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College is not only a time for academic learning, but it also serves as a transformative experience as students transition from teens to young adults. So how is that journey impacted when it’s cut short by a pandemic? We talked to three college seniors about their experiences and how the pandemic affected their final semester. Meet Megan Kiernan, a publishing major at Belmont University in Nashville, TN; Devyn Haecker, a strategic communications major and business minor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX; and Eva Durchholz, a double major in public policy studies and public health at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.

When did you find out your campus was shutting down for the rest of the year? What was your reaction?

Megan: We found out March 20 that we were going online for the rest of the semester. I hadn’t looked at my email, but a few people texted me. I was actually on my way to my on-campus apartment to pack up more things so I would be ready to move. [Belmont’s president] sent a fairly diplomatic email stating his dismay at the fact we could not return. I honestly was expecting it, as the rest of the schools in the area (Lipscomb, Vanderbilt and TSU) had already called it for the year. I had no real expectations of going back.

Devyn: I found out my college campus was shutting down while I was on spring break with my best friends in Mexico. Though we found out campus was closing, we had only really thought of this as an extended spring break. We all returned to our homes, but we never anticipated the shut down would last through the year. We were confused at the time but hadn’t quite grasped the full impacts of the situation. When we slowly came to realize the year was essentially over as we knew it, we were completely shocked and devastated.

Eva: I got the initial email at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 9 … At that point, though, we were just told classes were canceled for the week and online through March 30. That night, my close friends came over and we tried to celebrate the time we had left. There were some parties happening, but so many Vandy students were at coronavirus risk because of international and cross-national spring break travel, so we just went on a final Cook Out trip … We felt like we had to avoid everyone on campus, so we stayed in our dorm apartment all of the next day. We decided to take advantage of the week of canceled classes and booked a last-minute trip to a small beach town in Florida since we weren’t sure if we’d be coming back to campus once we left. We booked an Airbnb and planned to get groceries but otherwise talked to no one.

But seven hours into the eight-hour drive, we got the email classes would be online for the rest of the year. One of my friends read the email out loud to me as I drove. We were all just really sad and kind of in shock. We had to pull the car over to take a moment and switch drivers so I could let my family know what was going on. I knew my time in college was over, and we’d all have to spend the final half of our semester at home. It was heartbreaking to think about all the things I’d been looking forward to that got canceled in the blink of an eye.

College senior Devyn Haecker on spring break with friends

Devyn (second on the left) was on spring break in Mexico when she found out TCU’s campus was shutting down. Image: Submitted

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How quickly did you have to move out of your dorm or living space after the announcement was made?

Megan: The university never made it clear we had to leave in the first place, even when it was just for the extended spring break. Then, my RA texted me and told me I had to get a waiver to stay … I actually lived in a hotel for three weeks until I was able to move into my house. It caused a lot of stress and a massive spike in my anxiety.

Devyn: Because I live off-campus, I was fortunately not in a rush to move out. The real question became, “At what point will we be able to get back to town and remove our things from our off-campus house?” Many of my younger peers (including my sister at another college) were forced to move out within several days, and it was particularly stressful, chaotic and emotional.

Eva: We had four days to move out — it was difficult to process. I had a hard time believing my college career was over just like that. Luckily my parents were able to make arrangements to help me move out, and in the meantime, my friends and I just tried to have as much fun as possible on the secluded beach … By the time we got back to our dorm, most of our friends were already gone, and we didn’t get a chance to say many goodbyes, but the goodbyes I did get to say were hard because we had to keep our distance.

We’d all taken turns crying on the beach, in the car, and as we were packing up, but I was thankful for the time I did get on campus and the amazing people I met along the way. Ultimately, I’m fortunate to have gotten even a fraction of the college experience I bargained for. It hurts to think about all the moments we missed out on with our time cut short, but in the grand scheme, I’m healthy, my family is healthy, I have a roof over my head and now, a college degree, so I have a lot to be thankful for.

What is your university doing for graduation?

Megan: They did an online conferring of the diplomas on Saturday, May 2. The May graduates will be walking with the August graduates on August 7. However, our graduation date will remain as May 2, and our diplomas will still be delivered on time.

Devyn: Thankfully, TCU postponed graduation until August. The Chancellor has been extremely empathetic to the senior class, and since the beginning, he said he was committed to giving us a proper commencement. We are supposed to still partake in other TCU traditions the night before graduation in August.

Eva: We have some sort of online ceremony at the time of our actual graduation, and they’ve sent out a couple of online videos to congratulate us. We’re supposed to have in-person graduation in May 2021, but the logistics will be tough — graduating at the same time as the class of 2021. My mom was kind enough to order me a cap and gown even after I thought it was pointless, so I’m going to take graduation photos at home with my triplet brother as soon as he finishes finals. My friends and I are going to celebrate during our own video chat version with champagne and strawberries, which is normally a part of Vanderbilt’s graduation.

College seniors at Vanderbilt University serving as orientation leaders

Eva (right) poses with a friend as they serve as orientation leaders at the beginning of their senior year. Image: Submitted

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What has been the biggest lesson you have learned from this experience?

Megan: I think the biggest lesson I learned through all of this is maintaining a work-life balance. I am horrible about working from home. I thrived in my internship’s office, surrounded by people. I was mostly focused at my desk with people around me all driven to do the same thing. I realized this balance while adding the distraction of four roommates. It was a lot more difficult than anticipated. This has also been a huge lesson in self-care. As a Type 3 on the enneagram, I love to achieve. Before the pandemic, I worked two jobs, totaling about a 50-hour workweek. I never gave myself the mental breaks I probably needed, and COVID is forcing me to do that.

Devyn: Just because this unexpected season took away the end of our senior year, I have realized nothing can take away the friendships I found during my time at TCU and will carry with me for the rest of my life. Therefore, the greatest lesson I learned is lasting friendships matter more than a last formal or an extra few nights out, and this situation shouldn’t change the last 3.75 years I had at this school. It has, in a way, been nice to spend some slow days together without the hectic planning and activities of the spring season — to reminisce on our time together and bid our farewells together. But my mom will likely still have to physically pull me away when it is time to officially head out of here for good.

Eva: I’ve learned relationships are what make life great. So much of what I found valuable about going to Vanderbilt were the interactions with my peers and being able to grab lunch and hang out and chat before or after classes. It seems like colleges had to get shut down first because college students are one of the most interconnected groups, and it’s that interconnectedness that made college an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But while coronavirus can make us physically distance, it can’t make us emotionally distance. I still have all the friends I’ve made, even if I can’t see them in person. While it certainly stinks that everyone has to stay home, it’s kind of a beautiful act of societal love that so many young and healthy people are sacrificing so much to keep the more vulnerable among us safe and healthy. It’s easy to focus on the people defying the stay at home orders, but in reality, an incredible proportion is giving up their lifestyles to help save lives. I’m impressed by most of society, and I’m thinking about how I’m going to hug my friends (and my grandma) extra tight when I’m able to see them again.

TCU graduates

“Just because this unexpected season took away the end of our senior year, I have realized nothing can take away the friendships I have found during my time at TCU and will carry with me for the rest of my life,” Devyn (right) says. Image: Submitted

Thank you for sharing your stories, Megan, Devyn and Eva — and congratulations!

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