College and Coronavirus: An Unlikely and Unwelcome Combo

Wake Forest University campus. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

As campuses closed for Thanksgiving, many college students have returned to West Hartford for an extended break, while others chose not to even go away for the fall semester. Maren Beverly, a 2019 Hall High School graduate and a sophomore at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, shares a few of their stories.

Maren Beverly. Courtesy photo

By Maren Beverly

Last March, when we could count the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. on one hand, one of my professors asked us to bring home all of our textbooks for spring break – you know, on the off chance that this virus would shut down colleges nationwide.

It seemed impossible at the time – though I now view this warning as an instance of ominous foreshadowing. Nonetheless, I laughed it off with my friends, embarking on spring break with no textbooks, no worries, no inkling of the devastating year that would follow.

Most college students have a similar stories to tell – stories of moments when the pandemic finally became a reality. When it became more than a (seemingly) melodramatic warning in classrooms. I think for my generation, it will become one of those, “Where were you when…?” moments that always seem to cling to tragedy.

Within days, West Hartford students like me, who had embarked on their first, second, third, or even final year of college just a few weeks earlier, returned home in a mask and in disbelief.

While the spring semester was swapped for quarantine and online classes, the fall 2020 semester loomed in the immediate future, full of question marks. We had survived one semester of online, at-home college, but what would come next? The college experience we all worked so hard for while at Conard and Hall seemed like an unattainable fantasy. Living at home, deferring, returning to campus, all became options. Suddenly, the college path we all intended to seamlessly follow split into multiple directions, each student now embarking on a different path.

Siobhan Boyle. Courtesy photo

Siobhan Boyle, Hall ’19, decided to take the road less traveled, ultimately deferring for the fall semester. With her college, The George Washington University, fully online with no on-campus living available, she decided it was the best option.

Despite the drastic change of plans, the road less traveled became one teeming with unlikely opportunities.

Instead of taking online classes, Siobhan lived in D.C. with friends and worked at a polling firm that did Democratic polling for the election. Working 40 hours a week, she gained valuable corporate experience – an experience a college student would be unlikely to have during a normal year.

“I’m so glad that I did it because I gained a lot of connections and networking in the industry I want to be in after college, and now going into internships and other things I’ve had the experience of working full-time – virtual and some in-person – which I think was such a more valuable experience than staring at my screen all day and taking classes,” Siobhan said. “I’ve now worked in a corporate system and things like that and I just gained a lot more valuable skills than I would have, having done online school.”

Working in politics during a national election was especially incredible for Siobhan. “I got to be involved in this really historic election in a way I definitely would not have been,” she explained. She even casually dropped how she was in TV studios on election day and got to be on calls with former President Obama staffers.

In a strange way, it is hard to imagine where Siobhan would be if the pandemic never happened. It is an unlikely silver lining; she can proudly say that some good came out of the bad.

Anna Czajkowski. Courtesy photo

Anna Czajkowski, Conard ‘19 and a sophomore at Elon University, also decided to defer. Instead of returning to campus, where Elon was offering on-campus living and online classes, she took three classes at the University of Connecticut – all online.

Like many students, Anna echoed concerns about online classes. She says that it was definitely, “not the easiest. I think it hindered my overall learning and education. It was harder to focus, stay motivated and keep track of assignments and due dates.”

While she’s been home since March, Anna said she enjoyed the extra time with her family. “Considering I’ve been home for nine months, it’s easy to feel cooped up. But, by being surrounded by my parents and both of my sisters, I constantly had company,” she said.

Overall, the experience has made her more thankful for everything she has: “a roof over my head, food on the table, good health and a happy family. So many people are so alone during this pandemic and it breaks my heart. I truly am so lucky for all I have.” Next semester, Anna will be returning to Elon.

College students like Anna have definitely become more grateful for all that they have. In an odd way, this pandemic shifted the perspectives of many, forcing us to focus on not what we’ve lost, but what we still have.

Claire Bellucci. Courtesy photo

Claire Bellucci, Hall ‘19 and a sophomore at Fairfield University, who fortunately spent her semester on-campus, also expressed this newfound gratitude.

“I didn’t notice how many things I took for granted before this,” Claire said. “I have always been grateful for my friends and my school, but even small things like being able to visit my sister in New York, which I did all the time because Fairfield’s only an hour away from the city, just getting to see my extended family that lives pretty close by, but not being able to see them when they’re so close – which is a closeness I’ve always taken for granted. I realized how much I rely on my friends for my happiness, for my motivation and to relieve a lot of anxiety that school can cause sometimes. I’ve just been a lot more grateful.”

For Claire, being on-campus came with its difficulties. Fairfield University experienced a surge of cases throughout the fall. Due to contract tracing, she was forced to quarantine for a total of four weeks. The irony of it all is that shenever actually tested positive for the virus.

With an already-shortened semester, it is unfortunate to imagine spending so much time in isolation. Claire, however, is not alone in this experience. For college students nationwide, quarantine became a necessary cost of a semester on-campus, raising the question – is college during a pandemic worth the big bucks?

Yet despite every college student experiencing difficulties this semester, one could argue that the freshman class had it the worst.

Their senior year of high school, after all, had a nightmare ending, an unsatisfying, frustrating ending that meant canceled sports seasons, no prom, and barely even a graduation. I am now incredibly thankful for the normal senior year that I had. The memories my Hall graduating class and I have are now as rare and sought after as an endangered animal, one that has gone temporarily extinct.

Sami Farber. Courtesy photo

Sami Farber, who graduated from Hall this past spring, is one of those seniors who has trudged through this year with remarkable resilience.

Now a freshman at the University of Maryland, she lamented the difficulties of meeting people and taking online classes. Most of her classes were asynchronous.

Luckily, Sami is a motivated student, “but for an unmotivated person it could be really hard because there’s absolutely no structure,” she said. While she has yet to experience a college campus in its normalcy, she notes that once life returns to normal, she will be much more appreciative of it all.

“I don’t take anything for granted anymore. I used to complain about waking up for school and all that, but like now not having that – I haven’t seen my grandparents or any of that stuff – that’s just super hard. So I’ll never take the simple things for granted,” she said.

Hall and Conard Class of 2020 graduates like Sami, hopefully, will soon get the college experience they deserve.

Moving into winter, it is impossible to predict what next semester will hold for college students. West Hartford is a wonderful town to be raised in, but the world is bigger than the town center, and college students are keen to explore what’s out there.

Being a college student means being out in the world and forging your own path, living beyond a computer screen.

While there still remains so much uncertainty, one thing is for certain: college students will return to post-pandemic life more resilient, grateful, and eager than ever before.

Maren Beverly graduated from West Hartford’s Hall High School in 2019, and is currently a sophomore at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, majoring in English with a minor in Spanish and creative writing. She will be interning with We-Ha.com while she is home for her extended break.

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