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A virtual semester poses various challenges for college students from various backgrounds. Jasmine Razeghi speaks to four students from Whitman College about the adjustments they made for this fall. 

As coronavirus cases surge in the United States, colleges and universities across the country reevaluate their plans for the fall semester. A once optimistic administration planning for a “welcome back” in August had a complete turnaround filled with virtual town halls to discuss the complete transition into a virtual fall semester.

My institution, Whitman College, announced a virtual semester in late July. The announcement came just a month before the first day of class. The impact hits students in various ways. First-year students will face a unique challenge in adapting to college life without the actual college campus while seniors will begin their last year of college through a computer screen. 

On the other hand, many students who depend on an on-campus environment to thrive academically are questioning whether a semester online would be the best choice for them. Some choose g to take a gap semester while others move to Walla Walla for the term in order to have access to stable internet and a quiet study space. 

While colleges and universities should remain closed for the fall if they cannot guarantee the safety of its students, staff, and faculty, the toll that it will take on student lives should receive special consideration. 

International Student: “I Don’t Have Somewhere Else To Go”

Whitman will allow a small set of students to return to Walla Walla this semester if their circumstances at home prevent them from having a safe or successful term. Limiting the number of incoming students also protects the Walla Walla community from a large influx of students from out of the county. 

Nomonde Nyathi ‘23, an intended Psychology major and international student from Zimbabwe, felt a lack of support and empathy from the college. When the campus pushed for students to leave for the remainder of the spring semester in March, Nomonde remained on campus so that she would be able to attend her classes without having to adjust to an unhealthy time difference in Zimbabwe.

Nomonde Nyathi, student

For the summer, she stayed in Seattle with her roommate. “I was so grateful enough to have a lovely roommate who invited me into her home for the summer, making everything more bearable especially when it came to figuring out what my plan for the fall would be,” she said. 

Her plan for the fall is to return to Walla Walla and live in a shared house with friends. She said, “Whitman is the only place I can be, it’s not like I can go home.” Nomonde wished Whitman would be more transparent with their emails, as she feels that the messages sent from the college do not carry any certainty. 

While she understands that the raging pandemic is a hardship that everyone experiences, students like herself who require an on-campus learning environment are not given enough priority, in her view. Nomonde cited how frustrating it is to navigate a return to campus while local students go in and out of Walla Walla. “Whitman sent out an email encouraging international students to move somewhere else or to find alternative housing, but I think to myself, ‘you guys [Whitman] know I can’t because I don’t have somewhere else to go.’” 

The Cost Barrier Of Attending Online Classes

I spoke with Rosa Woolsey ‘23, an intended Anthropology major and a First-Generation Working Class (FGWC) student, about why she decided to leave Whitman for the semester. “Whitman is just too expensive for me to rationalize online classes,” she responded. Since she is a sophomore, she plans on enrolling in a community college to fulfill her general degree requirements. “I guess I’m not fully taking a break,” she added.

A drawback from her temporary leave is her inability to maintain her roles on campus. She can no longer write for the college’s student-ran newspaper The Whitman Wire or be a Student Academic Advisor (SA) for the incoming first-year students. 

In addition to losing her roles, she noted the loss of income as well. Rosa told me, “I’m also having to find a new job. Kind of ironic that that’s the case seeing as the reason I chose to leave was money but I guess that’s this system for you.”

An Unprecedented Time Deepens Uncertainty In Students

The sudden change in fall semester plans stirred up uncertainty in the student body. Students ask themselves questions like, “should I buy plane tickets?” or “should I accept my loan?” Elea Besse student ‘23, an intended Art and Politics double major and FGWC student, initially thought a gap semester would be the best option for her. She planned on getting an internship for the fall and taking a temporary leave of absence. 

However, she changed her mind when she realized the many resources she would give up if she left Whitman. After speaking with a friend, she realized that while not being a student would save her money, she would also lose financial assistance like the Whitman Internship Grant and the school’s emergency fund. She now plans on taking classes through Whitman, pursuing an internship, and taking advantage of the college’s financial resources.

When asked what factored into her decision for the fall, she said, “the biggest factors for me as someone who will have loans and qualifies for work study were the financial aspects of taking classes or not and what would best serve my mental health during a time of such uncertainty and stress.”

I asked Elea what she thought the college could have done differently. She responded, “ideally, I would have preferred that Whitman err on the side of caution earlier in the summer. The vibe I have gotten is that students, including myself, were led to believe that we were going to be in person for the fall semester and got our hopes up, not to mention that the school left us with little time to make such a big decision. But this situation is obviously hard to maneuver and I think Whitman did what they thought was best in waiting to let us know the plan.”

Daniel Dang: “I Had To Lay Down On My Bed And Recreate My Plan For The Rest Of Whitman”

Daniel Dang ‘22, a Computer Science major, explained his initial reaction to Whitman’s move to online learning, saying,“for a few hours after I got that email, I had to lay down on my bed and recreate my plan for the rest of Whitman; whether to be a Resident Assistant again, whether going trying to go abroad would be worth it, and even whether to enroll at Whitman for the semester.”

Daniel Dang student

He saw the opportunity to move back to campus as a way to be independent while also having a healthy work environment. “Living on my own is one of the experiences I wanted to have before I graduate college so I went for it,” he said. 

I asked Daniel what he will lose because of a virtual semester. “No doubt, the little moments that can only come from sitting together with your friends in a class: moments like whispering an inside joke whenever the professor says something funny or talking with your friends after class about how confused you were during that lecture,” he told me. 

On a lighter note, he expressed what he would gain from the online term, stating, “I hope that by the end of the semester, I’ll be able to stay focused for longer amounts of time in front of my computer than I was able to before this all started!”