The Students of Zoom University

Nine students share how the pandemic has affected their studies—and their futures.

Almost every college student in America has had their education, and possibly their plans for the future, disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But each student has a different story. Here are nine of them.

Kira Albiez
Age: 26
School: Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing (Baltimore, MD)
Program: Master of Science, nursing (accelerated program)
Status: Recent graduate

Kira Albiez’s final semester of her nursing master’s program at Johns Hopkins was supposed to be focused on getting hands-on practice, shadowing nurses in clinics and hospitals. “The clinical portion of our classes is really important—it’s where we learn to interact with patients,” she said. When hospitals implemented social-distancing measures, and her program shifted to mostly online classes, that real-world training was dramatically scaled back. It happened in other programs, too. “I have friends at other nursing programs who aren’t even getting to do any in-person trials,” she said. She credits her school for finagling a way to get students into hospitals and clinics, even if their hours were greatly reduced. 

There have been other drawbacks. Some of their remaining course work, which would have typically involved role-playing scenarios with a dummy or an actor as the patient, didn’t translate well to online learning. It was isolating to no longer see her classmates and friends. “This program, like most, is super intensive and really, really hard work,” she said, but it’s usually made more manageable by the camaraderie. “It’s weird to not see some of those people anymore.” It helps, she said, that she’s dating someone who’s also in nursing school and knows what she’s going through. 

After graduating in August, she’s lined up to start working as a nurse at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. She’s excited to finally start helping on the frontlines, but she also feels a bit of trepidation. “Part of me is, like, missing out on these last few months of clinical experiences puts me in a weird spot where I don’t feel as prepared.”
—GH

Silvia Rojas
AGE: 22
SCHOOL: Trinity University
(San Antonio, TX)
PROGRAM: Bachelor’s, marketing and political science
STATUS: Senior

In early March, Silvia Rojas left Texas for a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She was excited to explore the city, and the larger region, but three weeks after her arrival she found herself quarantined indefinitely. Argentina went into lockdown, banning nonresidents from traveling, to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Her study-abroad program was canceled, and the opportunity to travel was gone. Luckily, Rojas had an uncle in Argentina who let her stay with him, but his apartment building didn’t technically allow visitors during the lockdown. She was able to get into the building, but didn’t want to risk leaving. “We’re just scared that if I go out and I want to go back in, they’re going to tell me no,” she said in July. “I literally have not left at all” since March, she said.

For a while, it looked like a Trump administration policy announced in early July, banning foreign students from the United States, would keep her from going back to Texas in the fall. Rojas, who grew up in Honduras, was studying at Trinity University on an F-1 student visa. The administration’s new plan was to allow international students to enter (or remain in) the country only if they had in-person classes, so Rojas was scrambling to ensure that at least one of her classes would meet in person. Then, in the face of intense criticism and lawsuits from top universities, the administration reversed its position.

Now, she’d be legally able to come back to the U.S., but her parents would rather she not return to Texas, where COVID-19 cases spiked this summer. So until the ban on commercial flights is lifted and she’s able to go back to Honduras, she’ll continue to stay with her uncle and take classes online. Rojas is relying on FaceTime to stay connected with others while she remains in almost complete physical isolation. “Calls from friends and family make it better,” she said. “But it’s depressing.” —EV

Nathaniel Schmitt
AGE: 20
SCHOOL: U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point, NY)
PROGRAM: Bachelor’s, marine engineering
STATUS: Junior

One of the main reasons Nathaniel Schmitt enrolled in the Merchant Marine Academy was for the camaraderie. His father graduated from the academy in 1990, and Schmitt admired the lifelong friendships his dad developed while attending. “That’s part of the reason why I chose it,” Schmitt told me. “For the bonds that were formed there.” 

Until this past spring, he was getting exactly what he wanted from the experience. Schmitt, who studies marine engineering, made good friends during his freshman year. From January to March, he went on his first academic sailing expedition with many of them, traveling from California to Hawaii and back. But only two days after he disembarked, the academy notified students, faculty, and staff that the rest of the semester would be conducted online. The decision had many difficult consequences for Schmitt, including taking what should have been lab classes via Zoom. But most painfully, it meant missing time with his friends.

The Merchant Marine Academy has had one of the most aggressive reopenings of any college in the country, and Schmitt returned to the Kings Point campus on July 25. The academy tentatively plans to have all students back on campus in the fall. It is a bold move, and one that could easily backfire if the virus spreads through dorms or infects staff and instructors.

