This story is part of “The Lost Year,” an occasional series on how the pandemic is affecting education across North Carolina.
Hectic. Strange. Frustrating. Monotonous. Worth it.
That’s how a small group of students described what it was like to be in college in the middle of a global pandemic. Some were taking in-person classes and living in dorms, others moved back in with their parents when their campuses shut down. All of them juggled academics, a disrupted social life and a desire for the true college experience during a most unusual fall semester.
Freshmen and seniors alike didn’t know what to expect but knew it would look different — with face masks, COVID-19 tests and online classes — as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread.
Some campuses, including UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State, canceled in-person classes and closed dorms shortly after students moved back to campus in August, as COVID-19 cases unexpectedly spiked into the hundreds. But other universities, like Duke and N.C. Central, stayed the course with strict safety protocols.
Classes ended early this semester with exams finishing up around Thanksgiving and free COVID-19 tests available for students before they went home for an extended winter break.
Students will be back in January for the spring semester, this time with mandatory COVID-19 testing, fewer people living in residence halls and hope that they won’t have to pivot to online classes again.
NC State University
Melanie Flowers is a senior and student body president at N.C. State University. She’s studying public relations and lived at home in Cary with her parents while taking online classes for the fall semester.
“Being a college student in the pandemic is hectic,” Flowers said. “The rug kind of always feels like it’s going to be moved from your feet, you never really know what tomorrow will hold or what the next semester will hold.”
She said for a lot of students, including herself, this year is just about trying to make sure that they can graduate in four years or in May. She feels fortunate that she’s on track to do that next spring.
“That’s definitely been a true north for me,” Flowers said.
As a student leader, Flowers was part of the conversations leading up to N.C. State reopening this fall. She said it’s been tough knowing that college students were brought back to institutions and were putting each other and the surrounding communities at risk.
“So that’s been difficult to grapple with, but we’re here and doing the best we can,” Flowers said.
She said it’s become obvious that there were some vulnerabilities in N.C. State’s reopening plans. She said the university was a little under-prepared to see how quickly students would test positive or come into contact with others who had COVID-19.
“I don’t think we expected the clusters to show up as quickly as they did as much as they did,” Flowers said.
Asked if she had anything else to add, Flowers had one instruction.
“Wear a mask,” she said.
Victoria Pittman, a 21-year-old senior at NC State, did not want to move back home to Wilmington when classes shifted online. She’s working toward a double major in philosophy of law and history and plans to take a gap year after graduation and then go to law school.
For Pittman, being a student in the pandemic has been a challenge, particularly because she doesn’t take so easily to online learning. She said that switch from in-person to remote classes was “difficult, but necessary.”
“I’ve had to learn how to really cope with a lot of different things at once,” Pittman said. “Having to deal with the impacts of the pandemic, while also trying to continue through deadlines and learning the material.”
The most difficult thing is keeping the same motivation to do things from home that she had with the accountability of going to campus and sitting through classes, she said.
That, and “maintaining a sort of a sense of purpose … when things are kind of really difficult all around us,” she said.
Pittman, a double major in philosophy of law and history, decided to stay in her off-campus apartment for the fall semester because she found the duties of family home life difficult to balance with school last semester.
“We assume a different role when we go home as kids,” Pittman said. “You have responsibilities to your family.”
She thinks the decision to bring students back to campus at all was led by universities and the UNC Board of Governors collectively deciding that finances were more important than the actual learning environment, experience or financial and emotional stress that reopening put on students.
“I think there’s been a lot of blame put on students for not social distancing or making bad choices in terms of going out or seeing friends,” Pittman said. “In reality, it was never going to work. You can’t bring 35,000 plus students to one space and expect a massive outbreak not to occur.”
Junior Jacob Miles moved back into his family’s Raleigh home for his junior year at NC State. Miles, who is majoring in civil engineering, was an RA when dorms were open. He had an exposure to COVID-19 in the dorms and had to quarantine for two weeks.
As a resident assistant, Jacob Miles’ priority has been to support the 50 students under his watch, make sure they live in a safe environment and keep them engaged with campus life.
“That is one thing that’s remained constant,” Miles said. But the safety aspect looked different this year.
Before, that meant making sure everyone’s doors were locked at night. This year, it was enforcing COVID-19 policies.
