After a near two-year hiatus, a majority of students are back on campus. However, something has felt off to many. The dining hall is mostly closed, the Student Union building isn’t buzzing like it used to, and many are struggling to adjust back to the social life after the COVID-19 pandemic.
This struggle is a reoccurring theme that the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the English Department, Dr. Siân Silyn Roberts, has noticed. This trend has been so noticeable in fact that the English department as a whole discussed the issue on their Slack channel.
Dr. Roberts wrote the following testimony and presented it to both Queens College President Frank H. Wu and the CUNY Board of Trustees. As of Dec. 12th at noon, she has not heard back from either.
“Within the faculty, the English faculty, there’s there’s been unanimous support for, you know, both the the testimony that I delivered, and just in general, like a collective response to what we see as a kind of unprecedented mental health crisis among our students,” she said.
When she sat down to discuss the ‘mental health crisis’ on campus with The Knight News, she discussed what she has seen from students. “I have seen suicidal students, I have seen students who are struggling with grief, I have seen students who are having domestic instability, like all like all kinds of tragic personal circumstances,” she stated.
Is there a connection to the COVID-19 pandemic? Dr. Roberts thinks so.
“However, there has been a more general malaise among students and more general feeling of disconnection from their studies and from their college and from each other that I think is very much a function of a kind of post pandemic era.”
It’s not just students coming to Dr. Roberts and other English professors and outright speaking about mental health struggles, but rather an increase in lapses in academia.
“We have students just dropping out, not showing up, showing up once every month or so, some students submitting work, but never actually coming to class,” she stated. “Students who have stopped doing the reading, you know, who frankly, admit to the professor, that they’re not doing the reading anymore, but they keep coming. And so it’s… it’s a lot of them.”
Dr. Roberts stated that Queens College has not held up ‘its side of the bargain’ in terms of providing students with everything they need to truly come back to campus.
“Queens College has not returned to anything like if it was pre-pandemic, socially. Like it wants us back in the classrooms. But it hasn’t… I don’t think it’s fulfilled its side of the bargain,” she said. “I don’t think it’s made Queens College a hospitable place to return to, right? It wants people back in the classrooms. But it doesn’t necessarily — it hasn’t yet made the the transition to what college should be.”
The question then becomes: What can be done? While Dr. Roberts’ testimony to both President Wu and the CUNY Board of Trustees is a step in the right direction, there can be more done. In a sit down with The Knight News, President Wu was asked what the biggest problem facing Queens College today is. President Wu simply stated ‘enrollment’ before having to run to another meeting. Dr. Roberts believes that enrollment does effect the mental health crisis in a sense.
“Now, that said, enrollment is a big issue. And without enrollment, obviously we are facing a funding crisis. But this is where the argument gets a little bit circular, right, is that if we have an enrollment crisis, we don’t get funding and if we don’t get funding, then we can’t make some of these changes to campus life that will make campus more appealing.”
She believes it ties into the ‘bigger picture’ of the ‘systemic underfunding and neglect of CUNY’ that we have seen for far too long. When asked about how seeing the student body struggle like this makes her feel, Dr. Roberts got emotional, having to stop for a brief moment to wipe her tears and collect herself.
“There is a very, very special bond between professors and their students. And it’s hard to describe, and you just, you adore them, you just, you only want good things for them, and you want them to get the most out of their education, and you want to see them succeed, and you want to see them thrive, and you want to see them happy,” she emotionally stated. “It’s heartbreaking, because you guys are hustling, like, you guys are hustling so hard, you’re working so hard. And I want every opportunity on campus available to you, and we can’t give it to you.”
At the end of her conversation with The Knight News, Dr. Roberts was asked what message she would send to every student on campus that’s struggled. She responded:
“I would say your professors are thinking about you more than you know, and they’re wishing good things for you more than you know. They want to help you, probably more than you know. And the support structures, they’re here on campus, you know, they do exist, but unfortunately, because of the inadequacy of those support structures, you have to go looking for them in a way that you shouldn’t have to. If we were if we were better funded, and I would ask them to be resilient, and I would ask them to be devoted to their studies, but I also know that that’s just really hard right now.”
Dr. Roberts and the English department have scheduled a faculty-only meeting tomorrow, Dec. 13th, to discuss the mental health crisis on campus. Dr. Roberts then hopes to bring in the student perspective into the conversation in order to best tackle the issue.
Editor’s Note: If you or somebody you know is battling mental health issues, there are resources available on campus:
Queens College’s Counseling Services:
Building: Frese Hall
Room: 1st floor (Enter through the back door closest to Klapper and Kiely Hall)
Hours: Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm
NYC Well: 1-888-692-9355 for 24/7 crisis support
Crisis Text Line: Text ‘CUNY’ to 741741
SAMHSA National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357 for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 988