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Millions Of U.S. College Students Rushed Home Early Try To Make Sense Of Their Losses

By the time coronavirus shutdown decisions were finalized, students were forced to rush around in a frantic daze, packing dorm rooms, saying goodbye, and wondering what comes next.


In the 2013 comedy “The Internship,” Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson described their alma matter, University of Phoenix, as the “Harvard of Internet Colleges.” For the next two months, the well-advertised school will have to hand its moniker to a new Harvard of Online: Harvard University. Within the past week, millions of college students were forced from their dorms due to increasing fears of coronavirus. Classes are moved online, graduations postponed or cancelled, and college experiences cut short.

The angst of students forced from their classes, extracurriculars, and frat parties is far from the most important coronavirus fallout. The death toll is steadily climbing across the country, the economy is in disarray due to closed businesses and social distancing, people are losing their jobs, and the fear of flooding our hospitals looms large.

Still, this group of 18-22-year-olds is experiencing genuine frustration and sadness at the loss of a big part of their college experiences. I spoke to several students from various universities, many of whom are close friends, who opened up about how this has affected them. They asked for anonymity to speak honestly about their frustrations and unedited thoughts on how their schools handled the crisis.

As the contagion spread across the globe at alarming rates, universities knew that they would have to make decisions to protect their students. However, many hesitated before sending students home. By the time decisions were finalized, the threat of the disease was imminent, and students were forced to rush around in a frantic daze, packing dorm rooms, saying goodbye, and wondering what comes next.

A Difficult Campus Environment

Campuses that were once buzzing with academic engagement and camaraderie became frantic and emotional. Describing the last days on campus before departure, a University of Chicago junior said, “It was a really emotional time for everyone, and the ability to focus has just gone downhill. It also really sucked at University of Chicago because it was smack in the middle of finals, so having to try to deal with all of this and worry about finals at the same time was truly terrible.”

A Brown University sophomore echoed her sentiments: “During the last week of school that we had, people could barely concentrate, because people were pretty skeptical about what was going to happen. We were wondering what Brown was going to do and why Brown wasn’t taking any immediate course of action.”

For some, the virus has been, as a Georgetown senior described, a “surreal experience.” A junior at St. Andrews told me, “The situation escalated pretty quickly. The school was preparing for an eventual case in St. Andrews, but, until there was an actual case, it didn’t seem real. We were like, ‘We’ll be in isolation together,’ but, as soon as there was a confirmed case, I booked my flight that day.”

A Sense of Loss

The students with whom I spoke all attempted to maintain a level of maturity and acknowledgement of the relative ease of their circumstances. However, a general sense of devastation permeated each conversation. College students rightfully feel robbed of a portion of a special time in their lives.

Many cited specific experiences stolen from them in the two upcoming months, such as graduations, scavenger hunts, trivia nights, student activities, and precious time spent with friends. A University of Chicago student said, “The whole thing was really terrible, because, I know I feel really selfish, but there are so many moments I feel like I’m missing out on.”

When a Georgetown senior stated, “I feel a sense of loss,” the comment seemed to explain a common trend in students’ emotions. University students have had a promised semester stolen by this disease, and the loss is palpably felt.

Online Classes ‘Not What I Signed Up For’

Online classes have become de rigueur to allow students to finish the academic side of their semesters. The online environment is a far cry from access to teachers and camaraderie with classmates, adding to the disappointment. A freshman at Cornell University summed the situation up by stating, “I have to do online class, which is kind of a bummer, because that’s not what I signed up for.”

A University of Chicago junior expressed worry about how well certain subjects can be taught over the app Zoom, stating, “I have no idea how it’s going to work next quarter, with all the online classes. I’m a humanities person, so I think my classes are going to be relatively easier to translate to online, but a lot of my friends who are in the STEM fields, you really wonder how they’re going to get the same level of education out of class without labs and things that really require you to be there in person. ”

Her fear of science courses being disproportionately impacted is a reasonable fear. A St. Andrews junior, studying chemistry, had a major project suddenly become unfeasible. “There weren’t any classes planned for after spring break because we had this group project that was going to be lab-based research,” she told me. “We were going to work on it for eight weeks, do poster presentations and everything. Now, they’re trying to figure out how to reassess us for that.”

A Georgetown junior said, “I’ve lost out on the opportunity to engage with my classmates in an intellectual capacity. I have lost an opportunity to engage in an academic environment that promised me something rigorous, and something easy and intimate.”

Further, some classes have been fundamentally altered by the inability share the same location. A Georgetown senior expressed his frustration with losing a fascinating course, stating, “I’m taking a theology class with a professor who teaches the class purely on a conversational basis. He’s not very well-versed with Zoom, so he’s conducting the entire class over email. It detracts and prevents me from having that experience, listening to his insights, and getting what you can from a conversational class that you can’t from simply doing readings and responding to them.”

Crossing Oceans to Return Home

Differing time zones compound the challenges of online learning. With many Americans studying at foreign universities and non-Americans studying in the states, international students are facing an even greater slew of complications.

A junior at St. Andrews in Scotland whose parents live in the United States expressed that her main concern was whether she would be able to return home. She made the bold decision to book a flight the day before they cancelled classes, a fortuitous decision, and departed from Scotland the day before the United Kingdom was included in the U.S. travel ban.

