PLYMOUTH — Students participating in a virtual roundtable with Sen. Maggie Hassan recently talked about the challenges of attending college in the time of COVID-19, including the difficulty of online learning, financial issues and even food insecurity.

Erin Gaumond, a Plymouth State University student, is an arts major. Some of her work involves sculpture, which must be done on campus.

“I can’t bring my work home,” she said. “When we went home for a short time last semester, a lot of students really struggled.”

She said she knows of students who, when they returned home, were expected to care for younger siblings while trying to keep up their online college work as well as working part-time to bring in needed money.

Many college students were excluded from the $1,200 stimulus checks that were sent out this year, she said. Also, work-study jobs evaporated. Parents out of work during the pandemic also weren’t able to help in many cases.

“I do have many friends, not only at PSU, but at Keene and UNH, who weren’t able to continue their education. They had to defer, or they are looking at an extended time for getting their degree. They may be forced to go an extra year or two years, or have to leave without a degree.”

She urged Hassan to consider relief that could be made available to students who had to quit school and want to go back.

Another student in the Zoom meeting was Rebecca Williams of Keene State College, who has the additional challenge of caring for her 4-year-old son.

“It is a struggle,” Williams said. “We are very tight with our money. I don’t have a meal plan. It’s hard.”

Also in the meeting were staff members associated with the federal TRIO program, which is designed to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Randy Schroeder, associated director of UNH TRIO Student Support Services, said universities in the state have been successful just in the sense that they’ve been able to stay open.

“With so many of my colleagues, the chatter was we’re not going to make it into October. We’ll all be remote again,” he said.

Instead, state campuses have been able to keep the virus in check with masks, social distancing and frequent COVID-19 testing.

Jeanne Hearn, assistant director of the ASPIRE academic support program at Keene, praised students who have been working through challenges created by the pandemic.

“I’m extraordinarily impressed by the resiliency of students,” she said. “These are unheard of kinds of situations to be operating in.

“We have a food pantry we created in our TRIO hallway. There are food pantries on our campus through the generosity of corporate donors, the food bank, donations, and they are busy.

“Students come by all the time and say, ‘Thank goodness this is here because I didn’t know what I was going to eat for the next few days’.”

Patti May, director of PSU Academic Support and TRIO Student Service, said the main thing is that COVID-19 testing at the university has revealed impressively low numbers of positive cases.

“Students are very committed to continuing their education and being here as much as they can,” she said. “The biggest challenges are financial. A lot of students are working way more hours than they should because they are trying to support their families in addition to taking classes. Students are sending money home.”

Another challenge is the lack of reliable high-speed Internet service for people living off campus.

“People sit outside the library in the parking lot to do their homework,” she said. “There is a lot of online tutoring going on.”

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