A disciplined collegiate rower, Lindsay York is used to a structured, yet social life. Last fall, the High Point native moved 1,100 miles away to attend Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where she settled in well.
“I have a rowing scholarship and that kept me busy from when I first got there,” York said. “I’m used to waking up at five in the morning, getting a workout done, going to classes, then getting another workout. I had a very tight schedule. But I also developed my own little Des Moines family, my friends and my team atmosphere.”
But her life was upended last month as the COVID-19 pandemic closed her campus and scattered most of her friends and teammates to their families’ homes all over the country.
“We weren’t expecting it. Within a week they had delayed classes, sent us home, cancelled the rowing season. So everything was just kind of happening on an hour-to-hour basis. No one knew what was going on or what was going to happen. It was very chaotic.”
Like students across North Carolina and the nation, York is trying to adjust to online-only education and restructure a life disrupted by the coronavirus. Professors are also struggling. They’re rethinking how and why they teach. And they’re trying, along with their students, to apply the lessons of their academic disciplines to a radically different world.
Initially, it wasn’t so bad being back in High Point, York said. With her busy college schedule and rowing commitments, she hadn’t planned on returning home for spring break. Had her university not sent her home, it might have been months before she saw her family again.
But as the number of infections climbed and social distancing restrictions in North Carolina tightened, even the life in High Point began to change.
She had two jobs — one at McDonald’s and the other with a dog-walking service. Then the service shut down and the McDonald’s job seemed risky. “I remembered over last winter break when someone who worked there came in and had the flu and got like three people sick who were working,” York said. “I thought about it and really there’s no way to stay away from people when you work at McDonald’s. So I stopped that, too.”
Now York is spending her days with her parents and younger brother, a high school junior. They’re all trying to work and study from home. It’s not easy.
“I definitely feel very disconnected,” York said. “I had never taken an online class before. This was a new thing for more. Luckily my professors realize that — they had never done online classes either, so it’s a learning experience on both sides.”
York is studying biochemistry and molecular biology — subjects that have taken on even more relevance during a global pandemic. Classes, however, haven’t gotten easier.
“They’re mostly posting PowerPoint presentations and then we’ll discuss them on [online education site] Blackboard,” York said. “But you definitely don’t feel that same connection you’d feel in the classroom. If you ask a question you have to wait for a professor to have time to e-mail you back. It’s very different.”
Without class lectures, sports and the social aspects of college the actual workload can be handled in less time, but it feels a lot more like drudgery, York said.
Since returning to her family home in Catawba, Natalie Alms, a senior at Wake Forest University, she’s mourned the loss of many of the rituals she was looking forward to in her senior year: the last semester spent with friends, the likely cancellation of traditional commencement ceremonies.
Honestly, it feels like all the worst parts of college intensified and none fo the good parts,” Alms said.
But she’s now thinking about what she has to do to finish the semester and what comes next.
“I would definitely self identify as a nerd,” Alms said. “Normally at school I loved my classes. But it’s been hard to concentrate on them. Now that all this is happening, the coronavirus really dwarfs in my mind many of my classes.”
Alms is studying political science with a minor in journalism. She’s is supposed to begin an internship this summer at the Triad Business Journal. That internship now feels uncertain, as does so much of the future beyond the immediate stay at home order.
Having to adjust to online education after four years of in person classes hasn’t helped. “My favorite class this semester was an American Literature course,” Alms said. “It was seminar style. We were reading Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and you’d go in and have discussions. That professor isn’t even doing [online meeting platform] Zoom. He’s just posting a Google document of questions every class period and you’re expected to add to it during that class time. That’s simply not the same. So on all levels it’s just disappointing. It’s just as much work but I don’t feel like I’m exactly learning as much.”
Alms has also been consumed by news — and the stories she can or should be writing — as the pandemic has unfolded.
“I had kind of been ignoring coronavirus, I’m not going to lie,” Alms said. “So I spent a few days just devouring all the information about it I could. And then only recently I’ve been realizing I should probably be worried about my internship and trying to think about how this is going to look going forward. And I’m also writing for my campus newspaper and for the Salisbury Post. Right now I feel like it’s difficult to concentrate on just class.”
Nichole Visnesky, a senior at Western Carolina University, is a social work major who is already looking forward to graduate school and a career as a clinical social worker. Now she said she feels much more consumed by her fieldwork and a job at an inpatient mental health facility.
