It’s back to school time, and we all know what that means...
Well, actually, this year we don’t know what that means at all. No one does exactly, including college students, who’ve weathered a summer of uncertainty as educational institutions debated how to open campuses without becoming COVID-19 hot spots—and still don’t have all the answers even as fall semesters get underway.
So what’s it like to spend a time that’s supposed to be about self-discovery and new beginnings worrying if you’ll infect your classmates by standing too close to them and staring at your laptop as a professor tries to master Zoom? We spoke with seven young Minnesotans to find out. (And, to provide a little bonus context, we also found a professor who teaches about pandemics.)
The students come from different backgrounds and have different interests, but we heard some common sentiments. They’re often frustrated with the online learning process and they miss their friends, but they’d rather be safe than sorry. Mostly what we found was a downright mature ability to roll with the punches and adjust to ever-changing and often-worsening conditions.
Then again, what choice do they—or any of us—have right now? —Keith Harris
Yiğit Can Kahyaoğlu, Macalester College
An international student’s crisis
In the second week of August, Macalester “upended” its fall opening plan. Just three weeks before the start of the semester, the college drastically scaled back the populations who could return to campus, mainly limiting housing to first-year international students and transfer students.
“I guess overall how I’m feeling is like, it’s obviously a very stressful situation,” says Yigit Can Kahyaoglu, ’22. “My classes are starting in a couple weeks, and still, there is a lot of uncertainty.”
The restrictions on returning don’t expressly affect Kahyaoglu, an international student from Turkey and opinion editor at the Mac Weekly—he was supposed to live off-campus this fall anyway. But they have caused issues for his friends, many of whom planned on living in Mac housing and were told they couldn’t less than a month before they needed to move in. “They already had bought plane tickets and made arrangements, and suddenly things just fell apart.”
Some people still intend to come back to campus. Many don’t. It’s hard to find housing this close to the start of the semester even if you’re not living on another continent, and a lot of Kahyaoglu’s classmates and colleagues—especially those who are international students—decided it’s easier to just stay put.
“I think it was a good decision in the end,” Kahyaoglu says. “I just wish it was made sooner.” Classes moved online in mid-March, but then the hope was that things would calm down during the summer. They didn’t, of course: Just last week, the state recorded its highest single-day death total since June. Kahyaoglu wonders if maybe he should have returned home, too. “Since March I’ve been second-guessing all the decisions I’ve made about this.”
“Once a week, I would say, I just go into a kind of existential dread of: Did I make the right decision? Should I just go back home? Will it be safer there, or should I stay?”
Despite the decision coming so late, Kahyaoglu says he trusts the administration (and the school’s new president, Suzanne Rivera). But he can’t help but think of UNC Chapel Hill, which opened for in-person instruction, recorded 130 coronavirus cases in seven days, and quickly shut back down. And staffers and students have a responsibility, too—how will they mitigate social life? If they’re packing off-campus house parties every weekend, well, it’s not like the administration can control that.
So Kahyaoğlu will wait and see how things go during the first module this fall. He’d rather stay in Minnesota, but if the answer is “not so good,” he’ll consider heading home. Of course, there’s no guarantee there either—things looked to be under control in Turkey about a month ago, which had him regretting his decision to stay in the U.S. The country just recorded its highest number of cases since June.
“That’s the thing, right? I can’t really know. Only time will tell, I guess.”
Tahlia Thomas, Normandale Community College
Learning from home
When the fall semester at Normandale began this week, Tahlia Thomas found herself exactly where she was when she finished her senior year at Washburn last spring: at home, in south Minneapolis, at a desk in her room, online.
“If I want to stretch my legs I go down to the living room,” she says of a typical school day. Welcome to the 2020 college experience.
Like many students, Thomas’s initial encounter with distance learning began abruptly in March. “We went on spring break and then we just weren’t allowed back in school,” Thomas says, recalling the final months of her senior year. Needless to say, high school students who were already counting the days to graduation weren’t exactly athirst for online classwork. “It gave a whole new meaning to ‘senior slide,’” Thomas jokes.
Thomas, however, had already begun taking post-secondary courses online, which has made for almost too smooth a transition into her first college semester. “It doesn’t really feel real—it feels like doing summer classes online.” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m ‘in college.’”
