It will be ten years since I earned a Bachelor’s degree this upcoming May. In 2012, I graduated from the University of New Mexico where I had attended classes in person since 2009. And while that both feels like forever ago and like it happened yesterday, I do remember one particular aspect of college student life:
As a new academic librarian, I knew I wanted to make sure our various campuses did something to support our students during finals, because I remember the stress and the strain. Graduate school was different—I did that from home and spent most my time just pacing my apartment or playing with my two cats and the laser pointer to put off finishing my final projects. Undergrad was the “authentic” experience. I went from classroom to classroom with my blue books and my mechanical pencils and took the exams necessary to pass, and by the end of each day I was exhausted, even if I’d only had one or two tests to complete. It’s the anxiety and the worry that wears you out. Will I completely forget everything I’ve been studying? What if my chronic stomach issues act up? What if I forget the date and time entirely? (Note, that only happens in nightmares. Unfortunately, I still get said nightmares.)
But here’s the thing: I’m realizing now that my finals experience, and those of others who graduated before 2020, is completely, totally different than what students are dealing with now. That’s been made more obvious by the response we got to our finals support event. It was a good response, mind you, but no where near as large as we would have had in the past. That’s because most finals have moved online, and after the penultimate week of the semester, students have disappeared.
Okay, not all students. We still have those that come to use the computers and print, we still have students whose exams are in-person due to needing hands-on evaluations. Largely, though, most our students are back to being online. And that makes perfect sense to me. We’re dealing with new variants in a global pandemic. When I was in undergrad, my biggest health issues during finals were food poisoning (Summer 2009, also my first semester back at college) and the flu (Fall 2010, the last time I will ever go without a flu shot). Now we’re dealing with Delta, Omicron, and potentially more variants of COVID-19 on the horizon. Yes, if you can stay home during a very stressful time when your immune system is probably being affected by your anxiety levels, please do so!
But what does that mean for our finals programming? I remember seeing events like “stress-free week” where libraries provide massages and aromatherapy and even cute animals to cuddle. Then there are the scavenger hunts, the movie screenings, the coloring sheets… All great stress-busters, but not possible when your student population has moved online.
I don’t see things changing in the immediate future. So what can we do to address this sudden shift in the Finals Week experience? Well, for one, we can shift our events to when we know students will still be around. Our library had guitar performances in the week before finals, which was soothing for both our students in the library as well as for our busy staff. Additionally, the guitar students got to practice their recital pieces in a place full of little distractions like opening and closing doors, ringing phones, and people going here and there. We even had a tour of high schoolers come by.
Another option is to just dial it back. Our other event this year involved handing out popcorn and prizes. That’s all. It worked really well for most of our campuses. We aren’t booking masseuses or asking participation of frazzled students, but we’re still telling them hey, we’re here for you. We see you. Best of luck with this Finals Week, we know it’s tough. And I think that’s a good way to go about it. Students appreciate little gestures. Stopping to get popcorn and play a Plinko game for a prize might have been the first time they paused to do something other than study that day. I could see myself, more than a decade younger and on the verge of tears after a frustrating final exam, grateful for a snack and something fun to take home. Bouncy balls are still surprisingly popular.
That’s what’s important, after all. Maybe the big Finals Week bashes are a thing of the past, but that’s okay. We can still show students we care about them and be there. And that positive experience will bring them back next semester, so we can do it all again.