The days before spring break in March 2020 at UT looked much as they did at campuses across the country. Students finished assignments, packed up their swimsuits and suntan lotion, and prepared to hit the road to sunny destinations for a well-deserved respite. Little did they know that their lives would never be the same again.
When Chancellor Plowman and campus leadership decided to move all classes online, cancel events, and close residence halls to stop the spread of the new coronavirus March 23, 2020, students had to adapt quickly to their new reality. For many, it was not easy.
“The hardest part of being a student during COVID-19 is an overall feeling of isolation when I participate in class and school work without a way to causally turn to my neighbor and ask them what they’re doing,” said Emily Constantin, a mathematics and religious studies major from Atlanta, Georgia. “Everything feels more formal when it didn’t used to be.”
Isolation is a common theme throughout the College of Arts and Sciences student ambassadors’ reflections on the past year as a UT student. Adapting to life through a webcam took some getting used to, especially for those who had labs or hands-on experiences scheduled for the semester. Staying motivated to focus when learning completely online was tough for all the ambassadors. Keeping up with shifting schedules and assignments, as well as how to fill in the gaps left by cancelled group activities was also a challenge.
“I was so used to having each week planned out with activities that when COVID hit, I had to fully throw away my old schedule and go day to day with things,” said Andy Turner, a biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology major from Cumming, Georgia.
Students also felt the coronavirus cheated them out of a full university experience.
“The hardest thing for me as a student during COVID-19 is the feeling of not being fully involved in the college,” said Heitzer Gutierrez, a language and world business major from Charlotte, North Carolina. “I have found it quite difficult to be a part of the university with limited classes on campus and activities to participate in.”
Having Zoom game nights, study groups, and other online social interactions helped ease the feeling of solitude, but did not fill the gap left by cancelled social events, on-campus experiences, or other Volunteer activities.
“This year has made me painfully aware of just how short my time as an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee actually is,” said Abigail Lawrence, a geography major from Seymour, Tennessee.
The year, however, was not a total loss. With the isolation came the opportunity for students to slow down, reflect on what was really important, and take time for self-care, which is something college students rarely have the time to do.
“In college, there is a lot of pressure to juggle multiple jobs, multiple clubs, and multiple classes while also trying to discover how to advance yourself professionally,” said Emma Grace Thompson, a political science major from Knoxville. “The pandemic made me reflect on what was really important to me and what I was doing purely because I thought I had to in order to be perceived as successful. I dropped a few clubs and in my spare time now, I try to implement practices that are either helping me maintain a healthy inner thought life or helping advance my professional goals that I would like to achieve after graduation.”
Family, friends, and supportive professors also made an impact on how students coped with COVID-19. Others found gratitude for having a roof over their head or a hot meal on their plate enough to get them through the toughest times.
“Knowing that everybody has been impacted by the pandemic in similar and different ways has helped me remember that I’m not alone, and knowing that this phase of my life will end and better times are coming has helped me through the really hard times,” said Faith Wilson, a College Scholar from Knoxville.
Adaptability is a core value in the College of Arts and Sciences and at the heart of a liberal arts education and this past year, students in the college learned just how critical it is to be able to adapt to change.