As another strange semester gets underway, students, faculty and staff offer advice and lessons learned over the past year, including how to stay healthy, succeed academically and combat loneliness. (Pam Arnold, University Marketing)

Another pandemic semester is about to begin. Here are tips to make it a successful one.

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For a third consecutive semester, things will be different. Last March, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced an abrupt pivot to “remote emergency instruction” and a shift to online classes. The summer and fall were about modifying curriculum for hybrid learning. And last week, amid COVID-19’s deadliest surge to date, Virginia Commonwealth University announced it would open the spring semester on a virtual class schedule. Meanwhile, vaccination efforts continue, at VCU and around the world.

As the university begins another strange semester, it is important to take care of ourselves and others, said Shawn C.T. Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“I think our community can ultimately get through this semester with a lot of patience, honesty and grace, given to self and others,” Jones said.

VCU News spoke with Jones and other faculty, students and staff in recent weeks about their advice for the university community this spring, and the lessons they learned over the past year for maintaining mental and physical health, succeeding academically and combating loneliness.

Illustration by Pam Arnold, University Marketing
Illustration by Pam Arnold, University Marketing

Physical health and well-being

Tilahun Adera, Ph.D., professor and chair, Division of Epidemiology, Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, School of Medicine

I tell my students to stay active. The outside gym may be closed but the gym at home is open. Exercise has a tremendous amount of benefit for the body. It’s one of the most important things we can do for ourselves. Exercise makes you feel happier. Your mood changes. It helps reduce stress and it can help with weight loss. It helps our muscles and bones as we grow older and it helps us keep balance and avoid falls. Exercise — 30 to 40 minutes each day — can reduce the risk of chronic disease, and it can help our skin health, brain health and memory. It helps us sleep better.

In addition to exercise, you need to get adequate sleep. It helps build up your immune system, helps your memory and prevents weight gain. Lack of sleep can be dangerous. If you are sleep deprived, you are twice as likely to get into car accidents.

Diet and nutrition are important, especially during COVID-19. Avoid emotional eating. Eat more dark leafy greens, vegetables, oranges, etc. When you snack, snack with nuts and seeds and don’t neglect your intake of fluid, such as water and green tea. It helps keep your body hydrated and flush out toxins. 

Care for yourself and care for others. Be supportive, volunteer. Find positive coping mechanisms. Maintain your health care maintenance. And stay connected to friends and family.

Jessica L. Norman, assistant director for fitness and wellness, Recreational Sports 

People’s lives have been changed so much. They are juggling a lot — school, child care, kids and their academics. There used to be a clear line between what was home and what was work. Now that is really blurred. 

I have a small area where I have a yoga mat and a few light weights. That is not the environment that I thrive in. I thrive in a group environment, but that is not an option right now. My partner is high risk. You have to make do with what you have. 

We need to focus on encouraging people right now. Something is better than nothing. Take breaks throughout the day if you are in front of the computer. Maybe even take 30 minutes and walk around the block. There are quick opportunities for people to squeeze things in. It’s good to get your heart rate up and break a sweat. Try to find a moment of mindfulness. 

Most of all, listen to your body. Try to figure out what your limitations are. If it causes pain, don’t do it. You don’t need to push yourself to the max in a space where there isn’t someone to provide guidance.

When it comes to exercise right now, people need options. We offer both online and in-person options. People need to find a way to make exercise a part of their routine. We have seen that with our online classes. We have a lot of repeat people. We are also trying to meet people where they are. 

Margaret D. Roberson, M.D., director, Student Health Services 

Students and staff should continue to practice social distancing and wear masks. It’s also important to stay home and away from others if you are sick. You should get the COVID-19 vaccine when you are eligible; it is a very safe and effective vaccine. 

[COVID-19] testing has been an important part of our strategy. We are fortunate to have a strong partnership with VCU Health and are able to get symptomatic students tested. Residential Life and Housing did a great job of moving symptomatic students quickly to isolation rooms. Students who did test positive were able to complete their isolation with meals and necessities provided. 

We offer options for students who are sick. We are able to provide telehealth appointments for students. We will continue to offer limited office visits with the proper safety protocols in place. 

Illustration by Pam Arnold, University Marketing
Illustration by Pam Arnold, University Marketing

Mental health

Jihad N. Aziz, Ph.D., interim assistant vice provost, executive director, University Counseling Services

My advice for students, faculty and staff would be to find ways to connect with one another or those who are important in their lives. I think that's one of the lessons learned for everyone, that social media is insufficient to provide what people need.

We have this perception that, especially for young adults, social media was the way that they always communicated. But now, when that's sort of the primary way in which they can engage one another, they're missing the actual connections with friends and spending time with one another. I encourage people to take care of themselves, to develop routines or habits for their physical and spiritual wellness. It might be going for a walk; you don't necessarily need to go to the gym. You could do yoga.

Taking care of your body and eating healthy are contributing factors to overall mental health. If those things are not working and you feel isolated or depressed, or lots of anxiety, then take advantage of the resources that are available for students at University Counseling Services. We have a number of COVID-19 support groups. Faculty and staff can connect with services through the Employee Assistance Program.

