What on Earth are We Doing?

Looking back on the fall semester, Features writer Linda Li interviews members of the William & Mary community to hear their candid reflections on college during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Against all odds, the College managed to triumphantly conclude its controversial Fall 2020 reopening decision last month. In June, the College sent out the first of many emails touting “The Path Forward”—its plan for bringing back all of its students for a hybrid learning semester. Over the summer, the administration jumped over, ducked beneath, and skedaddled away from various hurdles as people demanded answers to myriad concerns surrounding our safety and quality of life on campus. Looking back at the mostly virus-free semester seems to point to the tentative conclusion that we attained some semblance of normality. That is, as much normality as we can muster.

ROCKET set out to capture a snapshot of the various cogs in the William & Mary machine and document how people are holding up in such uncharted territory. To be sure, the majority of students here are very comfortable: the student body’s relative racial and socioeconomic homogeneity definitely aided in the rollout of its reopening course. Yet throughout its 327-year history, William & Mary has only sent students home three times–the third instance being March 2020. 

The question we have now: how is everyone, really?

Expectations vs. Reality: College Edition

What initially drew PJ Morrissey ’24 to William & Mary was the “very welcoming and accepting environment.” This central element has not completely disappeared, but many students agree that the atmosphere is noticeably duller, quieter, and laced with an abundance of caution.

Abiding by COVID-19 guidelines is crucial, but Morrissey said, “it’s definitely more of a punitive, disciplinary environment.” The administration has stressed that it preaches positive reinforcement, but he expressed skepticism regarding this claim. “There’s been more negative accusatory emails or announcements that, when you get them, you’re like, Oh my gosh, we’re trying so hard, we’re trying to keep up with all the regulation changes as you throw them at us.” 

Do not be selfish–your actions impact the entire community.

Do not be the person who causes us to shut down this semester.

Do not be the reason that valued W&M employees are furloughed or lose their jobs.

Do not test the resolve of this university to take swift action to prioritize the health and well-being of our campus and the Williamsburg community.

Excerpt from an email sent by the Dean of Students on August 21, 2020.

Recognizing the efforts of students to provide emotional support and resources, Morrissey said, “it would be nice to hear, or receive feedback, from the higher-ups that we are doing a good job.” For freshmen in particular, the rocky transition from a disrupted senior year to college only compounds the challenges of online learning. “Even though the [infection] numbers are low, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing something right,” said Morrissey, “because you have to consider the quality of life and how students are feeling.”

Does Life Have a Pause Button?

“Part of me kind of wishes that I had maybe taken the semester off to just spend some time doing something else,” said Aubrey Lay ’23. At the same time, he was sick of hunkering down at home. Starting his sophomore year with next to zero expectations, Lay admits that he couldn’t help but harbor “unrealistic expectations” behind the “agnosticism I was trying to have about [returning].”

In true liberal-arts-interdisciplinary fashion, Lay, a linguistics major, said, “the pandemic is like this big source of friction that’s causing me to lose momentum.” Behind his imaginative word choice lies a less pleasant reality: nothing about the hybrid college experience can be considered whole. Students are worn down by the constant vigilance of social distancing and daily Zoom fatigue. 

In two surveys sent out at the beginning and midpoint of the semester, there is a nearly 30% jump in students who report words that denote sadness. Meanwhile, students who report feeling emotions akin to “joy” and “anticipation” plummeted dramatically. 

Luckily for Lay, he has two furry creatures to keep him company. “I recently got approval and accommodation to have emotional support animals on campus–so I adopted two rats.” Ruth and Aggie are “very sweet and cuddly, and can distract me a little bit from feeling like the world is falling apart.” 

So Far, It’s Alright

For Ash Byerly ’22 (they/them), the ability to attend classes from their dorm is more compatible with their needs. “I have a lot of health conditions, so I can’t always go to classes and stuff,” said Byerly. “I have a lot of social anxiety, so participating in big lecture hall classes isn’t always the best for me.”

Though they initially hinted at a more optimistic outlook, Byerly nonetheless finds that the transformed campus experience has severely curtailed avenues for making connections. “I’ve tried to find ways to meet people, and they just don’t really work,” they said. “There’s a group chat for trans and gender non-conforming people and I’m pretty active in that, but that’s more speaking into the void and asking people questions as opposed to making specific connections.”

Though not wholly satisfied with how the semester had been going, they feel that, “for the run-of-the-mill person, I feel like taking online classes would be the best bet.” Taking into account their circumstances as well as greater public health concerns, they said, “[T]his is just the state of how everything is right now. So, God, I would say it’s worth it.” 

Rude Awakening

Whether something is “worth it” would obviously be interpreted differently by different people. In April, Sophia Caronna-Morseman ’21 was granted a scholarship that covered most of her tuition fees. “That was the biggest relief of my entire life,” she said. “To know that I had security in such an insecure time was amazing.” However, her college experience has been far from smooth sailing. At an institution like William & Mary, low-income/first-gen students are easily overlooked. In her freshman year, an acquaintance had to drop out for financial reasons. “Once he dropped out, it was just really, really hard. I joined a sorority, I joined clubs, but I felt like a total imposter,” she confessed.

The pandemic locked in financial independence as her number one goal after graduation. An organization advocating on behalf of first-generation/low-income students was established just last year. Before that, Caronna-Morseman struggled to find resources on-campus to cope with the “stress, anxiety, tears, worry, just total desperation, fear that I would have to drop out” as a result of uncertainty over her ability to foot the tuition bill or pay the deposit on her lease.

