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Schmidt '21: The science of isolation and why first-years at Brown need more support

The COVID-19 pandemic has been defined by one ultimate feeling: loneliness. Whether through isolation, quarantining or social distancing, public health over the last year has depended on minimizing contact with others as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus. These circumstances have had unique consequences for first-years during what should have been an exciting and elucidating time. Instead, their introduction to college has been rife with social isolation and stress. 

The first-year experience at Brown for the class of 2024 is unique in that its challenges are unlike anything many upperclassmen have experienced before, with one of the primary difficulties being social isolation from their peers, whom they have only been allowed to meet through Zoom. The science behind this prolonged isolation and its potential long-term health impacts underscore the necessity for more accommodations that can set current first-years up for personal and academic achievement during their subsequent semesters of college.

The science of the neurological impacts of social isolation are complex and not completely understood, but more and more evidence suggests that social stimulation is more than just desirable: It is intrinsically and biologically necessary. Experiments conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on how dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) neurons influenced the behavior of mice when they were socially isolated. The DRN is a part of the brain that controls many physiological functions like memory and learning. It has also been implicated in mood disorders like depression. Stimulation of these DRN neurons with light led to social interaction-seeking behavior, while suppression led to the mice preferring isolation over socialization with other mice. The researchers’ work showed that social interaction is a necessary function that has biological roots, as demonstrated by the wiring in our brains specifically designed to help us seek it out. These findings align with previous theories from psychology and the “need to belong” in humans, and a very similar process is most likely at play in humans as well as in mice brains.

Future research will show us the effects of ongoing social distancing and virtual interactions on physiological and mental health. Already, the studies on the biological basis of social interaction and isolation have strong implications for almost everyone’s experience, especially that of first-years, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic could correlate with the uptick in negative mental health symptoms experienced by the general public. According to a survey from the United States Census Bureau, 42 percent of U.S. adults surveyed in December 2020 said they had experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression, a stark increase from the 11 percent who reported similarly in early 2019. And while virtual meetings through Zoom and other digital platforms are one of our only alternatives to interacting in person, experts agree that this experience does not nearly compare to the stimulation that in-person, face-to-face socialization gives. Virtual interactions even have the potential to hamper our in-person social skills. 

As a member of the class of 2021, though it is disappointing that the pandemic dashed the fun and revelry of our last year of college, I cannot imagine being in the position of a first-year student at Brown right now. First-years across the country, including those at Brown, are facing unique challenges brought on by the pandemic. Many have had a delayed start to their college experience compared to their peers from high school, with the trimester system dictating that they begin their first semester in January 2021 — already a notorious time for seasonal affective disorder even without social distancing and isolation. For those that decided to be on campus, perhaps the first time moving away from home for some, first-years were greeted with harsh winter weather and 14 days of Quiet Period. While the latter is absolutely necessary from a public health perspective, the difficulty of feeling connected to your peers through Zoom orientation events while alone in a dorm room cannot be ignored by those deciding how to structure students’ lives. After the Quiet Period, first-years faced the unique learning difficulties of “Zoom University” on top of the predictable stress of their first full course load semester. And finally, after struggling to form pods amid social distancing protocol and navigating challenging Brown courses, not only must first-years face a compressed semester without a spring break as a respite from the intense circumstances of the past three months, but they must also trudge through four back-to-back semesters and face potential burnout. 

With all of these hurdles to overcome just to be a student at Brown in the midst of a pandemic, the Brown administration should prioritize first-year students who are asking for accommodations. These accommodations can be things such as mental health breaks and leniency with deadlines. Other solutions include more outdoor activities as a way to provide real in-person interactions that allow students to meet people outside of their small pods. To address the stress of rigorous Brown academics, proposed accommodations include extending the grade option deadline for students beyond three weeks into the upcoming summer semester, and reserving a one or two-day break. Since first-years have less than three weeks between the end of final exams and the beginning of the summer semester, this break can give students an opportunity to rest.  

As an Orientation Coordinator and a Meiklejohn, I have interacted with many first-years in the past few months. I have found their perseverance despite the many challenges the pandemic has thrown at them nothing short of admirable. First-years are facing innumerable obstacles during this pandemic, and the biological impacts of social isolation and stress highlight how necessary accommodations are for their success at Brown.

Rachael Schmidt ’21 can be reached at rachael_schmidt@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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