She plans to study engineering at Normandale—her interests lie in medical engineering, but she doesn’t want to limit herself just yet. And that means for most of her classes, she’ll be viewing pre-recorded lectures from her professors. “I feel like I’m teaching myself the material,” she says. “They give you access to the course material and you’re responsible for learning it on your own.”
Still, she’s ready to dive in after a long, uneventful summer. “I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands,” she says. Thomas lost her job as a hostess at a local diner when the pandemic hit, and even ordinary summer vacation hangs with friends required special arrangements. “I think the most that I do with friends is taking social-distancing walks; we’ll catch up every few weeks.” At least they still had their hammocks. “We’d set up our mocks apart from each other—it’s hard to hear each other sometimes with masks on, but it’s nice to get out of the house.”
That house is bustling these days, with two sisters starting high school next year and her father also working from home. But Thomas is happy to be there and not have to risk her health. “I have friends who are still going away and they’re living in dorms, and a lot of them have been expressing anxiety,” she says. “Campuses are doing what they can, I guess. I feel a lot safer at home, personally.”
Now her summer has come and gone, and the 2020 grad looks at the semester ahead with the same perspective she did in June, waiting for the fact that she is, in fact, a college student now to settle in. “It’s August and it still doesn’t feel real.” —Keith Harris
Emma Eidsvoog, Bethel University
An evangelical student’s perspective
Emma Eidsvoog spent three weeks in India last January with her fellow Bethel University journalism students. She met migrant workers and wrote about their lives, watching how they woke at 5 a.m. in tiny brick houses for a full day of manual labor, their families far away.
“Seeing how little they had, and yet their hospitality toward us, I just wanted to share their stories,” Eidsvoog says.
Eidsvoog, 21, has come to love experiences that take her out of her comfort zone. She grew up the second-oldest of 12 siblings (seven born to her parents, five adopted) in Milaca, about an hour north of the Twin Cities. When it was time for college, she applied only to Bethel, an evangelical Christian school where she planned to study psychology.
She took an interest in graphic design, then journalism, and joined the staff of the school newspaper, the Clarion. She was excited about her spring semester, which was just getting underway when her planned mission trip to Costa Rica over spring break was canceled. When the school announced students would get an extra week off, Eidsvoog and her mission-trip friends instead drove to Colorado, 13 hours each way, washing and wiping their hands at each stop.
“No one got sick, but in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best thing to do,” she says.
When school restarted, classes had moved online, and Eidsvoog moved back to Milaca. The prospect of studying in her parents’ basement didn’t sound so bad. But online learning felt almost optional, and Eidsvoog procrastinated. She slept in. She busied herself with household chores, or helping younger siblings (also consigned to home-schooling) with homework instead of doing her own. Eidsvoog skipped Google hangouts in a class she needed, fell behind, and withdrew from it mid-semester.
She spent the summer interning with the Pioneer Press, mostly working remotely, and taking fishing trips with her boyfriend. “With social media overflowing, with everything going on, it was nice to be outside, watch a sunset, be around trees,” she says.
This past weekend, Eidsvoog was reunited with three roommates on campus. She’ll earn the majority of her 17 credits this semester online (only one class is employing the hybrid approach), and is still deciding how often she’ll attend chapel, held three days a week.
“There’s a virtual option too, to watch it live... but online versus in person, it’s just such a different feeling, to be surrounded by your community in church.”
Eidsvoog thinks journalists have covered the virus well, answering even questions that wouldn’t occur to most people. She’s discouraged to see consumers like her parents turning away from “liberal news” while her left-leaning friends do the same to conservative sources. Eidsvoog’s budding education tells her not to rule out anything categorically.
In general, she thinks the stream of alarming news stories is “not healthy” for anyone involved, and wants to bring that philosophy into the Clarion’s newsroom. “That’s a concern of mine, only covering the negative—the outbreak, the fear, and not reassuring people, and encouraging, and covering positive things that are still happening.” —Mike Mullen
Ellen Harth, University of Minnesota
Studying agriculture in the COVID era
Students of animal science and agriculture often face a unique challenge: attending and preparing for classes while also working on a farm. The pandemic hasn’t changed that.
“Ag students often have to come back to the farm and work; there are expectations with their family farms or the farms that they work at,” says Ellen Harth, who will be starting her junior year this fall at the University of Minnesota. “Sometimes it gets really hard to balance the different activities you do as well as homework and having to go back to work.”