But Schmitt is hopeful that the school’s reopening plan, which includes isolating sick students in the campus clinic, will work, and that he can continue to bond with his classmates. He expects to be back at sea starting in November. —NG

Deana Velazquez
AGE: 30
SCHOOL: University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee (Milwaukee, WI)
PROGRAM: Bachelor’s, community engagement and education
STATUS: Recent graduate

For Deana Velazquez, the dominoes fell quickly. University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she was getting a bachelor’s degree, extended spring break to sort out its coronavirus response. A few days into the vacation, on March 18, the school announced that it would be shutting down and transitioning to online classes. Two days later, the school her seven-year-old daughter attends closed, as did the daycare center her two-year-old daughter goes to. “Now they’re just with me,” she said—in the house, all the time. That forced her to quickly rearrange her schedule. With her kids at home, she spent most of each day caring for them, squeezing her course work and work for her job as an assistant teacher into the evenings. 

She has mixed feelings about the upheaval. On one hand, Velazquez says, juggling her work with all the child care has been stressful. On the other, she’s glad to have her daughters at home where she can keep an eye on them and ensure that neither gets sick. “I didn’t have to worry about getting to campus while I had my children,” she added. 

Velazquez suspects that the fact that she’s a student-parent made her better prepared for this period of uncertainty than some of her peers. “As nontraditional students we [parents] have the resiliency and ability to balance” many competing demands, she said. Velazquez graduated this summer, and is now on the hunt for a job. She’d like to work in the nonprofit sector, ideally for an organization that provides performing arts education to disadvantaged students. She’s not sure, though, whether her daughters’ daycare and school will reopen anytime soon. “It won’t be like it was before,” she said. “We are sort of entering a new normal.” —GH

Selvin Marquina
AGE: 22
SCHOOL: Montgomery College (Rockville, MD)
PROGRAM: Associate of Applied
Science, computer gaming and simulation, and digital animation
STATUS: Second year 

For Selvin Marquina, the COVID-19 pandemic began like it did for many college students: He struggled to make the transition from in-person to online learning. Now a second-year student at Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland, Marquina has already experienced more than his share of trauma. He grew up in El Salvador, where he was targeted for kidnapping at age 12.
After that, his family sent him to the United States and he bounced around the foster care system before being adopted and granted legal immigrant status. He is now working on a double major in computer gaming and simulation, and digital animation. After his school shifted to remote classes in March, he found his computer programming classes unmanageable without one-on-one interactions with a teacher. It was his first exposure to programming languages, and, he said, “I did not know what I was doing.” So he dropped two courses, both of which are required for his major. 

At first, the social-distancing measures didn’t feel too bad. “I’m more of a homebody,” he said, plus he wanted to follow the guidelines from public health officials. “I would do what they say— stay home, don’t go out,” he said, and when he needed to get outside, he’d take his dog for a walk. He discovered other outlets, too: calling up childhood friends he’d lost touch with, and working on his drawing skills. 

This summer, he started designing stickers, posters, and bookmarks; most are pastel-colored illustrations of popular video game characters. “When I have enough designs I’ll open an Etsy shop,” he says, referring to a popular online marketplace. Eventually, he wants to be a film and game designer. 

Looking ahead, Marquina is apprehensive about the fall. His school is planning on remote learning once again, and he’s not sure whether he will have success retaking coding classes online. “I’m the type of person who learns better in a classroom,” he told me. “It becomes really hard to learn from home.” He’s feeling much more confident, though, about the advanced design course he’s also signed up for. —EV

Jayashree Sha
AGE: 47
SCHOOL: Broward Virtual University (Florida)
PROGRAM: Postgraduate certificate, gifted education endorsement
STATUS: Recent graduate

COVID-19 gave Jayashree Sha an opportunity. A math teacher in Pembroke Pines, Florida, Sha was in the middle of studying for a certification to instruct gifted students when the virus hit. Normally, she would have taken time off from the certificate program for her annual summer visit to India, where she grew up. But the pandemic made that impossible, allowing her to spend June and July finishing her courses online. “I can’t go anywhere,” Sha told me. “I thought this would be a perfect time to take the classes.” 

She did, receiving her certificate on August 2. It should have been a moment of triumph. Sha, after all, has long wanted to work with higher-performing kids. “I love the curiosity,” she said of such students. “You ask a question, and so many people have answers.” 

But instead, the excitement has been overshadowed by profound anxiety. Despite being one of the global hotspots for COVID-19, Florida is pushing its schools to open for in-person instruction this fall. As of this writing, Somerset Academy, where Sha teaches, is planning to offer a hybrid model of in-class and online instruction. This means she might have to risk her life in order to work.

