Podcast Transcript: College and COVID – What Do Students Think?

Host Dr. Daniel Barwick interviews five college students about their COVID experiences and frustrations so far, and their expectations and hopes for the fall semester.

Dan:     Welcome to the Mortarboard, your source for solutions in higher education. I’m Dan Barwick, welcome to the podcast. If the content of this podcast interests you, then you’ll enjoy my new book, Risk and Reward: How Small Colleges Get Better Against the Odds. It’s now available from Amazon in eBook, paperback, and audiobook format. The best way to find it is to head over to my blog, mortarboardblog.com, and click on the link on the front page. If you have any thoughts about the book, don’t hesitate to send me an email and let me know what you think.

This week’s podcast coincides, give or take a week, with the advent of the fall semester. In celebration, and in recognition of that, we thought it might be appropriate to talk to the students, the people for whom we exist. As part of my research for my next book, I talked to a number of students. And in this podcast, I present the thoughts of five of those students for you. I’m grateful to each of these people who talked to me about their experiences so far, their hopes for the fall semester, their experiences with their own institutions, and in doing so, remind us why we are in the business we’re in. The students that we’re sharing with you represent a broad cross-section of higher education: universities, colleges, private, public, community colleges, and I’m grateful to them for sharing their thoughts with me. We began by talking about their experiences in the spring, what the emergence of COVID was like for them as a student, and the impact that had had on them, their education, their friends, and their family. The first student that I spoke with is Emily Haynes, who’s currently studying hotel and lodging management at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. She intends to graduate in May and pursue a career in the hospitality industry.

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Emily:   I am a student at a community college in Overland Park, Kansas, and everything was normal, I would say, until March. We went for spring break and never came back. I had a trip planned. It was just… my life was just crumbling because I really enjoy just traveling and getting to see things. And obviously with this, it hasn’t been able to happen. So, didn’t come back from spring break – online courses – and that was the way that our college decided to resume. Obviously, that was the safest way or college could resume. And I moved back home with my parents in Lawrence. I didn’t work. I’m a hospitality student. So hotels obviously were hit very hard by this. I have not been back to work actually since this week. And, just continued living at home, kind of just being where I was senior year of high school. And it was kind of a backwards feeling to have to rely on your parents again and as an adult and really had to humble myself. And yeah, it was just a new way of learning a new way of seeing how things work.

Dan:     Our second guest is Amy Wallquist, who holds Bachelor of Arts degrees from Texas A&M in Political Science and Modern Languages, and an MA from the University of New Mexico in Latin American Studies. She is also the president of a nonprofit called Children’s Diabetes Camp of Central Texas.

Amy:    I’m a graduate student and I share an office with 11 other people, and I was taking classes and teaching a couple of classes back last semester. And right before spring break, we got a very hasty notice that we would be going online after spring break. We were going to have an extra week of spring break, but don’t get too excited about that because that week was going to have to be used to prepare to teach our classes. So I was, and I think all of us in my office were, a bit flummoxed because we typically use that week to catch up on the work that we needed to do for our classes because we get behind. And so we were scared and a little confused. So, you know, it’s been difficult and challenging, but I think it’s been OK. I’ve been keeping up with my officemates and people in my cohort. We actually had a Zoom call yesterday and just caught up with each other, “Hey, how are you doing? How’s your dissertation working? Have you defended yet? You know, things like that. How’s this going for your students? How are things working? Who are you working with next semester?” That kind of thing. So it it’s been okay. I found that for me, I made a better connection with the type of students who I typically make a connection with during classes than I do when we’re face-to-face. And I’ve also found that my professors that I take from were much more available to me than they were when we were doing face-to-face classes. That’s my personal experience. I don’t think everybody has that same experience, but that was my experience that I had. So you know, I’m pretty happy [laughs] with how things have gone for me academically over the last six months, even though I understand that not everybody is.

Dan:     Our third student guest is Ariana Minea, who will be starting in October as a first-year medical student at the University of Oxford. Originally Romanian, she’s lived most of her life in Italy.

