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The Transformation of Identity: And the Underlining Experience of the Pandemic

Nathalie Paesler, a fourth year student, was noticing a change. It wasn’t just that all her classes were online, or that her once bustling campus full of life and bikes whizzing by was now quiet and empty. It was that her fellow students back at home, in their Zoom rooms, were undergoing not an identity crisis, but reevaluating their sense of identity. So in the spring of 2021, while all students were still taking classes remotely, she launched a project looking at how students’ sense of identity has been affected by the pandemic.

The idea came from a “mix of my own experiences as well and seeing a lot of people I knew and how much Covid-19 had affected the student experience, and seeing how people had coped with that,” she said. “I think I noticed a lot of people exploring different aspects of their identity during this time.”

She says that the results so far, a year into the project, have been mixed. There were positives that came out of this reflecting on identity but also a lot of “hardship.”

“There were a lot of themes of personal growth and change. A lot of people had to deal with a lot of the negative outcomes of the pandemic and being an online student that you would expect, like the lack of motivation, or a feeling like you have to deal with a lot of things on your own,” she said.

“But then that was often paired with personal growth, being able to focus on yourself or overcome hardships that you might not have expected yourself to be able to overcome,” Paesler added.

Many of the obstacles students expressed facing were adjusting to being back at home and being with family and the dynamics that come along with that. Also many students were dealing with economic struggles having to work jobs while also going to school, Paesler said.

Yet, there were positives too.

“Many people had a bit more time to get to their schoolwork and were able to excel a little bit more. People were also able to explore gender and sexuality identity was something that came up a few times. As well as, I think, just fostering a sense of resilience,” she said.

The project consists of a student survey with open-ended questions and asks students to express themselves via artwork they produce with regards to how the pandemic has affected their sense of identity.

“The goal is to really keep it open ended,” Paesler said as to why art became the medium outlet. “I think it’s becoming more and more clear everyday that people have had a very different experience with Covid depending on a lot of different factors like their social class, their race, their hobbies, gender and sexual identity. I feel like all these things intersected a lot to create a lot of different experiences. ,”

By using open-ended survey questions and pairing it with art, Paesler felt this would cover more ground and provide more insight, as students would have various ways to tell their story.

Paesler said they provided the participants with art materials, but within that “there was a pretty decent range of stuff, like construction paper, as well as physical art things like popsicle sticks, small glitter things, and letters.”

“The goal was not to just offer drawing or painting,” she said. Some people provided two and three dimensional objects, as well as digital pieces, but the forum was wide open and no experience in art was required.

“I know it can be a little intimidating to hear art project, but it’s really not meant to be. You don’t have to have any type of skill. It doesn’ have to be ‘objectively good art,’” Paesler said, using scare quotes. “It’s mainly meant to be so like a stress free activity. The goal is to make it sort of fun and enjoyable and no one has to be good at art.”

The art kit is quite extensive. It consists of: construction paper, popsicle sticks, foam letters, glitter glue, colored pencils, glitter puffballs, buttons, and googly eyes. In order to obtain funding for these materials Paesler applied to and was awarded with an URCA grant, the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities grant.

In addition, she is being mentored by two graduate students Ali Muller and Devin Christman, and Professor Diana Arya

The original goal of the project, Paesler said, was to figure out how to best support students while they were dealing with online school. Now that UCSB is back in person, she says that now they are “looking into gaining insight in how students form their sense of identity both in a traditional college setting and then not, and the back and forth. How the change affected them.”

But the overall goal is how best to support students going through these transitions and adjustments.

Going forward Paesler intends to present her findings at the Girvertz Graduate School of Education Conference that opens up panels to undergraduate students, and then to eventually turn that presentation into a paper.

Paesler is still accepting submissions. If you are interested in participating you can email her at as well as access the survey

As of now, heading into spring quarter UCSB is intending to go back to in person classes. The whizzing bikes are slowly coming back.

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