She told me, “I think everyone was so scared when this thing broke out, because it escalated so quickly, so a lot of people just wanted to get home. When you’re in a different country, being in lockdown and not knowing when you’re going to see your family is hard.”

International students are not the only ones who had to negotiate both time zones and customs. Many juniors spend their spring semesters studying abroad, using the time to travel, experience other cultures, and improve their foreign language skills. One such student, a junior at Denison who was set to spend the winter and spring in Spain, had this incredible experience cut short by two months.

She felt shortchanged. “Students who studied abroad last fall or last spring got the full experience of being in another country, experiencing the different culture and language, and creating a community,” she said. “Being abroad for seven or eight weeks, you still get those experiences, but it’s far more rushed.” She also conveyed a sadness for leaving both her host family and new friends from her program, “without a chance to really say goodbye, with no last longing conversation.”

University Triumphs…

Despite frustrations, many students praised their universities’ handling of these circumstances. A Georgetown junior said, “The administration is really helping students transition to online classes. I’ve had several professors either extend deadlines or cancel a week of class to allow us to better adjust to taking the rest of the semester at home.”

A St. Andrew junior commended her school’s communication. She said, “The University was really good about emailing us with updates about what they were thinking about doing with classes. They warned us that classes might go online. Since the school shut down, they’ve emailed us various options about how to get our stuff out of storage, various fees they’re going to waive, and all of that stuff. ”

A sophomore at Brown said he and his classmates were moved by the university president’s personal handling of the crisis and its effects on them.

…And Shortcomings

However, these good decisions do not mean schools’ reactions were perfect. A freshman at Cornell had a clever and specific idea of how his school should have made use of their isolated location and relatively low rate of local infections: “I think Martha [Pollack, the president of the university] should have just cancelled spring break…The campus-to-campus bus could have been shut down. And then, Martha could have been like, ‘Alright, no spring break. Isolate on campus,” and that would have worked.”

A Georgetown junior was frustrated with a lack of communication, stating “I wish that they had been more proactive in thinking before sending out emails to the student body,” citing the rapid changes of decisions.

Another junior was frustrated how the school changed the move-out date twice, stating, “They’re just putting the students at greater risk. People are coming from all over the world and, by forcing us all out within a week, the university guaranteed that everyone would be there at the same time, greatly increasing the risk of infection.”

Different Challenges for Each Class Year

Although they’ve already completed a semester and a half of college, freshmen typically spend their first year feeling like they’ve just arrived on campus. A Cornell freshman told me, “I was supposed to be able to adjust to college, and I don’t know if I’ve fully done that, because I got three-quarters of the year instead of the full thing. Next year, I guess I’m just going to have to come back and be adjusted.”

A Brown sophomore expressed his relief that he was an underclassman, as the junior and seniors’ course loads “matter more for their future careers,” while expressing thankfulness that he has more time left in college.

Juniors are mainly saddened by an inability to say goodbye to their senior friends. A junior at the University of Chicago said that “having to say goodbye to my friends who are seniors so early it was insane. Really emotional to have to give all that up on short notice.”

Seniors Hit Hardest

Seniors are easily hit the hardest emotionally. They are facing the end of their four years, yet robbed of the chance to celebrate it. I spoke to two Georgetown seniors, both of whom are mourning the final few months of university.

One expressed the sorrow at his inability to “put a definitive end to my college career and open a new chapter as I start my career… I thought I still had time at school. The fact that this happened over spring break, before I was able to say goodbye to people properly, that’s been hard.”

Another said, “I almost feel a little bit numb because things have gradually gotten worse. What I thought was already a big loss turned out to be complete devastation. I feel like not only am I losing Georgetown and being able to see people on campus and all the fun stuff that comes in the spring, to a certain extent, I feel like I’m losing my friends, because all the underclassmen were made to leave… I’m not going to be in DC after May, and it’s really sad to have that all taken away in the blink of an eye.”

Both are relieved that Georgetown decided to postpone commencement rather than outright cancel. One senior told me, “I really hope that the university will give us a full senior week. Maybe people wouldn’t be able to come back at all, or maybe not for the whole week, but I think that’s something that, after four years, we’ve earned it.”

Crisis Brings Out the Best in Us

There was an undercurrent to the conversations of understanding, hope, and great empathy for others. Many allowed their worry for others to overshadow their own angst. A Brown sophomore said, “I wasn’t really too worried about my situation. My circumstances are very different from a lot of students. I’m one of the lucky ones. I feel for my classmates.”

A junior at University of Chicago expressed a sentiment echoed by many: “You also worry about the people who are working at the university, at the dining halls, the staff, and what they’re going to be doing through all this.” Students are remarkably aware of how lucky we are that our concerns involve quality of learning and a limit to the social aspects of college.

A Georgetown junior closed our conversation by conveying several ways students have come together remotely to make the difficult period more bearable for each other. She told me, “In a matter of not even days, we have had fellowship programs to help students move to and from campus. We’ve had alumni who have had airline mile donation programs. There are lots of fundraisers going on for students we don’t even know. It’s absolutely wonderful that, even in the midst of everyone’s personal struggles, that they’ve found a way to address the needs of their peers and have utilized whatever resources and networks that they have at their disposals to make a positive difference for everyone else.”

It is absolutely heartwarming to witness that, as students deal with their own fears, anger, and struggles, that people are stepping up to support their communities. Crisis can truly bring out the best in people, and today’s college students are rising to the occasion.