by Karin Kirn
As humans, we endure a multitude of life stages; whether they are individual or shared, the experiences that we collect from each of these stages are meant to challenge us, help us learn and grow, and ultimately build our character. With the constant shifting of our environment - be it social circles, work, routine, et cetera - comes the need for support from our fellow humans. This can be in the form of a family member, friend, or therapist; even just the knowledge that you have access to a helpful ear when you need it, of itself, is an incredibly comforting feeling.
One of the most difficult stages in my life was one that hundreds of millions of people have experienced before me, alongside me, or will experience in the future: the transition from high school to college. It’s not something you can ever truly prepare for. You just have to bite the bullet, buy your textbooks, and pack your bags. Those first few months at college away from home were stressful, to say the very least. I had struggled with depression and anxiety for the majority of my life, and living hours away from the home where I’d spent the first 17 years of my life only exacerbated these issues.
My first year at college was a challenging one, but it is still what you would call “normal” by today’s standards; I lived in a dorm, had in-person classes, and could easily hang out with friends in group settings. I was able to develop a support system of friends, and yet I still went to therapy once a week through the college’s counseling and psychology services.
The Class of 2024 was not as fortunate. They had to endure one of the most transformative and challenging phases of their life during a global pandemic. What they’ve experienced, especially during the fall 2020 semester and the beginning of spring, could barely be described as college. Sure, many of them got to live in a dorm - but all of their classes were held virtually. They had to wear masks whenever they went out, and were not permitted in groups larger than 5. There was no orientation, no activities fairs, no parties (at least none that were allowed), no dining halls - none of the things that usually define a freshman’s first year of college. They had to deal with the isolation of quarantine, the threat of a virus, and the lack of engagement in Zoom classes, all the while being away from their homes and families for the first time.
It’s no wonder that college students’ mental health is at an all-time low; according to a nationwide survey by Boston University, ½ of students screened positive for anxiety or depression in the fall, and around ⅔ of them struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Since it’s harder to make friends, it’s also harder for students to develop the support system they need during their freshman year of college.
I’ve spoken to a multitude of first year students, many of whom have lamented that they “should have stayed home” and taken virtual classes from the comfort of their own room, or even taken a gap year in the hopes that by next year things will have returned to some semblance of normal. They’ve told me that it’s been one of, if not the most, mentally taxing times of their lives - it’s not hard at all to believe. When me and a couple of upperclassman friends hung out with a small group of first years outdoors, one of them approached me afterward and excitedly informed me that it was the highlight of their entire semester, and that it was the closest thing to a party they’d been to so far.
Residential advisors have also gotten the short end of the stick this year, having to manage dorm life (which is by itself a difficult job) while also being under the added stress of living in close quarters with restless freshmen during a pandemic. They had to receive extra training for handling a COVID-19 school year, which they were not compensated or even thanked for. My RA friends would tell me stories about life in dorms during the 2020-2021 school year - some of them are to be expected, such as resolving a spat between roommates or helping a particularly drunk resident to the bathroom. Others are much darker; they’ve seen firsthand the damaging effects of coronavirus on the mental health of freshmen, and it has negatively impacted them in turn. Several RA’s that I know began experiencing panic attacks or severe depression, and said that UVA did not provide them with extra resources to help themselves.
As I’m writing this, things have gotten much, much better in terms of COVID, but freshmen are only starting to get a glimpse into what “normal” college life looks like. I wish that UVA and other schools had provided students with more resources to help them cope during these strange times, because again, a helping hand goes such a long way. First years shouldn’t have even been brought back in the fall in the first place - but I digress. Universities should have done better in terms of helping their students feel more at home.
Karin Kirn is a fourth year student at the University of Virginia (UVA). She is majoring in Media Studies and minoring in French. She is currently working as the associate producer for Speaking Candidly with Candace.
From childhood till adulthood, the visual arts have always been my nemesis. I have a distinct memory of when I was five years old. I got so upset that I could not draw an evenly shaped heart into the shag rug of my parents' bathroom that I had a temper tantrum complete with tears because I hated my drawing. In middle school I became obsessed with anime, but never drew anything remotely resembling the colorful, smoothly animated characters I saw on TV. Instead my characters were ill-proportioned with big eyes, oversized heads, arms hidden behind their back to hide the hands, and questionable legs.
