Washington - Four years ago, high school and college students in the class of 2023 had just entered their first year when the coronavirus pandemic hit. They were thrust into an academic world of uncertainty when in-person classes stopped and were moved to online platforms.
Now recent graduates, they are the last undergraduate class with memories of what it was like to be students when the pandemic began.
'It was shocking and confusing because we didn't know what was going to happen with our studies,' said Sarabeth McClain, 22, who just received her undergraduate diploma in economics and political science at Rhode Island University.
When the World Health Organization declared COVID a global pandemic in March 2020, in-person classes stopped in the United States, forcing students to learn online.
'It was chaotic. I was taking classes that quickly went virtual, and I started to feel more distant from my professors,' said Rachel Buxbaum, who was in a doctoral degree program in clinical psychology at Long Island University in New York. 'Plus, I began seeing psychotherapy patients online, and it all felt overwhelming.'
COVID-19 changed everything, including the college experience.
'It was a resilience test for these students and impacted their ability to focus on education,' said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.
According to a 2021 Best Colleges survey, 9 out of 10 college students said they struggled with isolation, anxiety and a lack of focus during the pandemic.
For much of two years, the lives of both college and high school students were turned upside down with uncertainty and the unease of not spending time with their classmates in person.
'The quarantine led to an increase in social anxiety for them,' explained Caroline Clauss-Ehlers, a psychology professor in the School of Health Professions at Long Island University. 'Interacting with their peers is important to them, and with the quarantine that was lost, including some social skills.'
'I was struggling,' said high school student Jessica Hernandez, who graduated from Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Virginia, 'because I couldn't socialize with anyone since everyone was stuck behind a screen.'
Besides social isolation, another Best Colleges study, in 2022, found the transition to remote learning caused significant stress from an increase in distractions and a loss of academic resources such as academic advisers.
'I felt neglected because the teacher wasn't there to help me in person,' Hernandez told VOA, 'and there were many distractions at home with my phone and TV easy to get to all the time, while I'm watching online classes from my bed.'
However, another high school student called her online learning 'super easy.'
'It was such a quick transition during COVID that the teachers didn't have much time to figure out online learning,' said Reda Adkins, a graduate of Perry High School in Perry, Ohio, 'and so they were laid back and there was no pressure on the students to study and learn.'
According to a 2021 Frontiers in Psychology survey, 33% of college students were concerned about their academic futures due to the pandemic.
'I don't feel there are many advantages to taking classes online,' said Sam Lodge, a graduate in economics at the University of Wisconsin. 'It hurt me academically because it was harder to learn and process the information.'
'I didn't like online learning and missed the structure of going to class, including classroom discussions,' said McClain.
'The professors prepared me academically,' said Matthew Shea, who received his diploma from Pennsylvania State University. 'However, it was hard to pay attention during the lectures when you're not in the classroom. I was also more hesitant to ask questions online rather than in-person, where I am more comfortable raising my hand.'
However, other students adapted to learning virtually, Pasquerella noted.
'Most students were skeptical about learning online during the pandemic, but after in-person college classes resumed, many wanted to have more online courses, especially for the flexibility.'
According to a new survey by TimelyCare, a virtual health and well-being program for students in higher education, about 80% of graduating seniors say the pandemic affected their workforce preparedness.
'I'm looking for employment right now,' Lodge told VOA. 'During COVID, the lack of being social, including talking to new people, has had an impact on my reaching out to people who are hiring.'
Despite a disrupted college experience and trepidation about entering the workforce, nearly all of this year's college graduates are hopeful for their future, TimelyCare said.
'I'm looking forward to my work as a clinical psychologist in primary health care at a hospital in New York,' said Buxbaum, who completed her doctoral degree.
'I feel like I'm regaining my mental energy, and I'm going to a local community college in northern Virginia to study to become a nurse,' said high school graduate Hernandez.