Seniors reflect on seismic shifts in college experience as USAO responds to COVID-19

Students navigate shift to online courses, cancelled commencement
Students navigate shift to online courses, cancelled commencement

When students at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma began their studies at the beginning of this year, their concerns were largely those of any person in their shoes: completing readings and other assignments, finding some good food and enjoying what free time they have with their friends. As time went on, however, and we began to hear more and more about this novel coronavirus that was rapidly spreading in China--then in South Korea and Italy and many other countries around the world--some people began to feel that the spring 2020 semester might not be the standard fare.

Several professors did warn of what would come, so I like to think my classmates and I were a little better prepared,” said senior psychology major Robert BlueBack Jr.

When the NBA abruptly cancelled its season March 12, after a player tested positive for the illness in Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Arena, the stark new reality was suddenly here with us, and the faculty and staff at USAO responded immediately to keep students safe. As the extent of the crisis began evident, unfortunately this meant that seniors who had been eagerly awaiting their time to walk across the stage as college graduates saw commencement cancelled, and classes moved completely online for the remainder of their final few weeks at their alma mater.

I never realized how much graduation actually meant to me until it was canceled,” said theatre arts major Morgan Montgomery. “I'll still celebrate with my family, but I most likely won't be able to say goodbye to any of my professors or classmates. USAO has been my home for the past four years, and it seems like I'm having to say goodbye earlier than I thought.”

Not only did students find themselves blindsided with this transition over Spring Break--this shift is especially noticeable at a close-knit school like USAO, where professors know every student in their class by name and are deeply invested in making sure they are getting the kind of one-on-one attention that draws people to the school.

“The transition to online classes has been more of a hassle than I originally thought it would be. I spend all of my time on my laptop, listening to old lectures and taking notes. It's given me time to work on research papers that I was putting off, but my desire for learning has been greatly diminished by this quarantine,” said Montgomery.

While history major Dominique Washington thinks that her professors have done a good job in navigating the technological shift, there is a deeper side to the relationship that simply cannot be fulfilled through Zoom meetings.

“Some classes just don’t transfer well to an online platform. All of my professors are so energetic, and I do miss seeing their lectures in person. I also think the closeness of USAO made it easier to hold myself accountable. If I was slipping academically, I would often run into one of my professors in the halls and they would just check in with me to see if things were going okay and if they could do anything to help,” she said.

These sort of interpersonal connections are something that are all too easy to take for granted, and everyone in the USAO family—students, staff, faculty, alumni and other friends of the university—have spoken about how much they are missed during this uncertain time.

“I miss the in-class discussions. I have no problem doing the readings, but I want to ask questions and be in the room to answer questions from my professors and fellow students. Online learning just can't do that for me,” said Montgomery. “The saddest part about all of this is the cancellation of events. As a senior, I was looking forward to my ‘lasts’ on campus: my last show with the theater department, my last day at work, walking out of my last final, and of course, walking across the stage at graduation.”

And of course, beyond the struggles of adapting to online courses and social distancing guidelines, the advent of this new virus has created an entirely new world of anxieties for USAO seniors. While any new college graduate would worry about getting their career started, beginning a graduate program or just finishing up everything in their final semester, leaving this school’s exceptionally supportive environment in such an unnerving time is doubly difficult.

“Graduating in the face of a global pandemic is not something I had planned to do this year. I think I can speak for most graduates when I say that it has been hard to find the motivation to finish out the semester,” said biology major Edgar Tafoya. “This pandemic has taken away any sense of normalcy and has introduced new anxieties into our lives as well as our families. To graduate during a time of massive unemployment and economic uncertainty introduces new challenges to overcome in an already challenge-filled world.”

Washington closely echoed these sentiments, saying: “There’s a lot to worry about. Unemployment is high. The death toll is rising. It seems that all we can do is wait.”

Still, USAO’s educational philosophy encourages students to take the broadest possible perspective in order to learn as much as we can from our experiences, both good and bad. Though this semester has not turned out the way anybody planned or hoped for, our students have still allowed themselves to be open to the moment and see the beauty springing up all around us.

While I am disheartened that my time at USAO ended far earlier than I would have wanted, I am grateful for the time I got to spend with friends and instructors. I will never forget the lessons that the school has taught me, whether it was the intricate philosophies discussed with Professor Simpson, delving deep into the psyche with Professor Vaughn or even simply taking time to admire the sublimity of nature,” said BlueBack. “Just before we left for break, my friends Claire and Dominque pointed out the tadpoles that have started to grow in the creek behind the library. Like all things, COVID-19 will pass as well, I think Dumbledore, forgive my inner nerd, has the best insight for dark times like this: ‘Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.’ So fellow Drovers, stay strong.”

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