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  • Writer's pictureMadeline Kim

CMU students respond to COVID-19 by fighting for each other

Updated: May 11, 2022

It seems the novel coronavirus has the world under its thumb. In just a few months, it has left grocery aisles barren, stock prices plummeting, and scientists scrambling for a treatment. European countries are under lockdown, and a number of U.S. states are, too. Everyone, everywhere, is encouraged to help “flatten the curve,” or slow down the spread through measures like social distancing.

To promote the social distancing measures, the virus radically altered how American colleges, a potential hotbed of the disease and its spread, would finish the second half of the spring semester. On March 11, President Farnam Jahanian wrote to all Carnegie Mellon students that the Pittsburgh campus would move to online classes “until further notice.” Provost Jim Garrett followed up the next day, announcing that the rest of the semester would be completed online.

Carnegie Mellon was not the first university to make such a decision. Universities like Harvard and the University of Pittsburgh had already made the shift online; in the University of Pittsburgh’s case, mere hours before Carnegie Mellon changed to remote instruction. However, this decision still came as a shock for some. “I was flabbergasted. I didn't think it would happen,” sophomore Lucia Bevilacqua, a biological science major, recalled.

This phenomenon of remote-ification has changed the way therapy works, too, and with people more anxious about the virus and more desirous of human connection than ever, psychologists and psychiatrists are desperately needed. People are rightfully cautious about attending in-person therapy, so remote services are expanding. Across the nation, therapists are shifting their practices online, and internet services such as BetterHelp have found an uptick in new members and increased anxiety with current clients.

On Carnegie Mellon’s campus, Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is providing a number of services to students at this time. For students who currently reside in Pennsylvania, CaPS is offering telehealth services via Zoom Healthcare, but they cannot provide the same service to students outside of the state due to state healthcare laws. CaPS offers a database of therapists through Thriving Campus which offers a list of community providers in most major metro areas. Additionally, CaPS is offering a few virtual workshops in the future that will replace the on-campus workshops that have been cancelled as a result of the novel coronavirus. However, students will fall through the cracks, and there are already a number of initiatives in place.

Because of the recent issues with the novel coronavirus and its effect on access to mental health care, students have taken initiatives to care for each other and make the best of the current circumstances. On March 15, School of Computer Science (SCS) junior Sam Damashek shared a form on the private Facebook group “Overlooked at Carnegie Mellon” inviting students to become trained peer supporters on the peer support group Lean on Me. Lean on Me is an anonymous peer support texting service that “does not attempt to and cannot replace therapy services such as CaPS or crisis hotlines such as Samaritans,” but simply gives students someone to talk to. So far, the form has at least 45 responses. “My hope is that it would help the general culture on campus,” Damashek says. He recognizes that the immense stress the global pandemic puts on students adds “pressure to get it [Lean On Me] out faster,” but he hopes to be able to bring the service in action within the next two weeks.

Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT) junior Tara Christian and English department junior Olivia Snavely created a mutual aid spreadsheet to help others navigate their way through this tumultuous time. Christian wrote in a post on “Overlooked at Carnegie Mellon” that “[We] noticed that other communities were making resource spreadsheets and thought it might be a good idea to have one for the Pittsburgh area,” inviting anyone in the Pittsburgh area to help give or to receive support regardless of whether they are affiliated with the university. Another spreadsheet was posted in the comments, citing Liam O’Connell, a BHA sophomore, and Catherine Taipe, a sophomore in history and the Institute for Politics and Strategy, as the creators. O’Connell’s and Taipe’s spreadsheet, linked in a previous Tartan article, asks visitors to redirect their attention to Christian’s and Snavely’s spreadsheet.

At the pressure on students’ mental health ramps up, students are expected to continue with their academics. SCS junior Andrea Estrada created a petition for the university to adopt a pass/fail grading system similar to the one implemented at MIT. The petition racked up thousands of signatures. On March 16, the provost emailed the university to announce a new pass/fail policy for this semester. Additionally, professors are asked to keep in contact with students and stay flexible about deadlines and grading.

Even so, many students are facing anxiety and overall uncertainty regarding academics. College of Fine Arts (CFA) junior Eileen Lee had big plans for the spring semester, such as selling her work at art fairs and ScottyCon. Now, she is just trying to navigate the rest of the semester. Lee wrote, “All of my plans are out the window now. My art class relies on the studios that are now closed down, so I am limited in my academic and artistic pursuits. My other classes are group-project based, so it will be difficult keeping in contact with my group and working on our semester-long project.”

Bevilacqua finds herself in a similar position with her studies in neuroscience and her job as a TA for Introductory Statistics. She’s glad to be able to retain her position, but she shared that she is “still concerned about how I'll co-lead recitations in a way that truly satisfies the job description I signed up for.”

Similarly, MCS and CFA sophomore Adrien Krupenkin struggles to navigate the pandemic while maintaining his responsibilities as a student, a research assistant, and a residence assistant for Webster Hall. People want to turn to a source of comfort or stability; for residents, that may be their residence assistant. “I don’t know how I can help people,” Krupenkin confesses. Although he understands the university’s decision to suspend in-person classes, he still feels “really depressed about this.”

We all recognize that there’s no quick and easy solution to the pandemic, and it’s healthy to mourn the opportunities we thought we would have: having fun at Spring Carnival, saying goodbye to our beloved senior friends, and attending commencement, to list a few. There’s unfortunately no magic wand that can make the virus vanish. However, it is still crucial that we protect our own mental health. For Krupenkin, that looks like “constant therapy…[and] taking it one day at a time.”

Heinz professor Baruch Fischhoff, on a bonus episode of the American Psychological Association’s podcast, suggests people “find some trusted sources of information like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organization… That will also protect you from the irresponsible, the rumor mongers, the people who are using this as an opportunity to sell things or to inflame racial hatred or ethnic hatred.” By using trusted sources without inflammatory language, people can find a moderated stance on the crisis — one that does not lead to forgoing social distancing measures, but also one that does not lead to panic and increased anxiety.

This pandemic greatly challenges us to stay mindful of what is outside of our control, and what we can consciously control. Perhaps for you, this means channeling time into learning a new hobby: time that would otherwise have been dedicated for extracurricular activities. Maybe this means texting a friend for additional support instead of refreshing that news page. Fear and uncertainty can be great breeding grounds for panic and anxiety, but such conditions can also shine a light on how strong we can be. “This pandemic is showing me how resilient society truly is,” Bevilacqua notes. “Whenever I think that some drastic measure can't happen because of the serious consequences, we manage to deal with the consequences anyway.”


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