Ariana: Well, I have to say that it’s been quite a hard adjustment, and I think it’s quite important to talk and acknowledge these issues that might have arose during quarantine, because we all had to adapt to such a new environment and pace of life. Most of my time was spent inside my apartment with my family. The lockdown in Italy was quite heavy, so there was a certain point where we weren’t allowed to even go outside for physical exercise, and you have to go to the supermarket only on the day you were assigned by your last name. The police would check to make sure that it’s the closest supermarket to your apartment. So that was quite an experience, but I think, you know, the drop in socializing and physical activity was a bit of a hard hit. As much we like Zoom call parties it’s the same thing. [laughs] And there was a bit of drop in motivation for my studying, and especially as a senior student in high school, I was a bit stressful in regard to how the exams were going to proceed. However, I have to say that there was a bright side to it. I definitely had time to catch up on a lot of movies and reading, and develop new hobbies. But I have to say that being stuck at home really forces you to spend a lot more time with yourself, so that gave me a lot more time for introspection and personal growth and to figure out what I really want to do in my future.

Dan:     Our fourth student guest is Kirk Stewart from Wilmette, Illinois. He attends St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, studying biology and hopes to pursue a Master’s in nursing after. For fun, he competes on the St. Olaf’s Ballroom Dance Team.

Kirk:     It has been nice to be home and spend more time with my parents. But at the same time, I have become accustomed to living in a dorm at St. Olaf College, and there’s positives and negatives, I believe. I think it’s emotionally and mentally challenging to have to switch to online education at home, and be thrown into kind of this whole other world and be living at home again with your parents; it’s jarring.

Dan:     Our final student guest is Megan Quandt from Danville, Indiana, currently beginning her junior year at Ball State University in BSU’s nursing program.

Megan: It’s been weird, [laughs] really different. Getting used to just staying home, being safe and all that. I thankfully haven’t experienced COVID like personally or directly with anyone that I’m in contact with. So that’s a plus. [Laughs] I just kind of watched it from the outside, just doing my best to stay distant from everyone, stay home, stay healthy, stay safe and stay healthy! I think in March, like the second week of March, we got an email saying that like commending, I think March 12th, we would begin to go online. And it actually said, “for the duration of the semester” right away; I know some schools were like, “Oh, for the first two weeks, we’ll be online and just see how it goes.” But my school said, yep, for the duration we’re going to be online. So I actually had to stay a little bit past that date for myself, because I’m in the nursing program and I had clinicals to complete. So I still had to stay a couple days and do that, but then everyone went home. Basically, dorms were closed and yeah, they just sent everyone home and we just started doing online.

Dan:     We asked students: what are your plans for the fall semester? Planning to live on campus, off-campus, at home? Will you be attending classes online or in person, what considerations impacted your decision to return?

Emily:   So I am enrolled in 18 hours at Johnson County. Only three of them are in person. So 15 of my hours are going to be online instruction. I’m living in Kansas City right now. School starts on the 25th, and I have no idea what that will look like. You know, I have a kind of a good idea based on last semester, but hopefully it’ll be a little more, I don’t want to like, diss on my school, but a little more thought-out, a little more structured, just a better expectation of how to teach online and how to learn online as well. I’m living somewhere else currently. So it is kind of, I don’t want to say ridiculous of me, but it was definitely a decision that I made to be independent and out of my parents’ house and getting to explore things. And, you know, it’s a good independent experience to move out, you know, have the college experience, even if I’m at a community college.

Amy:    Well, I’m taking care of and visiting with my mother who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. I also have some health challenges of my own. I’m older, I have a little bit of high blood pressure. I had open heart surgery several years ago, so I actually contacted our disability services office and asked for accommodations for the fall, just in case things didn’t settle down. So I asked to both teach and take my classes online and I was approved. So I will be teaching and taking my classes online in the fall.

Ariana: I will be living on campus. Oxford provides accommodation for all under undergraduate students. So I will be living in the college base accommodation. I feel quite comfortable, and I look forward to meeting all my future colleagues at Oxford. But also, I am rather comfortable knowing all of the safety measures that they are putting in place and in regard to limiting our exposure. They are creating “households” – students sharing high-contact facilities, such as kitchens and bathrooms, will be grouped in households in order to limit the number of people who would have to quarantine and just limit the exposure. Also, we will be doing a mix of online learning and in-class, in-person learning. So I feel like it’s the perfect balance to have the university experience as well as keeping safe.

