By Allison Jones
On March 13, 2020, students across the country left campus for what was expected to be a two-week lockdown period due to the COVID-19 virus. For some, however, that was the last time they’ve stepped foot into a classroom. For others, they’ve yet to step into a college classroom.
Freshman and seniors alike have had to overcome hardships to navigate their college experiences. Moments that seemed to be promised to most students have quietly faded away and turned into an online experience. Students have logged into online streaming portals not only for classes but to attend their commencement ceremonies, new student orientation – even their first day of college classes. As the one-year anniversary of the initial lockdown arrives, Texas State University students are reflecting on their missed moments and how they’ve overcome their modified college experiences.
Texas State alum Cianna Schott, a spring 2020 graduate, will never walk across a stage to symbolize the completion of her undergraduate degree — one that she traveled over 1,200 miles from Chisago, Minnesota, to complete in San Marcos, Texas. Although her graduation ceremony was offered online, the graduate knew she couldn’t miss out on one specific graduation tradition — jumping into the San Marcos River. So, she did just that.
“I still wanted to celebrate that tradition and have that experience. I didn’t feel like I graduated from Texas State if I didn’t. My whole family had come down,” said Schott.
“So we asked the nice officer and he said just make it quick.”
Originally, Texas State planned to hold an in-person graduation in August for all spring and summer 2020 graduates. But due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, the in-person ceremony was postponed for a second time. The university announced that an outdoor, in-person ceremony would be held in December for spring and summer 2020 graduates. However, Cianna chose not to attend. “I could have rearranged my schedule and I could have asked to miss my grad classes,” said Schott. “But at this point, we’ve already moved on. When you graduate in May, you’ve moved on by December. You’re in school, you’ve moved away, you’ve started a new job. We celebrated multiple times, so it was almost like we were over it.”
Today, Cianna is almost halfway done with her master’s degree at Texas A&M University. In just 10 months, she’ll graduate again — But this time, she’s hoping to cross the stage to celebrate her accomplishments.
Cianna was just two months away from walking across the stage for her college graduation ceremony when the pandemic hit. But other college seniors at Texas State, like Skylar Crawford, were planning to graduate and cross the stage in December 2020. Unsure if she would get an in-person college graduation ceremony, Skylar pushed her graduation date back to spring 2021. “I didn’t feel ready. I felt like a lot was taken away from me by having to go home in March,” said Crawford. “If COVID had never happened, it would have been a whole different story. I would have had the time I needed to feel ready.” With nursing school starting in August for Skylar, her May graduation is final. Texas State announced dates for an outside, in-person graduation, so she’s feeling hopeful that she will get the experience that she’s been dreaming of.
While seniors are doing everything they can to hold onto their final moments as a college student, freshmen are still learning how to navigate a university setting. Tara Bowe, a first-year exercise and sports science student at Texas State, imagined her freshman year of college would be filled with joining organizations, meeting new people and attending in-person classes. Instead, it’s been defined by online classes, struggling to enhance friendships and spending full days in her dorm room.
“I have had the opportunity to make some friends on my floor in my dorm and spend time with girls from my sorority,” said Bowe. “But I feel that while COVID-19 is happening, I am prevented from building closer friendships with more girls.” Aside from the social aspect of college, Tara has struggled to adjust to a mostly online learning environment. Tara said because her learning style is very visual and hands on, the first-year of her college education has been frustrating. “If it were up to me, I would choose all in-person classes as it is easier to learn, focus and ask questions but there is very little opportunity to do so,” said Bowe.
In the future, Tara is looking forward to a college experience where she can learn better, join more organizations and attend more social events without the worry of COVID-19.
College students across the country missed moments in 2020, and many will continue to miss parts of their promised college experiences throughout 2021. But there are real reasons for these restrictions on university campuses – more than half a million have died just in the U.S. since the pandemic began. These missed moments don’t only impact students — some professors have also endured waves of grief.
Dale Blasingame, an assistant professor of practice in the school of journalism and mass communication at Texas State, lost both of his parents to COVID-19. Between his family’s loss this year, and being an instructor for all grade levels, he feels for the students that are missing out on major moments. However, he’s looking at the positives of the situation.
“I hope students can look back at this last year and realize they were able to persevere through one of the most challenging times in their lives,” said Blasingame. “Even if they weren’t personally impacted by COVID, their educational experience has been impacted.” Blasingame is hopeful that for some students, this past year was a growing experience to help them get comfortable with email communication and video calls, something he expects to become very prevalent for job interviews, remote work and internships in the future.
While college students are facing the reality of their missed moments, the lasting impacts of COVID-19 are showing in university enrollment numbers across the country.
According to Inside Higher Ed, college enrollment dropped 2.5% in the fall of 2020 — almost two times the rate of the decline seen in fall 2019 enrollment numbers. While public four-year schools saw a 0.2% increase in the fall of 2020, Texas State had just under a 1% decrease in enrollment, according to Texas State University news. In addition to enrollment numbers from the fall, the Texas Tribune reports that by December 2020, only 24% of high school seniors in Texas had filled out federal financial aid forms, a decline of over 14% from forms filed by the same time in 2019.
As the one-year anniversary of the initial COVID-19 pandemic lockdown approaches, college students are hopeful that their missed moments and modified experiences are temporary, and are looking ahead to a brighter future.