‘Everyone is feeling overwhelmed’: Condensed semester weighs on 5C students, staff

A student leans their head on their hand while taking notes.
The shortened semester began one week earlier than the traditional start date and omitted fall break. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

After seven weeks of class and no fall break in sight, Nick Grisanti HM ’23 is one of many 5C students who are feeling burned out.

“As we near the point of the semester in which we would normally have fall break, I am reminded of how helpful it was for me last year,” Grisanti said. “The break gave me time to recharge and begin the second half of the semester re-energized.”

The four-day weekend usually offers him and other Claremont Colleges students a brief hiatus from school — but not this fall. 

With a shortened online semester, occasional Saturday class and finals the week after Thanksgiving break, 5C students are feeling the absence of their usual mid-semester break more than ever. 

In a story published by TSL last week, students said they felt “mentally and physically exhausted” from having to deal with a remote semester while on the condensed schedule. Some are even calling for an impromptu fall break — though admin have said the colleges are not considering it. 

Originally meant to minimize travel, shortened semester persists over Zoom

On June 11, the Presidents’ Council of the Claremont Colleges announced the fall semester would be shortened to minimize “the potential for disruption and/or virus spread due to travel” if students were brought back to campus, according to Scripps College President Lara Tiedens.

The shortened semester began one week earlier than the traditional start date, eschewed the mid-October fall break, added instructional days on two Saturdays and slated coursework to finish the Tuesday before Thanksgiving with finals starting the following Monday, wrapping up the semester with a week less instruction than usual.

“I think a lot of professors felt pressure to maintain the academic integrity and rigor of their courses in a way that didn’t drop assignments or exams or additional readings that probably could have been dropped. And I think students feel the pressure to keep up with it,” Pitzer Student Senate President Becca Zimmerman PZ ’21 said.

On Oct. 3, Zimmerman and the Pitzer Academic Planning Committee sent a survey to the Pitzer College student body, which asked students how they’re experiencing this semester. 

“It turns out everyone is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted,” she said. “And when I shared this with the faculty and the administrators, they quite frankly just didn’t realize that we were all going through this. And a big part of that is because they’re going through it, too.” 

The results were not shocking to APC member Jacob Brittain PZ ’23.

“This has been our cry for help. This has been the faculty’s cry for help. It is now time for administrations to act and make institutional changes, and urge professors to change how the rest of the fall 2020 semester looks,” Brittain said via email.

Students call for fall break on social media 

The Claremont McKenna College Dean of Students’ office urged students to “Build Your Own Fall Break” on Instagram — suggesting students “try to disconnect from technology,” go outdoors and do an at-home spa day with items from a local drugstore, among other activities. 

“Since this unkind semester did not bring a Fall Break, we wanted to encourage you to build your own! Or ‘BYOFB’ as the cool kids say,” the caption said.

Students reacted to the suggestion with negative comments.

“I don’t have time to do these things because we don’t have fall break,” one commenter wrote on the public page. “Maybe we would build our own fall break if we had the time to,’” another said. 

A commenter who self-identified as a staff member in the Dean of Students’ office replied: “I too wish you all had a Fall Break, but we in DOS don’t have the final say in shaping the academic calendar.”

The post’s message, the commenter said, was that “being in a constant state of ‘grinding’ is hard to sustain. Though school is important, your entire well-being will always be more important.”

Nobody Fails at Scripps, a student-led organizing group that advocated for grading policies in the spring and distributed mutual aid to students, is calling for an impromptu fall break from Oct. 21 to 23. The group is asking students to email faculty and administration with a pre-written template for either a break, class cancellation or work reduction by professors on those dates.  

“It is unjust to demand students complete an accelerated, typically-graded semester while struggling with challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic without a break,” an Instagram post, which has accumulated more than 400 likes, from Nobody Fails at Scripps says. “We must prioritize the wellbeing of our community.”

Scripps and Pomona College spokespeople have said any change to the academic calendar would require agreement from all five colleges. Additionally, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation organization requires a minimum number of course hours by credit. 

“We cannot carve breaks out of the semester without consequences to financial aid and accreditation, both of which are based around a set number of hours in each class throughout the semester,” Pomona vice president of academic affairs Robert Gaines said.

All five colleges would have to agree to an extension of the semester beyond the current exam week (the week following Thanksgiving). We see this path as problematic and we have chosen to honor the expectations that were in place when the term began rather than to introduce further disruption,” Gaines added.

Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College and Harvey Mudd College spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment when asked if they are considering adding a fall break.

‘Unreasonable’: Students and faculty feel academic crunch

Maddy McCue CM ’23, who works a part-time job on the weekend, said one of her classes had a Saturday session that conflicted with a job shift. Some of her professors have made adjustments to their courses by cutting assignments out of the syllabus or curving test scores. 

“It’s unreasonable of them to expect us to just go 15 weeks through the semester without taking a breather,” she said.

Seniors writing theses feel particularly crunched by the altered schedule. 

“[My] thesis timeline has been shortened by about two weeks, maybe three weeks,” Griffin Campbell SC ’21 said. “So it just feels like it’s gone very, very quickly. We’re expected to write a 40-page thesis in three less weeks than they would normally have.”

Campbell noted that her thesis adviser has allowed extra time for some assignments. “At the same time, I think they’re still assigning a lot of work,” she said.

For first-years, the shortened semester has been an introduction to college that has brought mixed responses. 

I’m definitely feeling burnout sooner than I anticipated I would, which I think is a result of the nonstop nature of this semester. I do feel supported by professors though, they seem to be accommodating to the online experience,” Anna Babboni SC ’24 said. 

Jennifer Hu SC ’24 agreed.

“The condensed semester schedule has definitely stressed me out a bit because it feels like a lot of material is being crammed into a shorter amount of time,” she said, “which makes me constantly worry about if I am missing assignments or if a professor mentioned something important in passing that I didn’t happen to catch.”

But it’s not just students who are feeling the burnout. Andre Wakefield, a history professor at Pitzer, noted the difficulty of virtual learning for faculty, too. 

“The problem is that the resources and the support that’s offered is always in a Zoom format or a virtual format and a lot of what we’re all dealing with is Zoom fatigue,” Wakefield said. “ So when you get supported by the thing that’s killing you, it’s a structural problem.”

Other students relished in the hope that the shortened semester is an exception, not a norm.

“While I certainly am enjoying this semester far less than my first two and miss my friends dearly, I [am] carrying on knowing the current situation is temporary,” Grisanti said. “As sophomores, we will almost certainly return to campus and resume normal Mudd life before we graduate; this knowledge keeps me moving forward.”

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