Kirk:     I will be on campus. So I don’t know the exact stat, but over 90%, I believe, of St. Olaf students live on campus. I’m a bio major, so I’m taking two lab courses and TA-ing for another. The labs were where the quality of education clearly went downhill, because you just can’t do a whole lot about getting lab experience and exposure online at home. It’s two/three of those lab experiences are virtual, or we’ll have virtual aspects to them, so that we won’t be going in as often as we would be or for as long into lab. So it will be different. I’m excited to see what those will be like.

Megan: I’m going to be moving back to campus actually this weekend. I’m going to be in an apartment with three of my friends and I’ll be starting my junior year in my second semester of nursing school. It’s off campus. It’s about like five minutes away though, and we still have a shuttle that goes to campus, so it’s not bad. All of my lectures have moved online already. My nursing lectures were the first thing to move online, ‘cause there’s about 80 of us in the program and we all have the same lecture day. So there was a space big enough for all 80 of us to be in class together while still being socially distant. So that was the first thing to go online. We’ll be doing Zoom meetings at the same class time as usual, just on Zoom. And then a couple of my other lectures have also moved online already. And the only thing that’s actually in-class is my clinicals. So I’ll still be going to campus for my clinicals.

Dan:     We asked students to provide details about how their institution is planning for the fall semester. What proportion of classes are online versus in person? How well has the institution communicate with students about what to expect in the fall, and what kind of support is being provided?

Emily:   We got a new president recently and he has been very communicative about how we are to continue the procedures that are in place. We’re getting pictures of campus on how it’s set up and how we’re supposed to interact with each other. Obviously there are mass requirements on campus in buildings. There are plexiglass walls set up around kiosks and all of that is to make sure that we slow the spread as much as we can. Also, there are very limited in-person classes. One of the reasons why mine is in-person is because it’s a lab. So I think labs and culinary classes that are necessary to be in person are, and those that they could say could be online, that’s the route that they chose to take. So ironically, my public speech class will not be in front of people. My school has done a pretty good job of saying, basically, classes are canceled. You’d need to have an appointment to be on campus in a building with a teacher. They’re trying to keep students that are basically in the same place to a minimum. So that’s to ensure that there isn’t a lot of student interaction.

Amy:    From what I understand, professors, at least in my department, I’m in the math department, were given the option to teach online or face to face. And it looks like about 70% of the professors chose to teach online. The rest of the professors are teaching face-to-face. I don’t know that the students were given that option. I know that they were allowed to ask for accommodations based on medical need. There’s a form – it was really easy to fill out, but they did ask also for a doctor’s note to go along with that. So it wasn’t just that you can say, “Hey, I need this accommodation,” you had to have some sort of proof, but from what I understand that once you submitted that, you were approved fairly quickly. I know that we have a fairly detailed plan for opening up for the fall semester. It seems to me though that everything is changing pretty quickly. I know that when we started Summer One, it was primarily online. There were a few options for in-person classes. Summer Two was supposed to be face-to-face, but two days before classes were to begin, it went online only with just a few exceptions. From what I understand, there’s a lot of hybrid classes and there’s a lot of online-only classes, asynchronous classes. Kids are still living in the dorms and just like they normally would.

Ariana: Oxford has a rather particular teaching system where they have lectures, which are the typical lecture halls one teacher and like over a hundred students. Those will be all online or we will just follow from our computers in our rooms. However, there are what are called “tutorials,” which are the typical Oxford small teaching environments, where you have a teacher and three students that meet up to two or three times a week, and those will be in-person, however, masks will be required at all times. So I think that is a good balance because in the classes where you wouldn’t have that much time to actually connect with a teacher, it makes more sense to have those online, versus the ones that are more focused on having that relationship and back-and-forth communication with the teacher or in person. They have done quite a good job at keeping us updated with the situation.

