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Graduating College During COVID-19
The following blog post was written by recent NWACC graduate, Olivia Schaap.
It was all just a wild joke to me at first. At the beginning of the year, my friends and I were still reeling from the Australian wildfires and an impending WW3 with Iran. What was this new disease, this “coronavirus”, in light of the apocalyptic events I’d already heard about? I was too fixated on throwing myself fully into my last semester at NWACC. I’d loved every second of my time in college, and I was prepared to make the most of this last home stretch. I was president of the Honors Student Association, invited to present at a couple honors conferences, and preparing to study abroad in Spain. I didn’t give anything outside of school much thought. This coronavirus was a passing crisis on the other side of the world - my life would go on as usual.
Over the course of the next two months, COVID-19 slowly spread across my radar until it overtook my entire line of vision. At first, I’d look up over my textbooks and homework when my classmates would cough and joke, “oh man, looks like somebody caught the ‘rona.” But then extra hand sanitizer stations began appearing in hallways around campus, even as supplies vanished from store shelves. My social media was bombarded with headlines about college campuses shutting down. Everyday, I watched more and more red dots bloom across the John Hopkins dashboard, mapping this contagious disease. Still, it seemed strangely distant, like these were all unnecessary precautions.
NWACC students, Chelsie, Olivia and Ashton attending an honors conference.
The second week of March marked the beginning of the end for my normal college life.
It started with a few minor inconveniences - suspended food sales and postponed events. When I received a notification that my study abroad trip had been canceled, I was sad but unfazed. My fellow travelers and I had been watching travel bans increase for weeks, we’d been bracing for it. When I found out one of my conferences was canceled a week before I was due to attend, however, that blow caught me off guard. I bitterly closed out of tabs on my laptop, seeing no point in finishing my research.
After that, it was like watching a snowball quickly transform into an avalanche. Items in grocery stores started vanishing. My part -time job handing out food samples suspended all shifts to evaluate whether it was safe for us to work. Arkansas confirmed its first case in Pine Bluff, where my extended family lives. Within the span of one hour, my phone blew up with messages - another conference was canceled, a trip to Little Rock canceled, and my brother, a senior at the University of Arkansas (U of A), told me his classes were going online.
That same afternoon, I sat outside of Burns Hall, trying to get my bearings. It was the warmest day of the year so far, even with the grass still brown and the trees bare. I took in the dulcet tones of 14th Street’s rush-hour traffic while trying to process everything that had happened. It all felt surreal. I had this striking sense that I’d been thrust into an apocalyptic parallel universe, and then the final blow was dealt.
My computer dinged and there was a new email in my inbox. “ATTENTION: NWACC Suspends In-Person Classes, Moving to Online / Alternate Methods Effective Monday, March 16th”. I leaned back and closed my eyes. There were so many things I’d been looking forward to. So much for my last semester.
The transition to online classes was like trying to push a boulder uphill. My family lived outside of town without any internet, and for the last eight weeks, I’d been spending 10+ hours a day on campus, going to class and staying afterward to use the internet. Suddenly, I was trapped back at home with five other people, all scrambling to access their work and school virtually. The first time I tried to join a Zoom classroom meeting, I learned that the camera on my laptop was broken. I hadn’t even known; I’d never needed it before now.
The following weeks of online classes sent me into a purgatorial state of mind. Things weren’t good or bad, per say, it just all seemed unreal. I woke up at 6 a.m. out of habit before realizing I had nowhere to go. My family watched the death toll skyrocket in New York City while the stock market crumbled. I spent an entire day with my sister sewing masks, and the first time I stepped inside Walmart wearing one, the empty shelves reminded me of war zone raids. Hours and days passed mindlessly; time blurring without meaning. It was becoming difficult to just wake up every day, let alone do anything productive. What was homework and essays in light of what seemed to be the end of the world? I kept sending emails to my professors apologizing for turning assignments in late.
Somewhere during this blur of time, I received a text from Sabrina Chesne, the director of the NWACC Honors program and one of my biggest influences at NWACC. “How are you doing? I know this isn’t the way you wanted your final semester at NWACC to go.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to her. I had thrown my entire life into NWACC and having it all ripped away so abruptly left me blindsided. I missed my friends and my classes, and it was hard not to fixate on everything I’d lost. At the same time though, I felt guilty for mourning these things, because they seemed vastly unimportant when compared to an entire pandemic. Everyone had lost something, my struggle wasn’t worse than anybody else’s. In a weird way, I felt like this would be easier if I was actually facing real problems. Some of my friends were dealing with housing insecurity or a lack of resources, but I was fine, safe and secure at home. It was one thing to sacrifice my last semester for a “nobler cause” or a scary-yet-exciting experience. It seemed less justifiable when I had lost everything for nothing… for sitting at home every day. What kind of extraordinary sacrifice was that?
Olivia and teacher and Honors Director Sabrina Chesne.
Despite myself, I finished my final semester at NWACC strong. I had gracious professors who constantly extended my deadlines, and a supportive family who didn’t let me wallow alone in my depression. I borrowed my sibling’s laptop so I could properly join virtual classes, and began to look forward to those online sessions, even if it wasn’t the same. I got used to being home everyday and spending more time around my family. I hosted game nights and book clubs with my friends via Zoom. I watched people on social media attend online proms and virtual graduations.
When I received the news that I was named the Outstanding Graduate for the Associate of Arts Degree for 2020, I was pleasantly surprised as I hadn't heard of this award. Many were sad that I wasn’t presented with it during a live ceremony but was instead notified through a phone call. What mattered most to me was that I’d been nominated for this prestigious award by four separate professors. I was so touched that they had thought of me, and I realized that I didn’t care about the award or a fancy ceremony as much as I cared about my amazing NWACC professors.
I began getting emails and congratulations from my professors, classmates and friends who knew I would be graduating soon. I was congratulated on NWACC’s social media for winning first place in a writing contest. I watched the college’s virtual graduation celebration video. Scrolling through the celebratory comments from professors, classmates and even strangers made my heart ache.
No, this virtual celebration wasn’t the same as if I was attending commencement with my cap and gown. It didn’t replace an in-person party with all my family or graduating side-by-side with my friends. But even in this small way, through short Facebook comments, I was reminded that I didn’t sacrifice what mattered most. Whether asked to disrupt my everyday life, learn online, or social distance and quarantine, I hadn’t lost the connections that I made at NWACC.
We’ve all sacrificed for this pandemic. We’ve all had to give things up, go without, and mourn lost experiences and memories. It’s okay to be upset about it, but fixating on what we don’t have keeps us from appreciating everything we do have - our loved ones, our family and friends. The whole reason we’ve given up so many things is to protect them.
I’ve now earned my Associate of Arts degree from NWACC and I’m preparing to transfer to the University of Arkansas, but life remains incredibly uncertain. Even as I register for classes this fall, there’s still a debate on whether they will be offered online. I don’t know all that my future entails, but I know for certain, a pandemic will not infect the great memories I’ve made, nor the valuable education I’ve received as an NWACC student.
NWACC honors students Niala, Josie, Olivia, Tarun and Josiah.
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Visit nwacc.edu or call 479-986-4000 to learn more about choosing a higher education with NWACC.