When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, EARTH University staff, faculty, and students began adapting to an ever-changing “new normal”. Dozens of our office professionals started working from home, our faculty modified every course to be taught virtually, the staff of our commercial banana farm began following increasingly rigorous protocols, and our students got accustomed to using newfound digital tools and not leaving the Guácimo Campus – all to safeguard greater community health.
Confinement has not been easy for anyone; however, each member of the EARTH community has made an effort to foster healthy bonds, open spaces for collective and individual expression, and care for one another – understanding that, united at a distance, we will come out even stronger than we came in. The Student Affairs team has played a critical role in caring for the mental health of all, especially EARTH students. According to University psychologist Jorge Barahona, the first decision made was to listen and consider student opinions through productive dialogue.
“From the beginning, we have held meetings with the leaders of EARTH student clubs, such as the student council, religious groups, African community organizations, the women’s circle, and the men’s group, among others, that have helped us take action. We sought to facilitate spaces for personal growth,” Barahona says. “This is how a program we call ‘Connecting at a distance’ was born, to inspire the creation of in-person workshops with no more than six students in attendance, in which the participants teach their peers yoga, drawing, or dance. We also created virtual spaces to give talks on diverse topics. We recognized the need to make our search for solutions participatory.”
The allowed activities have been evolving in response to the latest conditions of the pandemic, but psychological care has been made available seven days a week since the start. According to Barahona, there has been a considerable increase in the number of students requesting counseling. Due to that influx and thanks to special funding from Mastercard Foundation, psychologist Marta Arrieta was added to the team. Both mental health professionals maintain a full schedule and actively collaborate with students, as well as the Student Affairs and Human Resources teams, to create more safe spaces that help students overcome creeping anxiety, depression, or grief. EARTH employees have also been able to participate in virtual workshops covering topics such as meditation, stress management, and balanced nutrition. Additionally, our commercial-farm workers have received access to additional health services to tame the psychological effects of a recent Ministry of Health-imposed quarantine.
Despite its significant drawbacks, the pandemic has reminded us that – even in turbulent times – we can grow as a community by connecting from afar.