Kirk:     I think they have a chance. The plan is that upon arrival of moving into campus, every student will be tested, and then within 48 hours, the results will be back. In the meantime, you’re only allowed to be sitting in your dorm room. You can only leave to go to the bathroom or to the single cafeteria at a scheduled time for your dorm hall, but you are not allowed to travel around your dorm hall during that period. And once the results are back, all the positives will be removed and sent to what were honor houses, but are now COVID houses. And that process will repeat on the two-week mark, after moving all the positives removed once more. And hopefully the, the idea is that there will be less, but those first two weeks will be all online education and learning. And after that two-week period, the school is anticipating that they will have created a negative bubble in which the students who – St. Olaf is on a hill, very isolated, I would say from the surrounding town, which is Northfield, Minnesota. The idea is that we would not be able to leave campus those first two weeks, and that isolation and those rounds of testing with removing the positives would, and these almost draconian measures [laughs], but I believe they’re positive. And I agree with the administration’s procedures and ideas for how to contain us for the first two weeks. But I think there’s a chance. I think there’s a chance.

Megan: I know like with, for students in faculty returning to campus, they’re encouraging everyone to self-quarantine for 14 days before coming back or testing negative within seven days of coming back, I think. And then once we’re on campus, everyone is required to wear a mask in campus buildings. And then also when using transportation from the campus, and then also outside, when you’re not able to be socially distant. So I think they’re going to be pretty strict on mandating that. And they’re going to offer masks to people who don’t have them. And if they refuse, they’ll politely ask them to leave, but classes are starting normally, I think. I think it might be up to the professors to see whether they can have a safe space where everyone can be socially distant to be able to conduct class in person. But I know a lot have already moved online for at least this first semester. And then also we are doing – I know a lot of colleges are also doing this – we are going 13 full weeks at the beginning of the semester with no breaks. So they’re canceling our break and then we’re also going to be having classes on Labor Day. So they’re going to front-load our classes for the first 13 weeks until Thanksgiving, and then once Thanksgiving hits, everything for the rest of the semester is going to be online. So finals and all that will be online.

Dan:     Finally, we asked students to tell us a little bit about the social and cultural aspects of the college experience during the COVID pandemic and whether they have any concerns or fears about their institution’s ability to protect students, even with these restrictions in place, and what they anticipate for the fall.

Emily:   Well, not necessarily fears, just, you know, being there for those three hours, I will get to see one professor and, you know, those relationships that you build over the school year and over last year, you just don’t get to have that in the same way. So I would say that is the main struggle for me just having to overcome that, even though we’re not going to be in the same classroom and we’re not going to be able to have those discussions and interact in the same way, that just trusting that we’ll still be able to have those digital conversations. And I’m just trusting that they’re in the same context, ’cause you know, talking to someone in person versus on a Zoom call, you don’t want to interrupt people; you’re scared to jump in, you don’t want to sound like you’re taking up too much time and that’s really difficult to do, versus in person, it seems like you have all the time in the world with these professors and that’s really difficult to adjust. I am a very go-with-the-flow attitude in general. So I, you know, obviously I’m not Dr. Fauci or anything, I can’t pretend to know how anything is going to happen and you know, just trusting that it’s all, it’s all gonna be okay. Obviously, that’s very naive of me to just expect, but I think if everyone does what they can, I don’t currently have any fears. Maybe that’ll be brought to light when I see how everyone is on campus and behaves with the new restrictions. But not as of now, no.

Amy:    I don’t think you can just, I don’t think they are a homogeneous group. I mean, students like adults, do things differently. So I think there are going to be groups of students who take this very seriously and are very, very careful. And I think there are some students who are going to go out and party and do whatever they want to, and really think that things are back to normal. I think that any attempt to restrict that is, is just an exercise in futility. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything you can do to stop them. So, I personally think that having face-to-face classes is pretty dangerous, but it’s not really my call. [Laughs] I don’t think it’s a good idea for the students or for the professors, but especially the older professors who were more at risk from long-term health consequences. But I mean, from what I understand, this is pretty dangerous for even younger people. Or it can be dangerous; it isn’t always dangerous, I mean, people will just get sick for three weeks and then they rebound and they’re fine. Some people are sick for a really long time. I am concerned; I’m not teaching in-person classes, but I assume that some of the students that I’ll be teaching will be taking on in person classes and you know, how we deal with a student who is sick for three or four weeks, you know, how do I grade that person? I mean, how do they participate in class? How do they, you know, do we give them an incomplete, but that’s really not my call either because I’ll be working for a professor and it’s their call to make. And I can just, you know, do what they tell me to do.