Sha finds that untenable. “We see hundreds of students,” she said. “We never know who is exposed to whom.” If the school brings back all its kids, Sha told me she will refuse to teach in-person classes, despite her advancement and new credential. “I will not go,” she said. —NG

Sydney McKinstry
AGE: 21
SCHOOL: University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)
PROGRAM: Bachelor’s, history and psychology
YEAR: Recent graduate 

As a resident adviser in a dorm, Sydney McKinstry got an inside view of the chaotic process of shutting down a large school. For her junior and senior years at the University of Michigan, she had been employed by the school to supervise dormitories and apartment complexes on campus. After the school announced that in-person classes were ending, it also encouraged all students who could leave to do so.

McKinstry was worried that if all the students left, the school would decide they didn’t need RAs anymore and would stop paying them. In that case, she’d need to find another part-time job, just as she was trying to finish requirements for her two majors (history and psychology) and write an honors thesis. Or perhaps, she worried, they’d require the RAs to clear out, and then she’d have to move back in with her parents, which she didn’t want to do. “I lost three weeks of productivity because I didn’t know where I was going to live,” she said. She described the debacle, and the ensuing relocation of remaining students, as confusing and nightmarish. 

Ultimately, RAs were allowed to stay, and McKinstry was reassigned to oversee some of the remaining students. She was able to finish her thesis. But forgoing all of the traditional graduation ceremonies and events was devastating. “It was awful,” she said. “I missed out on a ton of stuff.” Under normal circumstances, she’d have given a talk about her thesis, attended graduation ceremonies for the history and psychology departments, and participated in graduation for the whole university. Her parents had been emphasizing the importance of going to college since she was in elementary school, and she was going to be the first in her family to graduate. When your family is so excited, she said, it’s hard to celebrate your accomplishments without those formal ceremonies. “There’s this sense of loss, and just lack of closure after four years.” —GH

Keyonna Jones
AGE: 21
SCHOOL: Western Oregon University (Monmouth, OR)
PROGRAM: Bachelor’s, accounting with a communications minor
YEAR: Senior

Keyonna Jones has a goal: score 1,000 points in her collegiate basketball career. Under normal circumstances, it would be very obtainable. Right now, the Western Oregon University senior has 704 points. One more full season and she should cross the four-figure milestone.

But COVID-19 means that for Jones, one more full season is far from certain. The pandemic has already forced her Division II school to cancel its entire fall sports season. “Our football, soccer, and volleyball [teams] aren’t playing,” she said. She’s worried that winter sports like basketball will be next.

It’s easy to see why it would be so disappointing for Jones. She’s been playing basketball since she was a seven-year-old growing up in Bothell, Washington. She played for her public high school, winning a conference championship her senior year, before being recruited by Western Oregon and offered a scholarship. It was a dream come true for Jones, who had aspired to play college basketball since she was a kid. She decided to commit to the school after visiting the campus and immediately feeling at ease with the girls on the team. 

The possibility of cancelation, or even abridgment, is excruciating. “I don’t want to have a half season or not be able to play games,” Jones said. “It’s my senior year. I have goals I want to reach.” —NG

Elena Litvinova
AGE: 31
SCHOOL: Hunter College, City University of New York (NYC, NY)
PROGRAM: Bachelor’s, physics
YEAR: Senior

When New York City became the pandemic’s epicenter in March, Elena Litvinova, who was finishing her junior year at Hunter College, got lucky. While most of her friends had their summer internships canceled, her plan to do research for the U.S. Department of Energy on how plasmas create fusion energy was able to go ahead. “They took some time to make rearrangements, but they didn’t cancel anything,” she said.

That was a relief to Litvinova, a nontraditional student who had already earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, but decided to make a career change and pursue her passion for physics by getting a second bachelor’s degree. “I don’t live with my parents, I have my own apartment, and so I have a steady space that’s reliable and not, you know, loud and surrounded by family members.”

Her summer job was done entirely from home—and it kept her busy. Each day consisted of Zoom meetings with an adviser and other researchers, discussing and deconstructing their latest findings. She’s now studying for the GRE and preparing to apply to physics PhD programs for the fall of 2021, such as Princeton, Rutgers, and Columbia. She hopes to become a scholar of physics or astrophysics. 

In the meantime, she has one more academic year left at Hunter, which has announced plans for mostly online learning next semester, with limited in-person courses in a few disciplines, including lab sciences. For Litvinova, that’s less than ideal, but she realizes that the coronavirus could spread if students congregate in lecture halls, and is worried about the possibility of a second wave of the virus in New York. “I’m very tired of being at home all the time,” she told me. “But I also want to stay safe.” 
—EV.

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Nicole Girten, Giulia Heyward, and Ellie Vance

Nicole Girten, Giulia Heyward, and Ellie Vance are editorial interns at the Washington Monthly.