausting screen time can be and find that asking questions can sometimes feel like an imposition on other students’ time. It’s a peculiar state of mind to be in.  

Photo by Marek Levák

Though the new online environment brings its own challenges, Bebhinn is grateful for Antioch. She’s never been successful in online courses because they never worked for her, so the university’s many offered hybrid classes helped her build confidence in the unfamiliar platform. The courses provided at Antioch are very diverse in teaching styles, so she felt more prepared for the transition than she might’ve been before coming to Antioch. She’s also thankful for the faculty, who have “bent over backwards” for students. She says that strong support systems are one of the benefits of going to a small university, which she believes are still reflected in virtual classrooms.

Our conversation keeps a lighthearted tone even through the oftentimes despairing situation we are currently in. I’m surprised by Bebhinn’s optimism and find it pleasantly infectious. I ask her how she currently takes care of herself, intrigued to know how she exudes so much happiness. She shares that gardens play a large role in her mental wellness. I’ve never been a fan of being immersed in nature, but her words make me consider the importance of being outdoors.  

Bebhinn also tells me that she prepares for online experiences, such as work and class, as if she were actually going out. It’s important for her to create “that distinction between an on day and a private day.” It’s a concept I’m trying to implement into my routine on workdays, but it’s easy to fall through the cracks at times when our global situation seems without hope.

There has always been something special about having a shared experience while still being able to learn so much from another person. I began both interviews not expecting to leave with a flurry of emotions that had somewhat dulled within me over the past two months. I felt refreshed and invigorated, a stark contrast to the lethargy that weighed heavily on my mind and body. Bebhinn and Julien’s motivation has encouraged me to find normalcy by bringing back some control in my everyday routine and prioritizing self-care practices. I am immensely thankful for the unending support shared within the Antioch community. 

Photo by Toa Heftiba 

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”

– Anthony Robbins

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Luna Pate

Luna Pate is an Editor for Odyssey. She is a Santa Barbara local working towards a BA degree in Liberal Arts. She is interested in finding a career that allows her to continue to explore her passion for writing. Her love for writing extends across a variety of literary genres, but she is most passionate about fiction, social justice and academic writing.

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