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“Mentally I am not in a good place”: Students struggle with school amid election anxiety

The pandemic was already straining students’ ability to learn. Now, they’re distracted by the election.

A group of University of Pittsburgh students set up a table on campus to encourage their peers to vote.
Aaron Jackendoff/Getty Images

Briana Daugherty did not anticipate spending her post-Election Day morning on a six-hour road trip back to campus. The University of Oklahoma senior had been staying in her family’s Houston home after an ice storm swept through OU’s campus, triggering severe power outages. Daugherty, who’s studying air traffic control, could no longer afford to miss any more in-person lectures for her 4 pm Wednesday class, and was pressured into driving back.

“Our student government passed a policy that allowed students to have Election Day off, but we’ve already missed a couple days of classes because there was a massive ice storm,” she told me, during her drive to campus. “Teachers were already pushing back assignments and making exceptions, so a lot of tests fell on election week instead of last week, making it incredibly hard.”

“I was up last night until about 1:30, and we left Houston at 7 am,” she added. “I just don’t feel like I have the mental capacity to even fill out a class schedule.”

As millions of votes are still being counted nationwide, America is left at an uncertain standstill. This permeating sense of anxiety — one that is usually quelled in the morning hours of election night — has dragged into the next day, even though the presidential returns were expected to take longer than usual. Most Americans have no choice but to head back to work or school and to carry on as usual, even as the president falsely claims that he has won the election.

In a year that’s been uniquely exhausting for millions of Americans, from essential workers to parents working from home, there seems to be a disregard to the plight of graduate and undergraduate students whose coursework capacity has been strained by the coronavirus. The pandemic has taken a serious toll on students’ mental health and well-being. Many are struggling financially, and cash-strapped institutions likely aren’t offering as much financial aid or wellness resources as they previously have.

And students like Daugherty are not being paid to work through this high-stakes election. In fact, they’re the ones paying for these classes, while the terms and conditions surrounding lecture attendance, assignment deadlines, and exam schedules are often dictated with little or no student input. Most aren’t given time off school on Election Day to vote, and young people’s schedules tend to change over the week, depending when assignments are due, compared to a typical 9-to-5 workweek.

Like most Americans, these students feel scatter-brained, distracted by the impending election results and how, depending on a Trump or Biden win, the country’s future could be dramatically affected. A sophomore at Illinois State University spent election night working on two different essays due at the end of the week, a timeline she felt didn’t take into consideration students’ “imminent fears for the future based on election results.”

One first-termer at Penn State Abington spent nearly an hour commuting to campus on November 4 for an in-person Spanish test. And a Florida State University junior told me she was assigned two online exams scheduled to be due at 11:59 pm on Wednesday. In some ways, the schedule of a full-time student can be as demanding, if not more demanding, than those working eight-hour days.

“We have assignments and classes, and we have to study on top of that. It’s hard to even step away for voting,” said Alyssa, a first-year graduate student at UNC’s School of Pharmacy, who asked Vox to refrain from publishing her full name due to privacy concerns. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students from Alyssa’s cohort have certain hours blocked out from their schedule for exams and classes. On November 3, she said they were given two exams that had to be completed by 8 pm, in addition to participating in a mandatory three-hour lab.

Alyssa and some classmates had voted early, but overall, she said it didn’t feel like the school and its professors prioritized student wellness during a stressful election week.

“Since we had two exams in one day, many felt unprepared for the flexible exam and felt they couldn’t leave their computers for the hours it would take to go to vote, or feared that they would miss the exam deadline if they went,” Alyssa wrote to me over text. “I heard of some people taking the exam at 6 am, but with such a heavy workday ahead of us, that would be too mentally exhausting for many.”

Since Election Day is not a federal holiday, many universities like UNC operate on the premise that classes should continue as usual, without considering the time-intensive, logistical challenges that young voters face getting to the polls.

“I think not all, but many school systems are failing to connect the importance of civic engagement with our daily lives,” Erika Neal, a 22-year-old graduate student in California, told Vox in early October. In 2016, Neal’s packed class and work study schedule prevented her from casting a ballot, since she didn’t have time to take a train to the polling location where she was registered.

A student’s academic performance, especially on midterms and thesis projects, could significantly affect the trajectory of their professional career. That makes it difficult for young people to be as engaged in the political process as they’d like, even as students begin to realize how “politics is involved in every single aspect of our lives,” as Neal put it.

Some students feel that their focus isn’t just consumed by the slow returns, but by the response from ideologically adverse peers and educators.

“Seeing as I’m going to school in a very red state, there are plenty of people who express their political opinions freely and this also includes two professors I have in person,” said Deja Gordon, a sophomore at Louisiana State University. “Mentally I am not in a good place, and I just need a day or two to focus on myself, my beliefs, and everything.”

Still, higher education has somewhat adapted to handle the post-election roller coaster, at least compared to years past.

Lucas Landherr, a teaching professor of chemical engineering at Northeastern, said he adjusted his lesson plans accordingly in 2020. “I have three different classes today and just general worksheets for each, and told students they could skip class without issue,” he told me. Last election cycle, Landherr just went ahead and taught as usual although “the emotions in the room outweighed any potential learning.”

Some professors found it beneficial to continue classes as scheduled, but were more lenient toward assignments and attendance during election week.

“There’s been so much pressure to focus everything through the US lens in the last four years that it often feels like an unconscious version of America-first, only that it comes from inside the academy,” Yuliya Komska, a Dartmouth associate professor of German, explained to me over Twitter messages. As an instructor for a beginner language class, Komska thought her course could serve as counterprogramming to the wall-to-wall election coverage, as they discussed German politics instead.

“I think it’s such a stark contrast to my experience in undergrad in 2016,” said a PhD student at Harvard’s Department of Government. “Over the past couple of weeks, my instructors have taken time out of class sessions to discuss what our preferences were for how class should be conducted after November 3.” Some professors have offered to host open Zoom sessions for students to discuss the returns, and some changes were also made in the syllabi to adapt to the election.

These exemptions, however, often vary by program or by teacher rather than applying at an institutional level. The editorial board at Rice University’s student newspaper applauded the administration for taking steps to help students vote, for example, but argued that the impact of an election often extends past the voting deadline.

“Even though not every election will be as divisive as this one, this is still an opportunity from which we can learn. Our well-being cannot bounce back immediately after a day of rest,” the students wrote. “We ask, in the future, that you choose to allow students ample time to digest the results of elections.”