Local grads adjust to college's new realities

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Some postpone plans due to virus-induced closures

  • Top: Emma Wallin, who graduated from Ridgway in May, is settling in at the University of Nebraska but finding her freshman year looks very different from the one she'd imagined. Courtesy photos
    Top: Emma Wallin, who graduated from Ridgway in May, is settling in at the University of Nebraska but finding her freshman year looks very different from the one she'd imagined. Courtesy photos
  • Below: Zach Briggs, who graduated from Ouray School in 2019, is back at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for his sophomore year, where online offerings have replaced some of the routines he left behind before spring break.
    Below: Zach Briggs, who graduated from Ouray School in 2019, is back at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for his sophomore year, where online offerings have replaced some of the routines he left behind before spring break.
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Before she leaves for class each day, Ara Norwood fills out a questionnaire on her phone about COVID-19 symptoms, waiting for the "green screen" that clears her for her day at Colorado Mesa University.

On her way into some campus buildings, she has to stop at a thermal scanner for a temperature check. In the classroom, she grabs a disinfecting wipe for her desk before she sits down, and cleans it off again before she leaves.

The precautions are among the changes the school has implemented this fall to prevent the spread of coronavirus, along with mandatory testing before returning to campus and ongoing random testing each week.

Norwood, a CMU senior from Ridgway, said she's one of the luckier students: as a senior, her class sizes are small enough to aJiow in-person classes to continue, while other classmates have on line or hybrid courses.

After the upheaval of this spring, when classes went online and campuses were shuttered nearly overnight, local college students are heading back to school and adj usting to new realities.

Emma Wallin, who graduated from Ridgway in May, is settling in at the University of Nebraska but finding her freshman year looks very different from the one she'd imagined.

Her classes are a mix of online and in-person, which she called "a little confusing, but better than nothing." The things she was looking forward to outside the classroom have shifted, too: sorority recruitment is online, football games won't be played until this spring, and the dance club she hoped to join can't meet in person.

Zach Briggs, who graduated from Ouray School in 2019, is back at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for his sophomore year, where online offerings have replaced some of the routines he left behind before spring break. Some classes have alternating in-person and virtual lectures each week to minimize the number of students in the room; others, like his physics class, are online only.

That comes with personal and technical challenges: Briggs is a better student in person than online, he said , something he had to adapt to this spring already. The internet connection in his dorm room is "really spotty," he added.

Like Briggs, Wallin prefers physically going to class, but she'd rather have some in-person instruction than none at all.

"I had a couple friends going to colleges where it's fully on line," Wallin said, something she's wary of happening at Nebraska during the semester. "it's hard to justify spending college tuition for online classes," she said.

If they do move entirely online, she's hoping to at least be allowed to stay in her dorm. "I'm living a lot farther away, it's not a quick drive home and easy for me to move back," she said .

Before moving in, she and her three new roommates talked about their plans and precautions. They share a common area and bathroom in their suite, instead of communal spaces, and agreed to be cautious and avoid having groups of people over. Unlike CMU, Nebraska didn't require Wall in and her roommates to get tested for COVID.

South Dakota Mines didn't require tests either, though Briggs said he and his roommates planned to donate blood, and would find out whether they have COVID antibodies from being exposed already.

Other than requiring masks in common spaces, little has changed in his dorm, he said, but there are other changes on campus that have altered his routines. Getting food at the dining hall takes longer because of the new social distancing protocols, and many of the seats have been removed to promote spacing, so he's not eating there as often.

He planned to get involved in collegiate mining competitions, but with the added challenge of handling online classes, he likely won't participate this year.

Norwood's se nior season on the CMU volleyball team has been postponed to spring, a disappointment after her spring beach volleyball season was canceled before it began.

She and her teammates, who returned to masked practices in July, won't resume competition until at least January, but Norwood said they're treating the unexpected offseason as a chance to get better. "it's exciting to see where we are and how we can improve with the whole semester," she said.

The team is considered a "family unit," so they can now train without masks if no one else is in the gym. They're holding team activities and meals together, both to stay connected and to concentrate their interactions within the team.

"We're trying to be those role models for everyone on campus, to just kind of be with your own group of people, so not being in contact with a lot of people on campus," Norwood said.

For new students, the challenges of freshman year are amplified by the restrictions on gathering. At Nebraska, there was no orientation, and the usual events for freshmen to meet each other were canceled or moved online, Wallin said.

"it's definitely a little harder to make friends," she said. "But everyone is reaching out a little more since we don't have those scheduled events to help,"

"If you already have established friends, it's easier, I'm th inking. I feel for all the freshmen moving in, they can't exactly make friends in the normal way that I did," Briggs said. "It feels like people aren't as friendly or as open, you can't see their facial expressions when you're passing them. "It's easier, to some extent, for returning students, but the limited class sizes also mean he doesn't get to know the rest of his classmates as well, he said.

On top of the immediate changes, Briggs is also worried the pandemic will delay his long-term goals. His mining engi neering in ternship in New Mexico was canceled, so he spent the summer at home in Ouray, returning to his high school job in excavation and construction. "I made as much money as I could, but it's nothing compared to what an internship would have been on my resume," he said.

Normally, he'd be looking forward to the school's career fair in September, when companies come to campus to meet with students who want to apply for internships, but this year, it will be virtual. "I don't know how I'm going to portray myself on line," he said.

"I want my resume to look great when I get out of college, to be top of my class and have my own pick at a job," Briggs said.

Other students have seen their plans pushed back entirely. Makaya Cervone, who graduated from Ouray School this spring, planned to be in California, starting classes in makeup artistry at the Make-up Designory.

"Right about now, I was supposed to go to Los Angeles," she said. Instead, she's still home and working at Maggie's Kitchen, waiting for word from the school on when classes can resume.

Because the program is hands-on, there was no way to move the classes on line, so the school shut down completely, she said.

"The cases are really bad there," she said, so the reopening date has been pushed back multiple times. Once classes resume, the students who were already enrolled will need to make up for the lost time, so Cervone will have to wait for those sessions to start and finish before she can begin. Instead of heading off to California, she'll be spending the next year at home.

"it sets me back a long time," she said. She's had limited communication since the school closed, too. "The whole campus shut down, so I can't call, nobody answers the phone."

For now, she's finding silver linings in her un intended gap year. She'll have more time to work and save money for the move, and to figure out housing options when she gets there. "I get more time to figure it out more and be smarter about all this," she sa id.

The pandemic ca nceled the senior year traditions she and her classmates had been looking forward to for years, and the ongoing delay is another disappointment, but she's trying to find optimism.

"I feel like it kind of makes us more prepared, and stronger for when we do get to do what we're wanting and planning to do," she said.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email erin@ouraynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work.