“It was making sure that people were remaining distant,” Miles said. “And making sure we didn’t have more than four people in a room and were wearing their masks.”
The programs in dorms and around campus had to change, too. Last year, students met up in large groups to do arts and crafts and went to football games together. This year, most events were virtual, and students got together via Zoom for online card games and takeout dinners.
Students couldn’t sit with their friends in dining halls because the university limited the number of seats in each cafeteria. Because of social distancing, the lines were also so long that grabbing food on campus somewhere may have taken about 15 minutes last year and this fall it took up to an hour for that same meal, he said.
The biggest difference was seeing people virtually and not in person and still finding a way to make strong connections and lasting friendships with each other, Miles said. That was hard when worrying about spreading COVID-19 or risk any sort of exposure.
“With COVID and all of these new guidelines that the university provided for me having to move out, it was difficult to balance those responsibilities on top of trying to support everybody else as well,” Miles said.
Kimberly Hernandez, a 19-year-old sophomore, is from San Juan, Puerto Rico. She took her classes online at N.C. State while living in her dad’s small apartment in Charlotte until flying back home to Puerto Rico in November, where she plans to stay for the rest of the academic year.
Hernandez went back home to Puerto Rico for spring break in March and then got stuck there when classes moved online in the spring because of the pandemic. She left everything in her room and finished the semester without most of her clothes, textbooks or notes.
She came back over the summer hoping to live in Raleigh for the fall semester. Then, she had to sublet her apartment when classes moved online again about a week into the semester.
She said a lot of freshman were looking for places to live when the dorms closed and that two other N.C. State students moved into her and her roommate’s apartment. She moved in with her dad and his wife in their apartment in Charlotte from September until November.
Hernandez moved back to San Juan in November and plans to stay there this spring, even with in-person classes available.
“I’m definitely going to go all online, because I’m scared that this is going to happen again,” Hernandez said, “and I really don’t want to get kicked out of campus again.”
The switch from in-person to online classes also caused some unexpected expenses like flight change fees and renting a storage unit for her stuff.
“It’s just a lot of money that I’m spending that I probably wouldn’t have spent if they had just said from the get-go that classes were going to go fully online in the second week,” Hernandez said.
Taking classes at her dad’s two-bedroom apartment was difficult because she shared the space — and internet — with him and his wife, who were both working from home. She said one professor reprimanded her for briefly talking to her dad, who asked her a question while she was in class on Zoom.
“It kind of bothers me that most of the teachers don’t even try to understand what the students are going through,” Hernandez said. “The living situation is not the same as a normal student would have.”
She said people shouldn’t assume that everyone has access to the same resources and that everyone can fully concentrate during Zoom classes.
“It’s very hard for a lot of students,” Hernandez said. “I just wish people would stop assuming that all our living situations are the same — because they’re not.”
Omar Jaramillo is a junior studying agricultural education and engineering at N.C. State and a member of student senate. He’s from Goldsboro and is living in an apartment near campus that he shares with three other students.
“If you were to have told me before we started classes that we would’ve been shut down in about two weeks, I probably would’ve considered taking a gap semester and a gap year,” Jaramillo said. “But hindsight is always 2020.”
He said many classes and labs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are hands-on and teach skills that are necessary before heading into the workplace, such as welding and how to work with animals or in a greenhouse.
“My college and others rely heavily on experiential learning,” Jaramillo said. “That is something that we’re not getting with this online platform.”
Despite the academic struggles, Jaramillo has been trying to encourage students instead of pointing fingers at whose fault this is.
At a recent student senate meeting, he reminded students that professors and deans on campus want to see them succeed and they are a resource for students to go to for help.
“I do not believe there is a single person on our campus that wants to see us fail,” Jaramillo said. “I think that everyone on campus is here to lift everyone up and to make sure that we are all successful in whatever it is that we are trying to do as far as our personal and educational goals.”
He said no one is happy about how things have transpired this fall and no one is winning.
“The winner of this outcome was the virus unfortunately, and that’s just something that we’re going to have to push through,” Jaramillo said.
He said he and other students in his classes wore face masks, but he has no idea what they were doing with their personal time.
“Moving forward I think that we should all try to be a little bit safer,” Jaramillo said.
Zachary Winstead, 20, transferred to N.C. State in the spring from an early college in his hometown of Wilson. So, the pandemic has defined most of his experience. He’s a junior studying political science.