“Seniors don’t really get to have closure–that’s something everybody is experiencing.”

Sophia Caronna-Morseman ’21

“But now I know that I can advocate for myself in tough times,” she expressed. Her remaining wish for senior year is to reconnect with her friends and professors after studying abroad the previous year. “It’s incredibly disappointing to have my senior year look like this,” she professed. “Seniors don’t really get to have closure–that’s something that everybody is experiencing, not just me, but that’s kind of how it is.”

Disillusionment

“COVID-19 has just shown me how much colleges profit off of students, and how a lot of these colleges do see students as just numbers,” said Vicky Morales ’22. “I understood where the finances came in, and being in Student Assembly, I was very much an advocate for having online learning continue, for the safety of students.”

“COVID-19 has just shown me how much colleges profit off of students, and how a lot of these colleges do see student as just numbers.”

Vicky Morales ’22

She no longer feels as strongly opposed to reopening, but the problems didn’t end there. As a Class Senator, Morales has experienced firsthand the frustration of “hearing student input and then not seeing that get translated into action [by] the administration, or vice versa.” Asked about the most common student concerns, she said, “One of the biggest concerns I’ve heard personally has been with WMPD not wearing masks, in most situations, when they pull over students.” So much for WMPD enhancing their image. 

On top of that, there are serious concerns “with students not listening to the same rules that apply to campus, and going off-campus and using that as an excuse to do whatever they want,” Morales explained. Despite the College issuing a zero-tolerance policy for rule violations, one can’t help but think sheer luck had a part to play in keeping infection numbers low. 

Trying to Move On

Asia Prentiss ’21 didn’t have high hopes for the semester either, but she returned in order to stay on track and complete her degree. “Honestly, I think pretty low of higher education,” she said. “Some of the decisions they made in the beginning weren’t the best decisions to make.”

She noted the COVID-19 response system’s disorderliness after going through a false alarm at the start of the semester. After repeatedly going back-and-forth between different call lines, she was informed in the end that since she was not enrolled in the campus health insurance, they couldn’t do much other than advise her to get tested. Prentiss said she spoke to an employee who divulged to her that they learn about new guidelines at the same time as students. “They’re like, Oh, this is new stuff to me, too,” she said. “I mean, that’s just messed up.”

Disease prevention, however, was not the singular focus of the community’s attention. Following the deaths of multiple Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement last summer, student advocates organized weekly protests in Williamsburg calling for racial equity and greater diversity throughout the semester. Community activism and The Lemon Project’s memorial to enslaved African Americans have contributed to renewed scrutiny of the College’s deep historical ties to slavery. 

As co-president of the Black Student Organization, Prentiss has been involved in discussions on renaming campus structures and spaces. She described what she perceived as the administration shying away from taking a bolder, more proactive approach to racial justice initiatives. “Until you actually make the formal change, you need to do X, Y, Z, and debrief people on [how] these are names on a building, these [things] are what these people have done, [and] we do not accept these ideas.” Moreover, Prentiss was frustrated at alumni who threatened to pull donations if the names were changed. “I feel like that’s unfair, not only to the people who identify as BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color]…because just because you don’t identify [as BIPOC] it’s people that still identify in your bubble,” she said.

Healthy Together

Many prominent members of the administration have been the subject of heated criticism throughout the year, but not Eric Garrison. His official role is the Assistant Director of the Office of Health Promotion, but most students know him as a jack-of-all-trades for wellness and peer outreach. Behind the scenes, Garrison acted as a liaison between the COVID Response Team and the federal government when developing protocols for reopening. 

Garrison, a fellow for the Royal Society of Public Health (UK), utilized his extensive knowledge of the first SARS epidemic in his liaison duties. He believes the American government’s lackluster messaging and slowness to act damaged the College’s ability to pull itself together quickly. “When the University started giving their messaging, we were behind the ball,” he said. “There was a lot of misinformation and a lot of disinformation that occurred—and we had to counter some of that.”

“When the University started giving their messaging, we were behind the ball. There was a lot of misinformation and a lot of disinformation that occurred [on the part of the federal government]—and we had to counter some of that.”

Eric Garrison, Assistant Director of the Office of Health Promotion

The Healthy Together modules, which Garrison helped design, were characterized as “doses” of a greater public health messaging campaign. To students it may have seemed like a one-time pre-arrival assignment, but Garrison said, “it was not meant to be the start; it was not meant to be the finish.” Where “risk communication comes down from the top [and] community engagement comes up from the bottom,” the modules, emails, and guidelines were meant to disseminate correct information on a large-scale as quickly as possible.

It is too soon to put our guard down as we head into the spring semester. Still, Garrison was heartened by the William & Mary community’s overall commitment to looking out for one another. “I felt from a socio-ecological standpoint that everybody did their part, for the most part, to make this work,” he expressed. 

Our Workers

These stories would be incomplete without a worker’s perspective. ROCKET reached out to the Workers’ Union but was unable to arrange an interview with an employee. Regardless, ROCKET asks its readers to support the GoFundMe page set up to raise funds for dining staff who are not compensated over winter break.

What Next?

At the beginning of this piece, I asked, “What on Earth are we doing?” Truth is, I never found an answer. We are all reassessing our priorities and reeling from setbacks. The important thing is that you don’t have to go through it alone. With epidemiologists predicting that we may not be able to return to our “normal” lives until this autumn, this is your reminder to keep persisting, adapting, and accepting.

Article by Linda Li.

Photos provided by interview subjects.

Header image by Hannah Lowe.

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