May 19, 2022
Samantha Elizalde was just three months into her first year at Sac State in the fall of 2018 when unhealthy blankets of smoke from the Camp Fire north of Sacramento suddenly shut down campus for two weeks.
It was an ominous sign of things to come.
For the Class of 2022’s students, who will participate in Commencement at Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento May 20-22, the past four years have presented an unprecedented onslaught of challenges. Chief among them is the still-active COVID-19 pandemic, which in March 2020 forced students into isolation for more than a year as most classes went from in-person to online.
Global and local events also factored in, from the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd and associated protests, to a contentious national election, to summer skies filled with wildfire smoke, an annual reminder that students are graduating into a world forced to face the effects of climate change.
“I feel like the people who started in Fall 2018 at Sac State just had the weirdest experience,” said Elizalde, a Political Science major and 2021-22 Associated Students Inc. (ASI) president. “We had the fires, we had the pandemic.”
As COVID-19 disrupted students’ lives, Sacramento State’s support programs kicked in. Some were new, such as the nearly $90 million distributed to students through the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF).
Additional help came through programs previously established as part of the University’s work to address students’ basic needs, such as the CARES office, which distributed additional grants through HEERF. Since Fall 2020, the office has provided more than 2,600 students with nearly $3 million in additional support for basic needs such as housing, utilities, and technology, and has helped more than 100 find emergency housing.
CARES interim director Danielle Muñoz said she is “extremely proud and in awe” of students who have dealt with tough challenges often outside of their control.
“Many of these students were navigating college as a first-generation college student and adapting to the virtual learning environment,” she said. “Still, our students never gave up, they persisted, reached out for help, leaned on each other, and held hope.”
Students’ use of Student Health and Counseling services remained steady during the height of the pandemic despite the campus being mostly empty. That robust utilization of a key University amenity in large part was because of its quick pivot to offering virtual services, said Ron Lutz, director of Counseling Services.
About half of the students seeking services did not attribute their needs to the pandemic, but those who did struggled with concerns about the health and wellbeing of another individual, their inability to stay motivated in their studies, loneliness and isolation, and associated grief with the loss of a loved one, Lutz said. Further, being at home with family provided support for some students, but the extreme closeness was an additional stressor for others, he said.
Students’ experiences during the pandemic were varied, and rarely easy.
Hector Rodriguez transferred to Sac State in Fall 2020 and had not completed a year before the pandemic hit. He said he lost his job, which gave him extra time to focus on his classes, but “it also exacerbated my mental health (struggles), which affected my focus and engagement in class.”
Rodriguez and his girlfriend quarantined together, keeping busy with video games, family video chats, and new workout routines. He said that although his overall experience with him online classes was positive, he missed engaging with fellow students on campus.
“As a first-generation student, I feel extremely fortunate that I am able to graduate, all things considered,” Rodriguez said. “I feel really glad that I persevered in light of the pandemic and am moving on to the next level towards my professional career.”
Micneisha Vaughn, working toward a master’s in Social Work, took a leave of absence in the spring of 2020 after her son was born in April. She had planned ahead and completed much of her fieldwork in advance, but returning to online classes a year later was difficult. Vaughn and other students lost the chance to interact with each other directly, she said, and “nobody is going to stay late after Zoom and talk.”
Pushing through to graduation comes with additional pride, she said.
“I feel like the odds were so stacked against us with COVID and death, and the (2020 presidential election), and babies – so many different things,” Vaughn said. “Making up work, making up hours, and sleepless nights and capstone projects, but in the midst of it all, I did it.”
As ASI president, Elizalde saw first hand COVID-19’s impact on the student body. Everyone’s experience was different, she said, but “the biggest thing was isolation, the biggest thing was mental health.” She saw fellow Hornets lose jobs, wages, and even family members. The stress of the pandemic along with world events exacerbated her own mental health issues, and she relied on her family for support.
Nonetheless, the challenges also provided opportunities for students to learn how to adapt, she said.
“It taught us how to learn differently, how to engage differently,” Elizalde said. “Some people really did learn well in the online environment and preferred learning online,” Students also had new opportunities such as “having a video chat with someone that’s across the US”
She shares Vaughn’s pride in being part of the Class of 2022, students who persevered through what the world threw at them and earned the right to walk triumphantly across the graduation stage.
“We are able to tell future generations that we went through a pandemic, we got our degree during a pandemic,” Elizalde said. “We are literally proof that it is possible.”