Harth is studying agricultural communication, marketing, and animal science at the U. She grew up on a dairy farm near Hinckley, where her family had Holstein and Jersey cattle. So when the University of Minnesota canceled its in-person classes and moved things online in March, it wasn’t necessarily the worst news for her.
“Last semester was actually the best semester for me. I got a 4.0 GPA and got on the dean’s list for the first time,” she says. “I really had more time to focus on my studies versus constantly running around and having all of these different responsibilities. When classes are online, you have more flexibility with your time.”
This success, however, comes with a big downside. Like all of us, Harth is missing that human connection, and she worries how remote learning will affect new students.
“I am someone who really relies on my other classmates and friends. We like to study together, we like to go out together and have fun,” she says. “Who knows how long this is going to go on.”
As classes start up, the typical back-to-school whirlwind looks quite different. Instead of hitting up the bookstore, students must purchase materials online. There’s no figuring out bus ride logistics, as Harth’s classes have all gone virtual except for one—a lab.
Rush week at her sorority, Beta of Clovia, which typically entails major social meet-ups, will have to be completely reconfigured. Events put on by the Gopher Dairy Club and Block and Bridle are also up in the air.
“It’s very unfortunate that this is impacting our studies and friendships and club activities,” she says. “We won’t get the opportunities to do them again.”
Last winter, Harth was crowned Pine County’s Dairy Princess, an honor that normally entails many social obligations. Instead, she’s put her marketing training to good use, posting cooking videos and reading books on social media. This summer, her internship at 4-H also had to move online. Still, given the current situation, she’s in no rush for things to go back to how they were.
“I’m kinda worried that once we go back to campus there’s gonna be an outbreak, because that has happened at other colleges across the United States,” she says. “I mean, we’re going to wear masks and do social distancing. But you can’t completely eliminate the risks.”
While Harth will continue with her studies this semester, she has other friends who are reconsidering their options.
“I have a really close friend who had planned on going to vet school... but she really felt like she didn’t want to spend that type of money on tuition and then not be able to be there in person, which I totally understand,” she says. “Ag kids, we don’t have a lot of money. We just put all of the money back into the farm. I just think it’s going to be a very difficult and expensive time to be a college student.”
Emma Chekroun, University of Minnesota
Keeping college radio alive
Not long after Emma Chekroun arrived at the University of Minnesota from Colorado (where she was raised, though she’s got family in International Falls), she saw a fellow student handing out Radio K stickers and learned that the station was looking for DJs.
A music fan who admits that “I wasn’t coordinated enough to play an instrument but I needed to figure out how to get involved,” Chekroun was hipped to music journalism, as so many people have been, by the movie Almost Famous (“I thought, ‘That’s something I could do’”), and college radio felt like a perfect fit. She started attending the station’s live Off the Record in-studio sessions every week; last year, she became its host.
Now Chekroun’s the station’s music director, under conditions she could hardly have anticipated. In addition to the pandemic that has disrupted education for all students, Radio K has had to determine how to address the police killing of George Floyd, the widespread unrest that followed, and accusations of harassment and abuse in the Twin Cities music community.
And all from home.
Like so many places, Radio K studios shut down last spring. “It’s not entirely certain when we get to go back,” she says. “It’s all wait and see. We’re hoping and planning that there’s a safe way to DJ again.”
As a result, the station has expanded its online options. “This is a great opportunity to learn how to use digital platforms and learn how to serve listeners,” Chekroun says. “No matter what happens, we’ll want to keep invested in this in the future, as a complement to what we do on air.”
Radio K isn’t just a radio station—it’s a student organization, so Chekroun is also focusing on how to integrate new DJs and volunteers when they can’t be in the same room. “I remember how intimidating it can be to come into an established club—let alone during a global pandemic,” she says. “We’ve always done a lot of stuff for incoming freshmen. So now we’re asking, ‘What will help them feel connected in this dumpster fire of a time?’”
Chekroun is also a student, and she’s been watching as her university and her professors adjust to distanced learning. “It highlights any pre-existing issues with inability to present information,” she’s noticed. “But really engaging teachers find a way to continue that into Zoom. You have to approach this like a different beast. You can’t treat it like it’s all normal.”
Whatever “normal” even means now. “When I was hosting Off the Record I thought, even if everything goes to crap I can at least say at one point in my life I did what I wanted to do,” Chekroun says. “And now that I’m music director I feel the same way.”
