College is a time for self-exploration, learning, forming connections, and developing independence. With the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of college students across the U.S. found their lives upended, resulting in an exodus of young adults from universities back to their hometowns.
Several Wilton High School graduates who are current college students shared their circumstances and feelings about the interruption to their college experiences caused by COVID-19.
Most students found out their schools were closing in-person campus life via email, as Riley Wadehra, who is finishing her fourth and final year as an environmental science major at Colorado College, recalled.
“The day before everyone was supposed to finish their finals, me included, Colorado College sent out an email that said we’d be going to virtual learning and move out by next Wednesday… so it was a complete madhouse on campus that day,” Wadehra said. “I was sitting in the library studying for finals when the email came out and me and my friend were like, ‘Well, we’re not going to study for our final anymore,’ so I just shut my computer.”
The experience was similar for Jackson Walker, a third-year applied mathematics student at Harvard. “We got the email [Tuesday] March 10 and we had to be out of our room by March 15 at 5 p.m.… that Tuesday was so chaotic. There were no provisions for low-income students. Then throughout the week they started… giving storage to students and offering if you could not afford a plane ticket to reach out and they’ll pay for it… but it was just hysteria and then the university slowly catching up,” Walker explained.
‘Chaotic’ is a good word to use for what was happening around the same time on campus for George Murphy, who is finishing his first year at Fordham University.
“I’m in the Bronx, at Fordham, and it’s super-populated right outside. I remember being on the bus… the day they announced that they would have to cancel classes. And I remember looking at all the people out there, super hustle-and-bustle on Fordham Rd., and it was kind of scary. For the people there just going about their day, they’re in a lot worse situation than we are right now. And then the moment I entered campus it was a free-for-all. They first canceled classes and then two hours later they told us to go home as soon as possible,” Murphy said.
Alex Hollander, a third-year student at the University of Vermont, was studying abroad at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam at the time of the coronavirus outbreak. She was forced to end the semester early and come back to the States. “When WHO announced that [COVID-19] was a pandemic, and then Trump issued the travel ban, I had a friend who booked a flight at 2 [o’clock] that morning. It cost her around $1,500 because everyone was trying to get flights back to the United States because Trump didn’t mention that [the travel ban] only applied to non-US citizens. It was a rush. People were booking flights and leaving the next morning. There were 80 kids in my program and I’d say around 20-30 left after the travel ban.”
All of the students recalled an eerie, end-of-the-world atmosphere.
“It was like a doomsday feeling on campus because we knew we were leaving the next day,” Wadehra said. “We were holding out hope but we didn’t expect to come back. Especially for the seniors, it was like nothing mattered anymore.”
Walker echoed the sentiment. “It felt really dystopian. It was crushing to say those goodbyes.”
At first, it was unclear whether the goodbye would be permanent or not. “We left with the expectation that we’d come back. I left my favorite pair of shoes there thinking, this is my favorite pair of shoes, that’s how much I trust that we’ll be back,” Murphy complained. “And they’re still there. Not just my shoes, everything.”
Walker explained the difficulty of accepting the reality of the situation. “I think my brain still thinks it’s March and still spring break and I’m going to go back to campus and finish the semester. For a bit I was just grasping at things that made me feel grounded on campus and bringing them here.”
Especially for seniors like Wadehra, the experience was surreal. “I had a really hard time processing everything because I knew that college was over, but since I was home I couldn’t really get closure.”
Hollander tried to process it during her last week in Amsterdam, even finding some perspective. “It was a pretty sad week because this is not what we wanted and not what we expected, but you have to reason with yourself–it’s a pandemic. It’s not going to be what you want, something bigger is happening here.”
For some students, like Liela Hastings in her first year as a marketing major at Fairfield University, college includes balancing studies with sports. She’s a swimmer for her school’s varsity team and has felt the impact of COVID-19 in her sports life as well.
“I feel so bad for all the spring athletes who were training all fall and only got five or six games. I’ve been out of the pool for 2-3 months. I’m starting to get nervous–I’ve never had a break this long and I’ve been swimming since I was in third grade. You can run and cross-train as much as you want but there’s nothing like being in the pool,” she said. “Our coach is stressed out about it but tells us that it makes him feel better that everyone is in the same situation. But there’s nothing saying that the fall season is going to be like it has been in the past, there are chances that there are going to be regulations.”
Virtual Learning at a Distance
The adjustment to taking classes from home has also been drastic.
As Walker described, it’s very different than being surrounded by his college friends. “All my close friends are so integral to me being okay, and now I’m experiencing something that’s very not okay and I don’t have my support system. It’s been a lot of learning how to Zoom, learning how to be aggressive with friendships and text people a lot.”
Remote learning, he said, is definitely not ideal.
“It’s been a mixed bag with how my professors have handled it. About a week and a half in, Harvard announced that we were doing satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) grading (like pass/ fail but an ‘unsatisfactory’ is a D, not an F.) At first, S/U was opt-in, but [the students] were like, ‘It creates such an inequity between students who are able to take the time to study and do well and students who are forced to do S/U because they don’t have wifi, can’t guarantee that they have a quiet area to do school, etc., and Harvard switched to all S/U. So many people were upset about it, but they have to recognize that if you’re upset about it, it’s not for you,” said Walker.
For Murphy at Fordham, online classes and the decision whether to take classes pass/fail has been very different from the norm. “My classes are now either a lot harder or a joke. It doesn’t feel like I’m learning as much as I would be at school.”
Even just living at home is an adjustment as well. As Hastings offered, “I don’t think my parents are used to having all four of [my siblings] in the house. It’s also interesting because my mom’s a teacher, so I get that perspective. She’s up in her office working all day, recording her videos. She does live tutoring sessions as a reading specialist… but it’s different because they’re 1st graders, they’re so young.”
Upon returning home from Amsterdam, Hollander quarantined in the basement of her house for about two weeks before interacting with her family. “At the beginning I was very unhappy to be back… but it’s definitely been good for my bank account, I can say that. And luckily I’m in a good environment with supportive parents, so I’m not unhappy here.”
How COVID-19 will affect college students in the future is still uncertain. “They postponed our graduation ceremony until summer 2021. Basically there’s a hiring freeze over everything in the country right now, so it’s really hard to find work. I think most people’s plan is to move home and ride it out and look for things after the fact.”
The possibility of having to take fall semester classes online as well is daunting to some students, and will only continue to disruption. It’s a common sentiment, as the difficulties of remote learning, mixed with the cost of tuition, makes another semester of Zoom lectures seem less-than-ideal.
“If we have online classes in the fall I’m thinking of taking a gap semester doing something else,” Murphy said.
Regardless, this is certainly an experience that will define the rest of this generation’s time at college and beyond. As Murphy remarked, “Everyone’s experiencing the pandemic and I think any reasonable person would know that if you’re going pass/fail it’s not because you’re lazy–it’s a worldwide pandemic. Growing up we’ve never really lived in the midst of something historical, and it’s pretty cool to realize that everybody in the world is aware of this and going through the same thing.”
But still, the uncertainty is overriding for many of the college kids, and for everyone, adjusting will take time–and a lot of it.
“People are asking me how I am, and if it’s weird,” said Wadehra, adding, “And I really can’t answer that because I’m still adjusting to the way things are.”
Ava Kaplan is a first-year student at University of Florida.