Winstead lost his campus job in the spring when NCSU initially shifted to online classes and that’s when “life kind of stopped,” he said. He had to pack up his stuff, move home while his mom was also in the middle of moving and jump into Zoom classes.
He lost his friends around him, the study groups on campus and ultimately, motivation.
“It’s really different when you’re at home and you’re trying to balance home life with college, and it just doesn’t work,” Winstead said. “It’s really been difficult.”
The university gave him a grant for about $500 because of his situation, but the fall semester presented other challenges.
Winstead moved back to Raleigh into an apartment, and then there was a cluster of COVID-19 cases in his complex. He said obviously people were still going to parties.
“We want our college life because we don’t have many years to experience this,” Winstead said.
It’s been a “tug and pull” of blaming college students and fraternities, but he said adults aren’t acting any better and he’s just “frustrated with the system as a whole.”
He doesn’t blame N.C. State leaders for the choices that they have made, though.
“It’s a difficult time, a difficult situation,” Winstead said.
Still, it was “very frustrating” that students living in the dorms were told to pack up and go home over a long weekend while they were still in classes. Some were unsure if those classes were going to be canceled.
“It feels like we’re being exploited for whatever money we have, which are almost always from loans that we’re going to have to pay off,” Winstead said. “You’re just living your life in limbo.”
He’s also afraid the financial burden of this experience will hurt him and his classmates in the future. He’s worried about getting a job when he graduates.
“It’s just setting up this generation to fail and be even more poor than millennials were when they were coming out of the 2008 recession,” Winstead said. “It’s going to be constant step down effect of not having proper equity and not being able to buy things or contribute to the economy like older generations.”
Danny Bowen is a senior from Florida and an active member of UNC’s undergraduate student government. For the fall semester, Bowen was taking online classes and mostly hanging out with the three other people he lived with in an off-campus apartment.
Asked what’s it’s like to be a college student in the middle of a pandemic, Bowen said, “it’s weird.”
So much of the college experience outside of academics has really been taken away, he said, or at least made less prominent. And that’s kind of sad.
“It’s just hard because a lot of the days feel very similar to each other,” Bowen said. “It’s a lot easier to feel unstructured and right now … it feels a little more monotonous.”
In previous years, Bowen would bike to campus and stay there all day, sitting in the student union or the library between classes and always running into someone he knows.
Now, Bowen took all of his classes online and mostly stayed in his house in Chapel Hill, going on walks or to the grocery store and “that’s pretty much it,” he said. And he doesn’t have the chance to check all those things off his UNC bucket list senior year.
“Without being on campus, when I happen to walk by campus or drive through, it feels like a different world,” Bowen said, “and like I’m not in that world anymore.”
The boundaries between classes and life and work are much more blurry. And not being able to see people face-to-face is “emotionally taxing,” he said.
“The biggest challenge is just maintaining my mental health and morale, that kind of thing,” Bowen said. “The Zoom fatigue is real.”
He and his roommates broke up the monotony by taking short trips to the mountains to go hiking, Bowen said. With classes and student government meetings online, he was “less tethered to one place” so he could go out of town on a whim, which he said was the one thing that’s nicer now.
Professors were understanding and aware of the conditions they were all in, but it was hard to be expected to continue learning as normal, he said.
Bowen was also expecting to have things figured out for where he’s going to go after college and what job he might have that would allow him to really enjoy his senior year.
“But this year feels like I haven’t been able to relax,” Bowen said, “Trying to adapt to everything and trying to be in spaces to help make change at UNC and not repeat this again hopefully.”
Lamar Richards, a sophomore from South Carolina, is the chair of the commission on equality and appointed to the campus and community advisory council at UNC-CH. He lives in an apartment in Chapel Hill with his partner and is worried about the mental health of his peers.
Richards said he recently saw a comment on Facebook from a UNC alumni that said the current generation of Carolina students is “the most mentality fragile generation of students he’s ever heard of” and that they need to toughen up basically.
“The biggest thing everyone is not understanding … is that mental health is the equivalent of physical health,” Richards said. “This COVID-19 pandemic has much more effect on mental health than any other period or time.”
Richards said there are some myths out there that the fall semester was easier because it was online, but that was not the case.