Mia Liadis, health educator at The Well

Last semester, one of my takeaways was to focus on the things I could control. With COVID-19 and all that has happened over the past year, it’s easy to get swept up in news and media. That can lead to a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Noticing what you need in the present moment is a way to manage some of the anxiousness. You also need to have boundaries around work, school and other life tasks. You have to create your own routine — when to shut things down and step away.

One thing we did last semester was virtual guided meditation. People wanted additional ways to support their mental health. Before the pandemic, we used to host group meditation in person but then switched to live meditation on Zoom, which is available to anyone VCU affiliated. That served as a weekly program that someone could put on their calendar to take care of themselves. We are having that again this semester starting Jan. 27 and 28 — Wednesdays at 2:30 p.m., and Thursdays at noon.

We are also meeting with students one-on-one virtually through our Resilience Lab appointments to talk about ways to manage stress, help them maintain a positive attitude and to cultivate gratitude. Last semester we helped others spread gratitude through thank-you cards that people could send to someone at VCU. It can be easy to feel isolated now. Those cards could show that people are thinking about you and you are important. We hope to roll that out again this semester. 

Shawn C.T. Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Psychology, College of Humanities and Sciences

At the outset of last year, many of us — myself included — set resolutions around a theme of vision — because, 20/20! Furthermore, how you viewed the fall semester may have depended on whether you were a first-year embarking on your college career, a senior lamenting the unfair conclusion of a storied journey, or an employee balancing being an essential worker with being an essential parent. 

As we get ready for a new year and a new semester, we may still be searching for a better outlook. To extend my vision metaphor, I believe we can learn a lot about how to approach our mental health from the optometrist tool, the phoropter. For those who have never navigated corrective vision, this device is known by eyeglass and contact lens wearers informally as the “this one or that one” machine. I want to share three quick lessons from this device that I hope will support our mental health this semester: 

Patience: The phoropter is often called the “this one or that one” machine because it changes the lens ever so slightly and then you are asked which one helps you see better. The task can take a long time. It can be confusing. Is this really any better? I would encourage us this semester to have patience — with ourselves, our peers and our colleagues. No one has this thing all figured out. It may take some time to adjust, so remaining patient with the process can go a long way to making it through with minimal stress. 

Honesty: If you’re like me, you want to do your best, or at least do as well as you have done before. So when I go to my vision appointments, I am sometimes tempted to stretch the truth about which lens actually helps me see better, thinking that I can somehow fool the test and that my vision will either a) improve or b) stay at the prescription it was. But that’s not helpful because the whole point of the test is to help me see as clearly as possible, which requires me to “keep it real.” Same rules apply to our everyday lives this semester. If you are having a hard time in a class, I encourage you to have an honest conversation with your professor. If you are struggling with the work demands placed on you by a chair or supervisor, let them know. Nothing about these times is “normal” and it is better to respect yourself and that reality. 

Grace: You know what grinds my gears? When my prescription goes up — [when] my vision gets worse — after a whirl in the “this one or that one” machine. I start thinking about the times when I read that text in the dark without my glasses or kept my contacts in too long. But my optometrist, being the amazing doctor they are, reminds me that although I can sometimes make my vision worse, there are lots of factors that go into vision changes, many of them outside of my control. This allows me to be easier on myself — and I want to encourage you all to adopt a similar stance of grace for this semester. 

Let’s normalize not needing to send effusively apologetic emails because navigating this present moment meant that something slipped through the cracks. Let’s normalize unplugging from mass and social media and NOT getting the latest updates. Let’s normalize extensions asked for and given. 

I think our community can ultimately get through this semester with a lot of patience, honesty and grace, given to self and others. Hopefully when we look back at the end of this year, we can answer “this one” when asked which semester, and year, was better for us all.  

Illustration by Pam Arnold, University Marketing
Illustration by Pam Arnold, University Marketing

Connecting socially

Donté Sharpe, coordinator for leadership and student organizations, University Student Commons and Activities

My advice would be, first and foremost, to take the opportunity to be creative and think outside the box when connecting with fellow students through student organizations. One thing I've learned is that it’s OK to try something new and take risks in a safe manner.

There's been more social watch parties in terms of movies and social gaming, even on a personal level. Students should seek out how to be engaged and social. Find a good person to talk to so you don't feel lonely. If needed, find somebody to talk to at Counseling Services to take care of your mental health. Or do mindfulness exercises, drawing or writing, because many of us are isolated. A lot of us, students as well as our faculty and staff, are mentally drained.

Jordan Matamoro-Mejias, junior, psychology (pre-med), College of Humanities and Sciences

Matamoro-Mejias is an executive board member of the student group Black Men in Medicine and co-founder of VCU P.R.I.M.E., a pipeline for minority students interested in mentoring opportunities in health care. 

