College Connections: The Impact of Coronavirus at College

Pictured top left Cathy Zesiger ('17), bottom left Maren Cottrell ('16), and right side Jack Barrett ('19) with his parents, Precia and Greg Barrett ('87).

When you envision college life, do you think of living in a dorm and enjoying campus experiences with friends from around the world? Have you pictured yourself playing a collegiate sport or spending a semester studying abroad? These were typical experiences for college students prior to the coronavirus pandemic. As fear spread, so did cancellations for Spring Break trips followed by the closing of colleges across America. College students have taken their spring classes online from home, similar to what Casady students have done. One of the many challenges of online learning for college students is having classmates from time zones around the world. I spoke with three recent alums, Jack Barrett (’19), Cathy Zesiger (’17) and Maren Cottrell (’16) to learn about their college experiences during this unprecedented time in history.

College freshman Jack Barrett (’19) attends Southwestern University in Austin, Texas. He was given four hours to pack his belongings and move out of his dorm room. He describes the experience of abruptly ending his freshmen year two months early to be, “like a sudden and jarring end to a book, as if the last chapter simply ceased to exist as I was reading it.” Like most freshmen college students, Jack enjoys the independence of living on campus with friends, and he finds completing classes online to be, “aggravating, [it’s] all the work and none of the fun.” 

Jack is also a college athlete, who plays lacrosse and is missing out on his spring season. The challenge for athletes is the lack of experience from not competing in games. It is a painful loss for athletes who have invested so much time and effort into their sport to miss an entire season. Jack describes this challenge as, “infuriating because of how hard every single person worked to win, to be the best.” With athletes sheltering at home, they are limited in improving their skills. In the meantime, Jack’s lacrosse coach has given him an offseason workout to practice on while at home. 

Cathy Zesiger (’17) is majoring in environmental geoscience at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where she also plays field hockey. She was spending part of her junior year in New Zealand at the University of Canterbury when coronavirus disrupted her study abroad program. Cathy received an email notifying her she was officially being sent home, and that same day, her and her mom quickly booked Cathy’s flight home, which departed for America just two days later. Her departure was stressful, and the journey home strange, as Cathy describes, “The airports were less crowded than I am normally used to, but the flights were all full. I could tell everyone was on edge. People just wanted to get home without catching the virus.”

Although Cathy was able to spend three months in beautiful New Zealand, she had to cut her stay short, and she no longer will be able to travel on to the Philippines afterwards as originally planned. She is hoping to return to New Zealand during graduate school or on a trip so she can do the things she had intended. Despite her study abroad experience ending abruptly, Cathy highly recommends studying abroad or staying in another country for an extended time, as she explains, “I have grown so much as a person by just interacting with people of a different background and perspective from me. It was definitely scary at times not being totally familiar with my environment, but I’ve learned that’s how you become a better, more understanding, openminded person. Although I had to go home early I am so grateful for the time I had abroad!” Cathy is hoping coronavirus does not prevent colleges from opening in the fall, as that will be her last season to play field hockey at DePauw.

Online learning for college students is challenging. It has been difficult for Cathy to complete labs for her marine biology class, as she explains, “I was supposed to go on a field trip to a nearby coastal town and sample different organisms we had been learning about. Now being home in Oklahoma, it is hard learning about specimens that are so far away. However, my university has been really helpful and understanding during this whole process, so I am very grateful for that.” This experience has taught Cathy to enjoy the little things and to make the most of her time. Quarantine has given her an opportunity to reflect and be grateful, as Cathy thoughtfully points out, “No matter where in the world you are, the sun will always rise and set, and that is beautiful!”

In order to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended cancelling events with more than 50 people. As a result of this advice, colleges from UCLA to the University of Michigan are cancelling their spring graduations, leaving students devastated. Other schools are postponing their graduations, including Texas Christian University, where Maren Cottrell (’16) is a senior majoring in social work. She lives off campus, so she had the option to remain living near TCU. However, Texas began closing their border to other states and Maren, “realized that moving home would save money and [her] parents would be feeding [her] again, so [she] decided that was the best option.” Maren took a week to pack up her belongings and say goodbye to friends. 

Now that Maren’s classes are on Zoom, she will be missing out on special senior occasions including, “the senior toast at TCU, the senior bar crawl, the senior’s gathering in the football stadium to watch the sunrise, senior week in [her] sorority (Go Chi O), and [her] last formal and mixer.” Maren said this experience has taught her to “spend as much time with your college friends as you can. Look around campus to notice how amazing it is and celebrate the little things.” She also shared some encouraging advice for the Class of 2020 as she said, “High school seniors – don’t be too stressed out about sorority or fraternity recruitment or housing or anything that you are worried about for the upcoming fall semester. I promise it will work out.”

Part of the college experience is moving away from home to live independently for the first time. Online classes from home will never duplicate the personal interactions with friends on campus, but in an effort to protect ourselves and our communities, it is the best option we have to continue learning. While students understand the rationale of social distancing, remote learning, and even canceled graduations, the heartbreak of missing out on special moments with friends is still painful. This pandemic has taught students to be grateful. We are grateful for family, friends, and the life experiences we share. 

Fideliter et Fortiter! Be brave and be faithful, Cyclones!