Students struggled financially after losing a campus job, some didn’t have internet at home and others were sharing a room with their siblings while trying to take online classes.
And while COVID-19 is a virus that physically affects the body, it also plays a large role in students’ mental health, Richards said.
“Isolation and being in quarantine plays a very large role on mental health,” Richards said. It’s also been difficult knowing that this virus disproportionately affects people of color, he said.
College-age students socialize in order to decompress and deal with mental and racial trauma, Richards said. It’s also important for their development, personally and professionally, he said.
“We are encountering adversity that there is no handbook for,” Richards said. “And that’s why I’ve never once placed blame on students for coming back and spreading this virus.”
The university should be looking for creative ways to allow students to socialize on campus in a socially distant and safe way moving forward, he said.
Hattie Halloway, a 19-year-old freshman from Chapel Hill, lives in a dorm on campus without a roommate, taking a mix of in-person and online classes at Duke University. She felt safe in her classes and her dorm on campus
Life on a college campus might look different than normal this year, with students wearing face masks and classroom seating spaced six feet apart, but being a freshman, Halloway didn’t have anything to compare it to.
”It’s interesting because I would say being a college student isn’t as good as it normally would be, but it’s better than being a lot of other things right now,” Halloway said. “And I feel extremely grateful to be on campus rather than at home studying.”
She wasn’t always sure it would be worth the time and money to be at Duke this year, especially if classes were all online. She was afraid she might be really unhappy, she said.
Halloway didn’t have a lot of expectations coming into her first college semester because there was no way to guess what it would be like with COVID-19, she said. But she was anxious that it would be hard to make friends with masks and limits on how students can socialize.
There aren’t the usual extracurricular activities, parties or events on campus that can help first year students find their community, she said. Instead, they are finding it in her residence hall and this experience is a sort of common ground that connects them.
Losing the end of their senior year of high school and getting COVID-19 tests before moving into their single dorms has brought her class closer together. They’re all sort of lost in the same way, she said.
“It can definitely be scary and sad at times, like adjusting to college in general but especially with COVID, but then I think about like I could be at home right now,” Halloway said, “and also it’s still really fun to be on campus even with everything.”
She said she hears sophomores saying they feel bad for the freshmen because they aren’t getting the “normal college experience.” But in a way she feels worse for them because they’re on campus and know what’s missing and how much better it was last year.
“I think if this goes on for the next four years I’ll be sad then that I didn’t get the pre-COVID college things,” Halloway said. “But for right now, I just don’t think about it a lot like what it would’ve been.”
NC Central University
Imani Johnson, a 21-year-old senior from Atlanta and Miss North Carolina Central University, felt like something was missing on campus this fall. She is studying political science and hopes to walk across the stage this spring at the historically Black institution in Durham.
“Right now, with COVID-19 our campus is a deserted island,” Johnson said during the fall semester.
Students were there taking some classes in-person, but the campus bookstore wasn’t buzzing with students. The NCCU band wasn’t playing and no one was cooking food at tailgates before a Saturday afternoon home football game, she said.
“It’s very strange to see our campus feel so empty, because normally there is something always happening,” Johnson said.
This fall, Johnson was not walking five miles across campus to get to classes, meetings with student organizations or events, she said. She was not trying to find parking on campus and couldn’t go in and out of buildings as she pleaseds, hang out in the library or get food with her friends on campus.
“What’s different is the movement and the momentum and the hustle and flow of everything,” Johnson said.
As an HBCU queen, she’s been meeting virtually with her sisters at other HBCUs, and they’re finding ways to help each other through this unique experience, she said.
“It’s allowed us to rely on each other more because that’s all we have,” Johnson said. “We only have each other in this because no one else will understand.”
They’ve bonded in a way that no other group of queens have, she said, and she’s grateful for that because the students need that support.
“We’re just trying to keep ourselves moving because a lot of times through this pandemic it can feel like you are just existing and not living,” Johnson said.
They only have one year with their titles and positions in student government and they’re trying to make the most of it.
A big part of getting through this year is “letting go of the pain” and the missed opportunities and expectations of how events are supposed to look, she said.
“Our student leaders in college right now, we are pushing as hard as we can to create programs and to get creative as much as we can and striving to create things that will last to fill in the moments that we’re missing,” Johnson said. “As a collective, we don’t want to be forgotten.”