She continues, “I feel like I sound like I’m overtly trying to be positive, but we’re still going, and radio stations are still going, and music is still going. It’s refreshing to see how essential it is to people and how people will find a way to keep it working.”—Keith Harris
Daniel Galkowski, St. Thomas University
Missing a home away from home
After growing up in Rochester, Daniel Galkowski tried a semester at Marquette University before deciding it wasn’t for him. He moved back to Minnesota and fell for St. Thomas, finding “another family” on a campus as pretty in deepest winter as it is in spring.
So he was sad to abandon it and move back in with his parents after the school moved to online classes in March. Galkowski kept his daily routine of lectures and homework, but it wasn’t the same. A data analytics course, especially, was one where he would’ve liked to watch the professor walk through solutions and field questions in person.
“There’s such a big social aspect to it, and you learn so much from peers, and asking questions, listening to people’s thought process,” he says. “I definitely missed out on a lot of learning.”
Back in Rochester, Galkowski, 22, was strict about observing the state’s stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines. He’d meet with a handful of friends for spacious backyard bonfires, and has turned down invitations from those who were quick to return to bars as they reopened.
This fall, Galkowski will start on his last academic year toward a degree in operations and supply chain management. Some courses are fully online, while others will be a hybrid, with some days in the classroom and others remote. Galkowski, citing short-lived returns to campus in places like North Carolina and Michigan, is pessimistic: “Some people have in-person classes, but I would assume they will not be in-person for very long.”
After 15 years in classrooms, Galkowski can live with one last one online. He’s more eager about working as a research assistant on projects studying supply chains, a subject—and an industry—he thinks coronavirus has shaken for the next decade, and may “never be the same.”
For the past two years, Galkowski has been president of the St. Thomas chapter of College Republicans, which counts 130 members. He’s disappointed that the response to coronavirus, from social behavior and the effect on the economy to education policy, has been politicized. He thinks there’s no easy, right answer to dealing with a pandemic, and thinks both sides of the political spectrum are “really struggling with it,” and mean well.
How’s that go over with his fellow Republicans? “I’ve never gotten bad feedback from saying that,” Galkowski says. “I think that’s something a lot of people lose, that they get so entrenched in their beliefs they don’t even realize there is another viewpoint.”
Galkowski would love to be paying $9 per beer on nights at Target Field. While Zoom meet-ups have allowed him to connect with friends who scattered across the country, he’d love to be hitting up Twin Cities bars, but won’t. It’s not worth it.
“If it means I can visit my grandmother in her nursing home in May, I’m going to do my part. I don’t have a problem looking at my actions during the pandemic through that lens.” —Mike Mullen
Lissa Horn, University of Pittsburgh
Taking a gap year
Lissa Horn started hunting for colleges during her junior year at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. After a long, uncertain process, she eventually visited the University of Pittsburgh and “absolutely fell in love” with the school.
“I thought I was going to go, and everything was going to be great,” the 2020 grad says. “Then March hit and... things took a turn.”
Multiple turns, actually.
Horn decided that renting a dorm at Pittsburgh and taking online classes didn’t make sense, especially while paying $35K in out-of-state tuition for those limited resources. And her online learning experience this past spring wasn’t great, she reports, so she decided to hit pause on Pitt.
She’s not alone. Horn estimates about 60 percent of her classmates are opting to take gap years, either by choice or circumstance.
With a wide open year ahead of her, the avid backwoods camper lined up a dream college alternative with the National Outdoor Leadership, whose program in New Zealand would mean months backpacking through the mountains and kayaking over the ocean.
Two weeks ago, that trip was canceled due to COVID-19.
“I was just really excited,” she says. “It was an opportunity for me to do something during my gap year to fill in the months.”
Still, Horn is managing to stay busy. She’s taking community college classes online, earning credits that will, someday, transfer to Pitt. She’s also working at Edina Country Club while living with a friend in a Dinkytown apartment, which sort of approximates an independent college experience. “We like to say we’re college students but we don’t take any classes,” Horn says with a laugh.
Horn’s friend group is taking coronavirus “pretty seriously,” with masks and social distancing. She’s not so sure about everyone in her age group, through.
“For other peers, they’re all arriving on college campuses and going to parties... it’s a ticking time bomb,” Horn says. “We’re waiting for them to come back home and campuses to be shut down.”
When (if?) normalcy returns to the University of Pittsburgh campus, Horn will be there, eager to begin studying international relations and enjoying college life. —Jay Boller