College and COVID-19: Students shift, adjust, adapt to life full of uncertainties

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Marie Nalan/IowaWatch

Drake University students pick up their to-go meals in the Olmsted Center, staying six feet apart at all times for social distancing to reduce the risk of COVID-19. Drake still provides meals for the dozens of students still living on campus or with commuter plans.

COVID-19 turned life upside-down for Iowa’s 100,000-plus full-time university and college students as a month ago classes moved online.

Some struggle to care for loved ones with weakened immune systems, and others can’t find WiFi access to earn the semester’s credits. Still others pay their rent without their low-wage job or worry about an upcoming graduation and job search.

“In some ways this virus is like 9/11, where it will impact society and how things are done because of it,” said Kealan Graham, 26, who is pursuing a master’s in elementary education and is home in Greater Des Moines. “I hope this helps people realize how important paid sick leave is, how important health care is, and how important every job is to the function of society.”

Kealan Graham

Kealan Graham is a Drake University student pursuing her master’s degree. Her classes shifted online because of COVID-19.

The new normal: Uncertainty, disruption and adapting. IowaWatch spoke with students from nearly a dozen schools who said changes  becaue of COVID-19 have them uprooted and anxious. They worry about their futures and they grieve rites of passage such as graduation, concerts, trips abroad or simply hanging out with friends. Still, many remain positive.

Here are a few of their stories.

‘Not how I envisioned’

Students like Molly Fisher scrambled as events unfolded quickly in March. Questions — Should she pack up class books and needs? Should she move all of their belongings? — filled her mind.

“When I left for home [for spring break], Simpson hadn’t made a decision yet,” said Fisher, 22, a senior at Simpson College in Indianola and now at home in Nashua. “I didn’t take all of my stuff home, so I have to go back sometime.”

She said she is fortunate to have a safe home, with internet access so she can do class work.

But emotionally, Fisher hurts. As a first-generation college student, she said she worked hard and made strong friendships. She did not get to say goodbye to many friends in the hustle to leave campus. COVID-19 canceled activities she had planned with clubs and classes, like a May trip to the Galapagos Islands for a class.

Fisher will graduate with a degree in environmental science, but the graduation ceremony at Simpson has been postponed. Fisher said that not being able to walk for graduation as a first-generation student is a loss.

“This is not how I envisioned ending my senior year,” she said.

‘Only have so many devices going’

Jonathan Cox, a third-year student at Simpson, feels a technology strain at home in Council Bluffs. His family’s WiFi is not as reliable, leading to adaptive planning around the house.

“My family has a few ideas on how to make Wifi work, but we can only have so many devices going at once,” he said. “So my family can’t be watching Netflix or Hulu while I’m working on homework, and I can’t be on doing things while they’re trying to do things either.”

While studying and earning his last semester’s credits, Cox also has eyes on his mother.

“My mother actually has multiple sclerosis, which causes immune-compromising issues,” he said. “So I also need to be thinking about what would be best for her, for my family, and for their health and well-being.”

Job insecurity

For students who have lost their bartending or on-campus library jobs, financial uncertainty is real. Internships, part-time jobs, research, and job searching, students reported, are up and down. No one knows when those jobs will come back. Until then, rent and utility bills pile up.

Decisions have yet to be made on the state and private university levels regarding refunds. Many students wonder if they will get a refund on housing or meal plans, which typically cost thousands a semester. And those are only for students who live on campus in some capacity. Many do not.

“There is a little bit of concern,” said Cox, the Simpson student in Council Bluffs, of his financial situation. “I’m trying to stay optimistic because I already have summer employment in place. But if something happens with that position, I’m going to be in a rough position.”

Philip Kiely, a Grinnell College senior, accepted a computer science job on the East Coast that still plans to employ him after graduation. He also does freelance writing, which he has been able to continue with flexible scheduling. He understands computer students like him are “taking less damage.”

The concern is statewide. Ben Huser, 20, of Iowa State University worries about a house painting business he planned to start this summer, which would have been his financial support.

He tried to go door to door in Ames recently to promote his business. Social distancing stymied the effort.

‘Research is practically gone now’

Research requirements hang over science students as they study from home and away from labs. Many science degrees require lab hours or research projects that need special equipment or lab spaces to be completed. Students all over the state adapted fast.

Angela Dinh, 21, is studying chemistry at Drake University. She worries about her personal research, which she has worked on all semester.

“My personal undergraduate research is practically gone now,” she said. “I can’t enter my professor’s lab. He might continue it, but if I’m not there, I might lose the credits I need to graduate since I need three credits in undergraduate research.”