“Right now I feel like that work is much more important than reading and analyzing policies and writing papers,” Visnesky said.
“I’ve actually been working on improving mental health care on our campus,” Visnesky said. “Some people might feel like those efforts are lost now, but no — now’s the time to really fight for this. We’re sending students home. I’m a non traditional student. I’m 28. I don’t depend on my parents. But where are so many other students going? A lot of them don’t have great home lives. They have to go back to these places they were thrilled to be away from. All the work I’ve been doing – COVID is bringing it all together.”
Online education has been an adjustment, Visnesky said — but not one she couldn’t handle But there are other challenges.
“I have my own mental health struggles, like a lot of people,” she said. “Living by myself — the shared anxiety and kind of being isolated. I’m definitely an introvert and it’s okay — but it’s kind of not okay. I don’t have even that passive social interaction now that I would have maybe sitting at a coffee shop doing homework or seeing faces I’m used to seeing. It’s very isolating. I’m also a first generation student — no one else in my family went to college. So my family can’t really understand any of the things I’m doing, to be honest.”
“Our jobs are changing”
Barry Yeoman, a veteran journalist who now teaches courses at Wake Forest and Duke University, has seen students struggling in the last few weeks. He’s been trying to help them even as he deals with his own discomfort.
Yeoman was in the middle of teaching a course during Duke’s “Spring Breakthrough” session — mostly freshmen and sophomores — when he received a surprising email from the university.
“We all got the e-mail from Duke that they were extending Spring Break by a week, telling the kids not to come back and that they would be learning online,” Yeoman said. “But we were told we were supposed to finish Spring Breakthrough with these students live and in person. Which felt like the right decision at the time.”
“I had eight students, many of them away from home for the first time — scared, stressed and vulnerable,” Yeoman said. “For one of them, home was China. For one of them, home was India. For one of them, home was a mother who had a compromised immune system. For all of them, they had elected to not go home because there was something prohibitive.”
He lost some students in their scramble to figure out how they were going to get back home, and how online instruction might affect the validity of their student visas.
“That week really became three parts teaching to one part comforting, serving as the steady adult voice in the room,” Yeoman said. “Helping them through this disorienting, unprecedented moment was important.”
On the Thursday night the course ended, students asked if he would have dinner with them. He did.
“Friday night I spent curled up in the fetal position,” Yeoman said.
It became obvious he hadn’t had the time or emotional bandwidth to process what was happening, he said. A gay man who lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Yeoman said he realizes he is carrying a lot of trauma that has been triggered by COVID-19.
“This is my second plague,” he said. “I lost so many friends to HIV. And I really thought that the feelings we had, the strengths and skills we learned, it was like a dress rehearsal for old age. I thought we wouldn’t go back to that, we wouldn’t need those things, again until we were in our 70s or 80s.”
Last week was Yeoman’s first full week of online teaching — a magazine writing course at Wake Forest and an interviewing course he’s co-teaching at Duke. There were no significant technology glitches and he had perfect attendance in both classes. But he has changed the way he teaches.
“I haven’t totally scrapped lesson plans,” he said. “But I’ve put much more emphasis than I had originally planned on checking in with people, take the time to have conversations. They’re mostly juniors and seniors, they’re a little more mature. But I realize we all have different levels or resilience and it’s my job as an educator to accommodate those levels or resilience. I’m being more flexible about deadline extensions. All semester I’ve been very strict with deadlines. Now, when I see a student struggling, I will proactively offer the extension.”
Anthony Hatcher, a communications professor at Elon University, said the shift in the role of teachers is unavoidable in this crisis. “Our jobs are changing,” Hatcher said. “The students right now have a high, high anxiety level. That’s something we’re trying to consider.”
Hatcher has shifted to teaching online and is also doing online advising. He’s assigned students papers on how COVID-19 has changed their lives. They have turned in stories about fears of food insecurity, the lack of high speed Internet at home, and how the pandemic could change the arc of their college careers and beyond.
“I’ve given them my cell phone. I said call me if you need to,” Hatcher said. “Right now every academic is being hit with what they should do, webinars they should be watching, how they should be teaching their classes. Some of us are trying to teach with toddlers at home. But just being there for the students and listening to their needs — I think that may be the most important part of our jobs right now.”