By Zoey Angelucci
Every April, Point Park students joyfully finish their semester by celebrating with end-of-year activities. April is a time of performances, showcases, banquets and of course, graduation. Students spend their last few weeks together before the summer break, while seniors can take these final days as an exciting end before their new beginnings.
However, this year students are feeling anything but joyful or excited. Instead, they are just feeling burned out.
“I feel like I’m dragging myself through the semester,” Jesse Dillion, junior interdisciplinary design major, said. “My grades are not as good as they usually are because not having a break has been extremely harmful to my mental health.”
Rain Diaz, sophomore acting major, should be focusing on the end-of-year performances right now. But instead, he has felt burnt out since midterms.
“Every week, every day even, started blending together,” Diaz said, “and I ran out of energy to finish my assignments around six or seven weeks into the 15-week term.”
Because of the pandemic, the university decided to extend winter break by another week and remove the usual spring break in the middle of the semester. The decision meant 15 weeks straight of classes. However, when midterms rolled in, students within the Conservatory of Performing Arts were given a type of break, unlike other students.
Giving students the option of spring break would have likely resulted in a super spreader result once back on campus, Dr. Jonas Prida, acting provost, said. With students traveling on vacations or simply just home for the break, coming back to campus would only increase case numbers. In the eyes of Prida, both options are bad because students and faculty are now exhausted.
“There is a reason spring break exists,” Prida said, “and it’s not so people can just go to the Bahamas. It gives everybody a chance to catch their breaths and kind of refocus for the last half of the semester. We couldn’t figure out a way to make it happen for students this semester.”
While many students and faculty understand the purpose of this decision, that did not make things less stressful or any easier.
“It is something that adds additional stress on top of a pretty stressful experience for the whole year,” Kurt Kumler, a licensed psychologist, the director of the counseling center, and an assistant professor of psychology said.
“Zoom fatigue” and the never-ending stream of assignments pressure both students and faculty. Kumler said there is a reason universities and institutions usually require a spring break: Going through 15 weeks of educational material and work is not normal or beneficial.
COPA students using their bodies every day for their education feel the added pressure. Sophomore dancer, Aniela Marcin finds herself especially drained after weeks of dance classes, rehearsals and academic classes. The constant strain with no break has taken a toll on her mentally and physically.
“A majority of my classes require in-person physical exercise and activity,” Diaz said. “And with no real break to recharge or rest, this term has felt like a chore more than a fun educational experience.”
Keeping this chore-like experience in mind, Marcin explained COPA’s decision to give their students a “relief week” over the week of March 8. According to Marcin, a mass email was sent out to COPA students about this break a week prior.
“This meant no dance classes would be held that week,” Marcin said. “The purpose of this week was to rest our bodies and brains before finishing the second half of the semester.”
For Marcin, the break came at a perfect time. At that point in the semester, she struggled both mentally and physically. She took the week to relax.
Diaz explained that he believed the relief week was something encouraged by the entire Conservatory. Though it was less of a traditional spring break, Diaz said professors were suggested to give students a lighter week. For many students, classes were canceled and written reflections or one-on-one meetings were assigned instead.
Despite this, Steven Breese, artistic director and dean of COPA, and Prida both dismissed the “rumor” of COPA relief week. Breese explained faculty held midterm evaluations such as one-to-one meetings, practica, etc, as Diaz mentioned.
“The department remained open and active as they performed midterm evaluations,” Breese said. “The same as we do every semester.”
Prida assured there was no official policy from the university or COPA that portrayed a relief week for COPA students. The relief of class cancelations or one-on-one meetings was more of the faculty choosing what to do with their classes and students.
Regardless of the exact policy and wording of the relief week, both Marcin and Diaz understood the week as a more lax midterm evaluation than any other semester before. Because of this, some COPA students had the luxury of taking a break at home, while other department students received no break.
Issues arose with the relief week because of their traveling. As Prida said, the purpose of no spring break was to eliminate students traveling. The relief week did the opposite, according to students throughout the Conservatory.
“Allowing a bunch of people to go home completely defeats the purpose of not having a spring break,” Dillon said. “If they can all go home, why can’t everyone else? It just doesn’t make sense to me that one department can allow their students to have a break, while every other department is forced to just chug along.”
Taking away spring break was a common decision across the board for many universities, including other city schools, Pitt and Duquesne. However, in place of no spring break, many universities scheduled mental health days for their students to have a day off here and there in the schedule. Point Park never offered those to students.
The reason surfaces because of the normal schedule of the university, Prida said. Because most students, with the exception of most COPA students, do not have classes on Fridays, choosing which days to provide as days off became challenging. Certain requirements and hours must be met to reach course standards.
Prida wishes faculty, including himself, could have had more time to reimagine the semester. In his “perfect world,” there would have been one mental health day early in the semester, another towards the middle and a final towards the end.
Kumler cannot speak as to if these mental health days would be beneficial or not because he simply does not know. He acknowledged the need for the institution to try as best as possible to accommodate needs. But more importantly, he urged the importance of giving ourselves and others permission to do what is necessary to get by.
“I can tell you as an instructor and a professor…” Kumler said, “I am giving myself a break and I am giving students a break because that is what we need to do to get through tough times.”
Regardless of any rumors or speculations around the lack of spring break, faculty and students are looking towards the end of the semester in hopes of never having to repeat a semester similar to this one.
“To expect paying students to function productively for 15 weeks straight with no real chance to rest, apart from the conservatory’s mild exception, is bizarre,” Diaz said. “It totally disregards everything we understand about mental health and recuperation, and I seriously hope the University reconsiders this for next year.”