Black Men in Medicine has been able to have people present to our group that [pre-COVID-19] we wouldn't have been able to have come and talk to us. Author Sampson Davis, M.D., will give a keynote speech on March 2 about how he has overcome many odds. We've also done outreach to the historically black colleges and universities in the area and grown our membership. 

As far as lessons learned for running student organizations, one is definitely planning programming early. With the student group P.R.I.M.E., we had an idea for an inaugural event that kept getting pushed back because of how much planning had to be done to get together 10 administrators from different admissions committees in medicine, nursing and physical therapy. If it hadn’t been virtual, I don't think that would have been possible because of the panelists’ schedules and the cost and time to drive here. We had over 100 students participate. I feel like P.R.I.M.E. has grown because of COVID-19. 

For academic success, I created a schedule for myself with Google calendar to keep me accountable. I push the students in P.R.I.M.E. to go to their professors’ office hours and actually connect with their teachers. I tell them they will need those connections to get letters of recommendation. 

Laith Samamreh, junior, psychology (pre-med); residence adviser, Ackell Residence Center

Even though events are virtual, there is still an opportunity to get together with people who live in the residence hall. We had an event called musical “Jeopardy.” We had breakout rooms on Zoom. People who won the game in their room got to be in the final “Jeopardy” round. It brought everyone to the main room so we could watch. It was a bonding experience for people in the residence hall.

Those students not living in the residence halls need a constant thread to be able to socialize. You meet friends through your classes and you have everyone’s email. You can chat on Zoom or have group meetups. You can create and keep up with virtual relationships. 

When students come back to campus for a class, or classes, we know they feel limited. We tell them you are going to spend a lot of time inside. When the weather permits, there are a ton of places outdoors with seating. All you need to do is wear your mask and keep a safe distance. Find small things you can do. For example, walk to the grocery store with someone and wear your masks or sit outside and talk with your masks on.

Illustration by Pam Arnold, University Marketing
Illustration by Pam Arnold, University Marketing

Academic success

Tyler Turner, freshman, communication arts, School of the Arts

With online school, it's easier to procrastinate. My advice is to make yourself do all of the work because chances are, most of your classes will be online. Since you're online, you're going to be in your dorm all day, and you have plenty of other stuff to do, be it video games, social media or TV. There’s just a lot of things to distract you from the work you need to do. 

I lived in a single in Johnson Hall dormitory. It was difficult at first because for the first month I was just alone in my room. I didn't mind, I’m kind of a loner and I like to listen to whatever music I want in my room, but when I did make friends, it was welcoming. Each floor has its own group chat. So I was talking to people through that chat, asking them where to meet up or just meeting them in person and asking them if they wanted to hang out. My advice: Go out there and meet people because chances are everyone is a little lonely. 

Ching-Yu Huang, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Biology, College of Humanities and Sciences 

Huang is a faculty fellow in Inclusive Teaching and a member of the academic continuity subcommittee in the Office of the Provost. 

When learning online, my advice is to establish a routine. Use the course schedule as a starting point and fill in study time to develop a weekly study plan. Break down the study time into small chunks and mix it up with different subjects to boost your learning — that way you can focus on comprehension and you don't get bored. Keep in mind that your weekly schedule should be adjusted as the semester goes. For example, you may find yourself needing to allocate more study time on chemistry, or biology, than other courses after the midterm. 

Establishing a routine to keep up the study schedule is the first step toward having a successful and productive semester. 

For faculty, we have to repeatedly communicate with our students that, “I'm here for you. Talk to me.” Our faculty care so much about our students. We just need to listen and pay attention to what students are saying and what they need. Freshmen, first-generation and underrepresented groups are often reluctant to reach out because they are not familiar with campus resources, academic structure or college culture. 

When students face challenges, personal or academic, their first thoughts are: “I have to deal with this by myself,” “I don't want to bother my professor,” or “I will wait to seek help later.” But I told them don’t wait until it’s too late. We, as faculty and a mentor, can point students to the campus resources that are available to them. I may not have a magic wand to make their challenges go away, but together we can find a way to make it work and make sure their learning is not interrupted.

We also want to make sure the course material is accessible. When teaching face-to-face classes, I bring every student a copy of the assigned preparation and activity worksheets, considering not all my students have a printer at home. Now with virtual learning, I have to figure out other ways to share the learning resources. So I provide them worksheets in PDF format that is mobile friendly, and a Google doc version where they can type up their notes. I also use Open Educational Resources — which are free textbooks — for all of my courses. My students don’t have to worry about not having money to buy textbooks.

In 2020, I learned to acknowledge and mitigate the inequities my students have to face every day in the learning environment. I haven’t achieved 100% of that goal, but that's part of my learning process as a teacher. 

And remember to be kind. We need to practice self-compassion and take care of ourselves. [By] being flexible, and with empathy, we are building a meaningful relationship with our students and making a human connection that will bring us to togetherness. Together we are stronger. 

Brian McNeill, Dina Weinstein, James Irwin, James Shea, Joan Tupponce and Mary Kate Brogan contributed to this story.