April 15, 2020

Undergrad student Aaron So on how he’s coping with a new set of challenges

Psychology major turns to self-compassion and connection during a time of unprecedented change

Early last month undergraduate student Aaron So had a stacked schedule. In addition to running from class to class, he was also volunteering for UCalgary's Campus Community Hub and the Alberta Children's Hospital. The Friday March 13 announcement in UCalgary email inboxes set in motion changes felt across campus. For now, So’s extracurricular commitments have been put on hold, and he works on his studies at a desk set up in his bedroom.

The psychology student describes his life pre-COVID as “kind of hectic. I had a lot of schoolwork and volunteering, so when the notice came to transition to online learning, it wasn’t just my studies that changed, it was every aspect of my life. I knew it was for the best, but volunteering helped me connect with people in my community, so in terms of my mental health, it hit me really hard.”

For So, who’s so used to helping, keeping at home during a pandemic was a bit of a mind game. “You’re so used to doing all these things, they represent who you are. Now with physical distancing measures, you feel like you should be doing more but you know you can’t.”

Adjusting to an ever-changing world

When in-person classes were cancelled, So tried to remain positive; thinking with the extra time and flexibility in his schedule, he’d be able to knock the winter semester out of the park. However, in that first week of online classes his motivation and energy had markedly diminished.

“During that first week I kept pressing myself: 'Why am I not at the same energy level, why can’t I do the exact same amount of work I was doing before?' I love routine, so when I didn’t have a schedule anymore, I wasn’t motivated to wake up and I procrastinated more.”

Confused and frustrated, he reached out to friend and fellow student, Catherine Cheung, and realized he wasn’t alone. After taking time to adjust to the changing context and a new way of doing things, he realized he couldn’t operate under the same assumptions he had at the start of his winter semester. He equates our collective experience not unlike a tenant of a scientific experiment.

I realized we’re all in a completely new environment, under a whole new set of conditions. You can’t 100 per cent apply the same expectations that you had before.

In the four weeks and counting days since being off campus, So has been learning and practising self-compassion. He empathizes with other home-bound folks: “You’re home, you’re in your bed, it’s comfortable, it’s warm. You can’t really expect the exact same thing as you did before, you need to find a new baseline.

“I still catch myself questioning my behaviour and have to remind myself: 'You can’t make that same connection because it’s an entirely different situation.'”

Connecting in new ways

So is still getting used to the stress of isolation, but he’s been inspired by the change in digital communication patterns. In his first week off-campus, So’s academic supervisor emailed him to check in, not on his academics, but to see how he was doing personally.

“That made me feel so good. It inspired me to look at my contact list and send friends a similar message, asking how they’re doing. I wanted to show them the same kind of care: Someone is out there, and if you need someone to talk to, I’m here.” It’s easy to feel socially isolated with physical distancing, so maintaining connection, albeit digitally, can make a big difference.

Living moment to moment, day to day

Another moment of relief came for So when he changed his expectations around control.

It’s kind of a wake-up call. This is the control I have of life, and with this pandemic I realize I can only plan so much. I can’t look into the future with as much clarity as before. At this point the best I can do is to be in the moment and do the best I can. I can think about the future, but sometimes I don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.”

So weighs in with some advice along the same line: “It’s good to have goals, but keep them flexible. No one knows how long we’ll be in this situation, so understand that you can only do your best day by day, moment to moment. I think that’s what can motivate us. There are some things that you can’t foresee, some things that are out of your control, so put your focus in the now.”

When asked about his upcoming finals, So cringes, then breaks into a smile: offering up what he’s been telling himself: “Just do your best. That’s the only thing I can say. Literally that is all that’s keeping me motivated. That’s all you can ask of yourself during this time.”

Many different experiences

So’s experiences with isolation and losing motivation represent some of the challenges facing students in our changing context. Other challenges that may be a result of, or exacerbated by, our context include: experiencing domestic or dating violence, intense emotions or suffering, difficulties with substance use, or financial difficulties. For some, these challenges may be harder to navigate then others but there are resources and supports available to help.

UCalgary resources on COVID-19

At UCalgary we continue to offer mental health support for students, faculty and staff with remote services. If you are experiencing significant stress related to your mental health during COVID-19, seek support — visit our Mental Health During COVID-19 web page for a list of resources and supports.

If you are in distress, please call the Wood’s Homes Community Support team at 403-299-9699 or the Distress Centre at 403-266-4357.

A team of volunteers are here to help. Take the UCalgary Campus Community Needs Assessment survey to let us know how we might be able to support you.