By Florian Direny || Staff Writer

As far as I can remember, I have always been academically competitive. From my childhood in Haiti to my more recent years in the United States, I have always tried to push myself towards achieving academic excellence and have been relatively successful at living up to that standard. As a result, my academic successes have been a huge part of my identity, helping shape my sense of self-worth and self-esteem. The pandemic dealt a huge blow to all of that.

Many students that I have spoken to have also opened up about the academic difficulties they experienced during the beginning of the pandemic. These ranged from their struggle with the increased workload associated with the shortened terms, to their inability to focus during online classes. Another recurring theme in my conversations with students has been the utter lack of motivation experienced by most to do work in online contexts. Some attributed this lack of motivation to academic isolation whereas others blamed it on a perceived lack of accountability due to the online nature of courses.

For my part, I also found it difficult to take online classes seriously. There was something unofficial about sitting in my room, listening to my professors speak on a computer screen in which most of the students had their cameras turned off, with some only occasionally unmuting to drop a couple of words for participation. I longed for the intellectual warmth of an actual classroom, missed the heated in-class discussions, craved for genuine in-person connections, and yearned for the proximity of my peers and professors. As a result, I found it harder to focus and experienced two of my poorest academic semesters ever. As someone who had never experienced academic setbacks before, this was a massive blow to my ego.

Students on campus who, like me, experienced an academic setback during the pandemic might be asking themselves how to move on from that situation. They might be wondering what to do when their academic confidence is abruptly challenged by an unpredictable event. They might even be pondering if there are any positives that can be drawn from being in such an academically uncomfortable position. To address these concerns, I would like to share insights derived from my personal experience with academic underperformance during the pandemic. My hope is that this will empower others who, like me, have experienced academic setbacks from online classes.

My less-than-stellar performance during the beginning of the pandemic was arguably one of the best things that could have happened to me. It sounds almost ironic to say, but performing somewhat poorly during the pandemic pushed me to explore the true extent of my potential and skills. When I first looked at my grades at the end of the first online semester, I was unable to deal with the fact that I had not maintained my previous academic standards. An unshakeable feeling of inadequacy hung over me for weeks. As that feeling subsided, I came to realize that I had to do something to put myself in a more academically desirable position. From that point on, I also understood that relying solely on my academics would not allow me to make the most out of my college experience. 

During my prior years at F&M, I had been so focused on keeping a perfect academic record that I neglected to explore the fullness of what F&M had to offer. However, following my less than ideal online performance, I found myself more open to exploring the full range of extracurricular opportunities available on campus. I got involved in multiple organizations and even started my own on-campus club (Shout-out to F&M’s Mindfulness Club!). I became more sociable, less anxious, and happier overall. My writing grew more creative and my thinking more open and multidimensional. I also found myself more willing to reach out and seek help when needed. All of these personal improvements made my subsequent academic experience richer and much less stressful.

I am currently enjoying my in-person classes and am much less worried about my performance in them than I am about learning information that I am truly interested in. I still care greatly about my academics and have retained some of my competitiveness, but I have also carried with me the lessons from my subpar online performance. 

To anyone who has experienced disappointing academic outcomes during the pandemic: It is not the end of the world! This can be a great opportunity for you to grow as a person and improve as a scholar. This experience does not negate any of your previous achievements nor does it reflect your true ability or potential. With the right mindset, you can and will overcome this!

Florian Direny is a junior and staff writer for The College Reporter. Their email is fdireny@fandm.edu

By TCR