DOHA—The classroom experience isn’t all that has taken a hit during the Covid-19 pandemic. Student life—socializing with fellow students and participating in student-led activities—has also gone downhill.
With many universities resorting to hybrid learning or full-time remote learning, students have been cut off from friends and couldn’t visit campus. While some managed to find ways to stay in touch, the adjustment has been more challenging for others.
“The move to online learning had a negative effect on the psychological state of students for sure,” said Mohammed Al-Qassabi, president of the Qatari Student Association of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. “Before the pandemic, whenever we felt stressed by study or exams, we were able to change our mood just by meeting each other or joining an activity together.”
Now that in-person meetings are limited, Mohammed said he and his friends tried using Zoom once for a virtual gathering, but the experience was disappointing and didn’t feel like direct contact.
Interacting with friends is not the only aspect of campus life students miss.
“Spending five or six hours in front of a computer screen at home is discouraging. The campus environment was more motivating for study and work,” Al-Qassabi said.
Student Clubs and Study Groups
Edward Richardos, a second-year student at Qatar University, says for him student life hasn’t changed much, as lectures continue and students still keep in touch, mainly through WhatsApp groups created for each class where they can discuss problems related to class and curriculum.
In addition to study groups, students are able to maintain a sense of community through a number of student clubs that continued to operate online. Kayan Marwan Khraisheh, leader of the Palestine Student Club at Northwestern University in Qatar, saw the current circumstances as an opportunity to build connections and collaborate with other clubs and organizations.
“It was definitely difficult to figure out how to create engaging online events when everyone is Zoom-fatigued and sick of staring at their screens, but we managed to stay connected and even grow our club in these isolating times,” Khraisheh said.
The online experience was more challenging for Rana Mansour, part of the student chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers at Texas A&M University in Qatar.
“We try to keep our social media active and use it to engage with students, but most remain uninterested in the activities and the morale is low,” she said. “Everyone is just trying to survive and make it through the semester.”
Increased Levels of Stress
Worldwide, young people are among the groups most affected by social impacts of Covid-19, including worries about health, academic performance, and the isolating effects of social distancing and lockdown procedures.
A study to assess the pandemic’s effects on the mental health of college students in the United States found that 71 percent of the students surveyed expressed increased stress and anxiety related to the disease. A decrease in social interactions was one of multiple stressors identified by the study as a contributing factor to increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts among students.
In Qatar, the Ministry of Public Health set up a mental-health helpline to provide virtual counseling to people suffering from stress or mental disorders as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. The ministry tweeted in October that the helpline had received 12,500 calls since its launch in April this year—an indication of the increase in demand for mental-health services as Covid-19 cases soared across the Gulf country.
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At universities across Qatar, student affairs officers have taken steps to make sure students who need more support have access to help. These include regular one-on-one phone calls to check on students.
In addition to calls, Indee Thotawattage, student life manager at Northwestern University in Qatar, said the university hosted programs on Zoom related to balancing mental health and used a game-based learning platform called Kahoot to organize frequent trivia nights as a way of building community among students. It also organized online information sessions on time management and good study habits, among other activities.
Pressure on Staff Members
Adjusting to the new virtual setting was not easy for university staff members.
“The biggest challenge for us as educators this semester was time,” said Sabina Uzakova, a student affairs officer at Texas A&M University in Qatar. “I had to become much more resourceful, creative and flexible to help students find ideas to stay in touch with each other, reduce stress and continue building connections,” she said.
Uzakova says that due to the pandemic, students lost the opportunity for the informal social learning that happens during in-person interactions with peers, faculty and staff.
Nevertheless, if such interaction is no longer possible, there is still room for acquiring new skills.
“It’s important to help students take this challenge and make something useful out of it,” she said. “We have to help them look at these times as an opportunity to build some new skills like adaptability, setting priorities and stress management—skills that they will find crucial later in life.”