Montserrat Castro has experienced the disruption COVID-19 is creating for college students in three countries this spring, even though she’s only been in two of them.
Castro, a junior at Grinnell College, was studying at Hamilton College’s Paris program in France this semester when the program’s director informed students that the program’s cancellation was imminent, Castro said. The director hoped students could stay through early April, when most Parisian universities will end the current term.
Then, President Trump announced a travel ban between the United States and most of Europe, later clarified to let U.S. citizens know they could return. “Everyone freaked out,” Castro, 22, said. “People left that same night.” Others booked flights and left the next day.
“People were really scared,” Castro said. “Some of my friends’ parents booked a ticket for them without even telling them.”
Castro’s short-circuited overseas studies are among of several disruptions Grinnell College students have experienced since the college moved spring semester classes to online, canceled spring graduation and ordered students, faculty and staff to leave the campus.
Grinnell acted ahead of other colleges and universities in the state when moving students off campus and canceling spring graduation. A few students have been granted permission to remain for various reasons, but the usually busy campus will be quiet when the already scheduled spring break concludes at the end of this week.
“It hit people in different ways,” fourth-year student Hannah Davis, 22, of Chanhassen, Minnesota, said by phone about the unexpected turn of events in her last semester of college. “As a senior, it was really sad, because we had those two months that we were looking forward to really treasuring, and reliving all of the traditions and the rituals one last time.”
Davis, whose academic work involves a number of upper-level seminars, was expecting to present her work at poster sessions and department events before the end of the school year.
“Obviously, that’ll be a lot more difficult to do,” she said. “That’s kind of disappointing.”
Grinnell’s spring break is from March 14 through March 29.
COVID-19’s international spread hit home hard at the renowned liberal arts college in Grinnell, Iowa. Students come from more than 40 countries and all 50 states, the college reports. One of every five of the college’s 1,700 students is from a country outside the United States, the college reports.
Castro’s home is in Mexico, so she went there instead of returning to Iowa, without being affected by the U.S. travel ban. She had hoped she could continue to live in France the remainder of the semester but 12 hours after the U.S. travel ban announcement, Grinnell contacted all of its students studying in Europe to tell them they needed to return home.
Students who requested to stay were told that they had to sign a waiver acknowledging that they would receive no support from the college the remainder of the semester. Then, Castro said, Hamilton contacted students in the Paris programs with a message: “We wouldn’t receive credit if we stayed in France.”
Castro went home as France locked down for the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of Mexico’s borders closing to travelers emerged. She will take remote classes from Mexico the rest of the semester. She said the college did a good job of communicating quickly. “I think that a lot of people really like to complain about the Grinnell administration, but I do think that they are looking out for us,” she said.
Grinnell College announced on March 10 that all students able to leave over the next few weeks needed to do so and that the college would switch to remote learning after spring break. Students originally were told they had until March 23 to move out. However, as COVID-19 spread, college administrators told students to leave by March 15, or as soon as possible. The college notice told students driving home to “take only what you need and see if anyone else needs a ride in your same direction” out of fears of possible travel bans within the United States.
“I understand the necessity for this,” graduating fourth-year student Gabriela Gryc said about the campus closure. “It’s just, how do we deal with these events?”
Gryc, 21, is a first-generation college student from Franklin Park, Illinois. She said not having a standard, formal commencement for the class of 2020 has been especially difficult for her emotionally. “It wasn’t just walking across a stage – it was more than that for me,” she said.
Daniella Butler, a graduating fourth-year student, said the sudden exit from Grinnell’s campus meant having no more time to be with friends she had made in college. “It was like trying to shove two months’ worth of final college days into one week,” Butler, 21, of Washington, D.C., said.
Butler is a member of Grinnell’s final class of Posse scholars. These scholars have been supported through the Posse Foundation to increase the college’s diversity. The college severed its ties with the program in 2016, a move that caused widespread outrage from students and alumni, but Butler was able to complete her studies.
A third-year student, Grace Clawson, said she had been excited about her first major chance to give a public presentation at Grinnell College this spring.
Clawson, from Hastings, Nebraska, had done an independent research project last summer, analyzing Shakespeare texts with her English major advisor and some other professors. She was ready to present at the college’s Student Symposium in April.
“That was really disappointing,” Clawson, 20, said of the event’s cancellation.
Dani Tiedemann, graduating this spring, said there was a panicked feeling on campus during the last week on campus as college administrators released changing updates on the evolving departure policy. “I think that everyone is trying,” Tiedemann, 23, of Woodbury, Minnesota, said. “The entire world is literally inventing this protocol as they go along, because they’ve never dealt with this before.”
Tiedemann expressed some concern with the potential problems posed by an all-online Grinnell education. “What has happened is that we get the rigor of Grinnell being a very challenging school, but we don’t get any of that social support of being on campus and having a schedule.”
Professors have asked students for ideas and are willing to work hard to relate to students during remote learning, Tiedemann said. And, she said, college officials have been doing what they can for students.
“I understand, and I think most people understand, that they made the best choice they could have made, but it still doesn’t change how awful it feels.”
Eva Hill is a reporter for The Scarlet & Black, Grinnell College’s student newspaper.