Ariana: Oxford has already said that they will be providing emotional support. Oxford is grouped in small colleges, and already in each college, you have welfare representatives, which are older students that are there to help you and support you through the transition from, you know, high school lifestyle to university and all the new independence that comes with it. So those welfare supporters will also be there helping us through the emotional experience that comes with the pandemic. And also we will have our college counselors to support us. Of course, this quite puts a damper on the university experience because the first week of going to university is known as “Freshers Week,” and that is supposed to mean a party every night. However, that will translate to, you know, a lot smaller scale social activities. Any college club fairs are gonna be moved to online. I believe that clubs are not going to be opening anytime soon, and any parties are going to be limited to smaller gatherings inside the college, and we will not be allowed to mix as much between colleges. So yeah. [laughs] I strongly hope that people will comply. Of course, no one’s going to be happy about having their social life restricted, however, considering the level of education and just respect that we’re going to have to have for each other, because it’s all communal living there. It’s just a matter of, okay, if you’re not worried about yourself, it’s about worrying for others and just having the basic decency to comply.

Kirk:     Nobody knows what’s going to happen. There’s just this fog of uncertainty that veils the future. It makes it very, very difficult for institutions to plan and make definitive plans for what will happen, but that being said, it creates this anxiety for the student body and the parents that the school, you know, didn’t lay out a plan earlier, but I don’t think that the school is any at fault for that because the school, much like any government in this globe, does not know and will not be able to control it, but they laid out a plan with enough time. They have detailed measures. I’ve contacted various administrative members; I have contacted a health and safety director at St. Olaf and talked to them on the phone. Personally, they’re very accessible, I thought that they they’ve done a very good job of being available and open to feedback and suggestion and not delaying their decision-making process to a concerningly close benchmark upon arrival to campus.

Megan: I’m okay with it because I’m a homebody, and I’m not an extrovert really. So I don’t mind staying at home and doing my schoolwork like that. I know for a lot of people it’s horrible. [laughs] They can’t go out and see their friends and everything like that. But for me, it, it’s not horrible. [laughs] And I also enjoy having the time to do my work, not having to go to class during the day, just being able to be at home and do my work during the day, instead of doing it at night once I get home from classes. For my clinicals, it’s kind of nerve-wracking because I mean, last semester was my first semester in nursing, and we did not even get to start our clinicals. I think we went to the facility one day for the intro day and then that was it. Then classes were online after that. So I haven’t really even gotten any in-person experience yet. So I don’t know how this semester is going to go if we’re still going to be able to go to the facility we’re assigned to. I hope we do because I need that practice. But yeah, we’ll see.

Dan:     Finally, St. Olaf College’s Kirk Stewart tells us a little bit about how his family is doing their best to have fun with what he faces as he begins college this fall.

Kirk:     My parents, grandparents, my sister, and her boyfriend have put in $5 bets on which week I will be sent back home. So they’re [laughs] trying to find some entertainment amongst themselves at a distance for – just because they have little faith, and understandably so. But they also, my parents more so than others, I think are hopeful that St. Olaf has a good chance of creating the bubble that they’re trying to create this coming semester.

Dan:     Thanks for joining me. Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, or suggestions for content that you’d like to hear about. You can reach me at mortarboardpodcast@gmail.com. Consider stopping by my blog, mortarboardblog.com. The blog contains links to stories that I think will interest you, podcast transcripts, and articles I’ve written. You can also like me on Facebook at Dr. Daniel Barwick, or follow me on Twitter @DanielBarwick. Looking forward to talking with you in the next episode.