Dinh thinks that the chemistry department is specifically struggling right now because of the format of the classes.

“I purposely chose Drake for the small but very equipped chemistry department. … It’s important to me to learn hands-on in my field,” Dinh said.

‘What made it hard to leave’

One of the clearest ways to understand the disruption is through the eyes of students traveling abroad.

Drake University junior Sabrina Uddin had been living in Granada, Spain, for the semester, starting in January. This was the only semester she could go abroad.

She woke up in her host family’s apartment to the news that the Trump administration had canceled European travel, and Spain would soon be entering a higher level of national health security risk. Drake and her program affiliate had both emailed her, telling her she had two weeks to arrange a way home.

“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” Uddin said. “It’s definitely something that’s frustrating.”

She did not expect to be in the middle of an international pandemic, and thousands of dollars later, she is still wrapping her head around her semester cut short.

A student of public health administration, Uddin understands and agrees with the measures taken. She is thankful for the time she had in Spain. She was just getting acclimated and her Spanish was improving. She was making friends. That, she said, is “what made it hard to leave.”

The University of Granada has moved to online classes, so Uddin will still recieve credits when she finishes her semester online from home outside Chicago. She will finish her college career back in Des Moines at Drake in the fall. Her family hung little Spanish flags around her room for her when she finally got home.

 ‘You do what you have to do’

Megan Hartle, 21, is a junior at Drake University studying pharmacy. Since spring break, she has been confined at home in Grimes with her brother Ethan, 19, and her mother.

Megan Hartle / IowaWatch

Megan Hartle stayed in her parents’ home basement for two weeks to quarantine herself. Her brother Ethan, 19, is immunocomprimised. Now, Hartle is upstairs and helping her family.

Ethan has myalgic encephalomyelitis, also called chronic fatigue syndrome, which leaves him immunocompromised and more susceptible to COVID-19. Before getting sick, Ethan played guitar and French horn and ran cross country. Now he is mostly bedridden and stays home.

Hartle worked a 40-hour week at her job at a local Hy-vee Drugstore pharmacy during spring break, and lived in her family’s basement to distance herself. She would do the grocery shopping, and disinfect everything before transferring it to her mom. But she quickly realized she was needed upstairs to help with her brother. She quarantined herself in the basement for two weeks and stayed home from work to reduce the risk of being exposed.

“My brother is fully dependent on others, and you need to get face-to-face to transfer him and everything, so sometimes it can be a little tough if he’s having a bad week,” she said. “My mom wanted someone to be there as backup, because she has a bad back and she can’t always do the transfers. I normally do the heavy lifting.”

“If [I was working and] my mom needed backup for something, I wouldn’t be able to help, and no one else could either because they’re still in the real world,” she said. “So I kind of have to stay home.”

Hartle shrugged off the quarantine in the basement.

“We have technology and stuff, so I’ve been able to talk to friends. We have nice trails around here, so I go on walks a couple times a day and just stay clear of other people.”

She also thinks perspective is crucial.

“My brother has hardly left his room in over a year,” she said. “Am I really complaining about having this entire basement, and being able to walk and do all of that stuff? And people have lost their jobs and stuff, and we haven’t? Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”

‘Will we be past all of this?’

Graham, the master’s student, copes with all of the changes by focusing on what is doable.

A recent self-isolation project was baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Baking, a walk with parents or picking up trash along a trail have provided outlets for peace and calm amid huge uncertainties about job prospects after graduation.

“I have some anxiety,” Graham said. “I am still looking for teaching jobs and applying, but I don’t know how interviews will be conducted or how the school year will look in August. Will we be past all of this by then? I was also excited about my graduation ceremony, which will likely not happen at this point.”

Until COVID-19 passes, stay positive, Graham said.

“It is a hard time for everyone, but with a positive attitude we can get through it. I also am still planning for the future.”

HOW COVID-19 DISRUPTED COLLEGE LIFE

On March 9, Grinnell College announced it would transition to all-online learning for the remainder of the spring semester, the first higher education institution to do so.

The University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, and Iowa State University all announced on March 18 that they would go to all online classes as well. This came after guidance from the Iowa Board of Regents. Many private colleges around the state followed.

That week in March was when many schools, like Drake University, had their spring breaks scheduled, so many delayed committing to online classes for the rest of the semester for a week or more.

Now, students of Iowa schools are either spread across the country at home or some remain in on-campus housing. Uncertainty looms as students try to finish their semester successfully and contemplate next steps.

IowaWatch reporter and Iowa State University student Danielle Gehr contributed to this report.