Despite my frustrations, I took one year of drawing in High School, and then avoided the class like the plague because I knew I was the worst student in the class. One thing I knew for sure: I couldn't draw as quickly or as accurately as my classmates. By the end of the year, I had three drawings I was proud of: a shoe, a kiwi, (that my teacher thought was an avocado at first) and some seashells. Everything else was horrible and I was frustrated.
College was no different, the first art class I took, I barely passed with a C. The only drawing my professor praised was my version of a statue. Still, I tried again, determined for a better grade.
Unlike my earlier art instructors, this professor treated art as a skill to develop based on our current talents.. I remember dreading the moment she came around on our first still life drawing exercise. We had a plethora of objects on a table in the middle of the room: vases, plastic fruits, a Chinese takeout box, bowls, teapots, cups, you name it--with the instruction that we had to draw what we could see while adding in background foreground elements like the table, blackboard, chairs etc.
Here we go again, I thought. She's going to pass by, seeing that I only finished drawing the takeout box, the beginnings of a vase, a wonky table, and a deformed rolling chair in an hour, and come back later, hoping I had done more.
"Oh", she remarked, "It looks like you measured the distance between the vase and the takeout box right. And good job on the angle of the takeout box lid."
What? Praise right off the bat. Had I finally mastered the art of measuring angles with a stick rather than my eyeballs? I was elated, but confused.
"What about the chair?" I asked, "I've been trying to get the distance between it and the table right."
"Oh," she said, looking at it for a moment. "You don't have to worry about that for now. It looks good enough for me and you worked hard to try to get the shape of the negative space right. Just keep working on your objects."
Good enough? What was she getting at?
Emboldened, I showed her some character design later on. Everything about the character was fine, I thought, except the hands, where I'd overdone it, trying to get it right. Her response? "It's nice to see those hands, that area that you focused on."
Nice? But they were so dark compared to the rest of the figure...the balance of value was not evenly distributed across the page! How could she like that?
As the class wore on, I took my first step towards loving my art: letting go of unreasonable perfectionism. The idea that I would get it magically right on the first try like some of my more advanced peers was ridiculous! But that was okay! Their art journey was not my art journey. Instead of feeling disappointed and inferior when I drew something wrong, I could be happy when I drew something right. Instead of being frustrated that the basics didn't come easily, I could spend my time working to improve on my basics. After all, each time I drew something, my brain was learning to memorize the shape, form, value, space. My hands were learning line width, direction, texture. All of this takes time, effort, and multiple attempts, especially for someone who is not typically a visual learner.
Based on my personal experience, I’d like to share some of the steps you can take if you feel like the worst art student in your class. I truly hope they help.
Step One: Let go of feelings and focus on the process
Letting go of my disappointment, anxiety, and frustrations, and instead focusing on the process of learning to draw helped me to be kinder to myself and get involved in the art process. I began to enjoy the challenge of measuring distances and angles, adding in complex shapes and their values, and began to make art my happy place, even if I failed at something simple like drawing a circle or square. As a result, I started to work harder and get better results.
Step Two: Don't compare your art to anyone else's
The second step towards loving my art came later: realizing that yes, all those artists you see with perfect drawings in art books still have something akin to your seventh grade people-drawing skills! Sometimes they even doodle nonsense in their sketchbooks right next to more finished pieces.
I was in the library one day, perusing books on illustration, when I found a book showcasing the personal sketchbooks of successful illustrators. I flipped through well-composed pages, lists of items, and them, bam. On one page, next to some more developed work, was my exact 7th grade figure drawing style as the base sketches for ideas, complete with random cubes and other shapes floating around in space. I was floored! If they could be successful and still drew the way I did from time to time, then I could do the same. Professional artists make mistakes, professional artists take time to develop skills, and without refinement, or hours of work, maybe a professional artists' work looks just like yours!
Step Three: Remember Steps One and Two
The third and final step requires you to be able to remember the first two. Withstanding negative emotions, either from your own criticism or outward criticism, being patient with yourself, knowing that your art journey depends on the skills that you build, and enjoying the process of making art is essential to keeping you motivated and pushing your work in circumstances where critique is not expected, or overly harsh, where you aren't meeting financial goals and are frustrated. The final step is this: any small thing that you do, new skill that you try, new advice that you take, hours that you put in, will be worth it if you decide your art goals are possible.
Written by Anna Wwoyld