Before the shelter-in-place order that radically changed the course of the college experience, Allison Polmar was at a popular haunt for any student during finals week: the library. Caught between two friends in an argument over a midterm answer, she remembers this as her last concrete social interaction unique to shared study space.
“In the moment it was overwhelming and embarrassing but I would do anything to go back to that time … to just study with people in my major again and feel their energy and to just have their intelligence and opinions rub off on me,” said Polmar, a political science junior.
Like so many other Cal Poly students, Polmar is struggling to adjust to a second quarter of online classes and limited resources. With Kennedy Library and the University Union closed indefinitely and many local coffee shops operating outdoors, students and the local community are finding creative alternatives to social studying in 2020.
Aside from the occasional outdoor excursion, many students remain at home for much of their day to day academic responsibilities. Without a concrete routine, some are finding that the lines between work and personal time are becoming more blurred than normal.
Cal Poly psychology professor Laura Freberg stresses the importance of giving physical messages to the brain when it should be in work mode.
“Time management is like a god right now … that’s really the key to everything,” she said. “There’s a lot more on the student right now than there’s ever been.”
As a textbook writer, Freberg is no stranger to the delicate balance of working from home that students might be struggling with.
“It’s like housework. It doesn’t go away and no matter how much you get done there’s always more to do. I never get that feeling of ‘I’m done with everything’ I get a feeling of ‘I’m done with one thing,’” Freberg said.
In adjusting to life without this separation, many students have developed a new kind of screen anxiety.
“Our brains are programmed so that when you are home you are home to relax … and now all of the sudden we are trying to reprogram our brains. When we’re home … we have to be a student,” Polmar said.
Upon returning to San Luis Obispo after having spent six months at home, Polmar can feel the negative effects of isolation on her coursework.
“Not having that place where you can go to the library and sit and bang out work for three hours undistracted is really difficult,” she said. “A lot of students are feeling that impact with their attention spans and their GPA.”
“For any student who feels locked in, disconnected or working too much … maybe just call your mom to get out of your head,” Freberg said. “The minute we start focusing on other people we feel better.”
While attempting to study safely at Kreuzberg Coffee Shop, liberal studies junior Elana Gladish was happy for a change of scenery despite the numerous distractions.
“It was a little strange because we were right next to the street so there were cars just zooming by but it was a different experience than just being inside my house so I’ll take what I can get,” she said.
Student coffee house Front Porch is one place fighting to make resources available as safely as possible for the student community. By bringing back outdoor service and study spaces for about 20 people, Executive Director Joel Drenckpohl hopes to recapture some of the connection that’s been missing these past months.
“The staff just had this understanding like … we have to do something that meets that need of connecting with other human beings,” Drenckpohl said.
One resource provided by Front Porch is a private room for single students to reserve when they need quiet and privacy.
“If they need to meet with someone online for therapy or a doctor’s appointment … or an interview … we provide that for people who might only have access to shared space,” Drenckpohl said.
However, Drenckpohl acknowledges that there are certain limitations that can’t be worked around.
“Even with what we’re doing now, so much of what I think Front Porch is doesn’t currently exist,” he said. “We’re much more limited now in scope whereas before it was just this open coffee shop that had endless possibilities for what could happen in the space.”
Before coffee shops reopened Gladish had met with peers for a group project in a local park. Spaced far apart on separate blankets she found there was a benefit to talking without a screen between her and four other people.
“It really fills the gaps that Zoom can’t … it was so nice to not have to worry about talking over someone or dealing with the awkward Zoom silence,” Gladish said.
While the university has provided outdoor spaces for students to safely study, attend classes, and socialize outside their homes, it’s unclear what will become of these spaces when SLO’s notoriously rainy winter makes them unusable.
“Opening indoor study space is currently under consideration, however, we need to be consistent and aligned with state and local public health guidance,” Cal Poly communications specialist Keegan Koberl wrote in an email to Mustang News.
Kennedy Library faculty declined to comment on when the library might be used as a study space.
Some students have already begun preparing for even less time outside of their homes in the face of worsening weather.
“It will definitely get harder for me … winter quarter is already tough with weather and just being depressed in general,” Gladish said. “It requires a lot more planning now to find someplace to focus outside your home but I feel like people are already getting used to it.”
Though it may not be possible to escape to the library or inside your favorite coffee shop, for Polmar it’s most important that students remember to be patient with themselves.
“There’s this pressure to have everything together and stay on top of things because we’ve already had a quarter of it but also, we’ve only had a quarter of it,” she said. “No one is having the exact same experience as another person right now.”