By Angel John (alumni profiles by Features Editor Eliana Chow) | Contributing Writer
“Despite the difficulties this might cause, we ask undergraduate students to remain or return home for the remainder of the semester…” With those words, included in an email sent by President Ryken to the student body on March 11, 2020 at 5:07 p.m., spring break split into two parts: before and after the announcement.
When they received the email, students were on vacation, resting at home, preparing for internships, excited for graduation and about to return to familiar campus spaces for B Quad. The news left many confused and restless. How did they navigate these uncharted waters, especially in the absence of treasured in-person community?
The Record had the chance to sit down with a few students and listen to their stories from those uncertain days and the months that followed.
Senior Emma Cerovich was in her home state of Colorado with five of her friends, discussing the closures of other large universities and how something on that scale would never happen at Wheaton. That Wednesday, they were looking at vacation photos on one friend’s laptop when the email notification popped up on the screen. Reading it aloud, they looked at one another in shock. “It felt wrong to continue our spring break,” Emma explained. She felt it important to take a moment to mourn what they had lost.
They were determined, however, to enjoy one more day before discussing it further. The next day they went skiing, deciding not to utter another school-related word until the end of the day when they could talk over hot chocolate. Whenever school was brought up, they paused and said “hot chocolate” to keep their spirits up.
A self-declared optimist, Cerovich hoped for the best, both in navigating online classes as well as preparing for her Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) summer internship in India. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘It will get worked out,’” she said with a laugh. Even if she couldn’t go until August and had to quarantine in India for two weeks, she was hopeful.
In June, with countries in lockdown and travel restrictions still in place, it became clear that Cerovich and her fellow HNGR interns would not be traveling overseas as planned. Instead, they were given the choice to find a new domestic internship, defer their HNGR application until next year or drop the HNGR program altogether.
“We’ve been working towards and anticipating this internship for two years now,” she explained. “You apply sophomore year for this program, and then you prepare all of junior year. So to have that long-term anticipation just not come to fruition was really heart-wrenching.”
As the months progressed, Cerovich stopped focusing on what she had lost and began focusing on what she was gaining instead. She felt a divine reason for the 23 HNGR students to remain in the U.S. in a time when the country is grappling with questions of race and justice.
“With everything going on in the country and a lot of wounds we’re having to work through — the fact that God has grounded 23 people, with hearts so passionate about these issues, in the country — there just has to be a reason for that this year.”
Sophomore Sami Fox and her family were enjoying their vacation in the village of Ustaoset in Buskerud, Norway. Up in the white slopes and without WiFi, they disconnected from everyone and everything else, skiing blissfully down the Norwegian mountains.
Sami didn’t find out until Friday, two days after the email was sent. Fox and her mom were skiing to visit a remote mountainside waffle shop. On their way, her mom fell and broke her femur. They called for a snowmobile to take them to the nearest hospital. When they were halfway down the mountain Sami received a call from her sister in London, who told her that Wheaton would be closing for the rest of the semester.
“I found out on the middle of a mountain in the middle of nowhere,” Fox said with a strained laugh.
The family initially planned for her mom to go through surgery on Friday and be discharged from the hospital Sunday morning in time for their original flight back to the US. But as Norway airports began cancelling international flights, Fox and her family soon realized they needed to leave the country as soon as possible. The doctors wanted her mom to stay three extra days, but the family requested an early discharge and took the second-to-last commercial flight out of the country.
Fox wasn’t allowed to return to campus with the rest of the student body. Norway was a Phase 3 country at the time, so Fox was required to quarantine for 14 days upon returning to the States. “It was very strange and shocking because I left for spring break expecting to be back with friends again in six days,” Fox said. Instead, she had to wait until the end of the semester to pack up her campus apartment.
“It is so good to be back [this semester],” Fox said. “I don’t really mind the restrictions, I am fine with whatever as long as I am back. I love campus, and classes feel so much better in person. I am very hopeful that everyone does their part so we will be able to stay until Thanksgiving.”
Sophomore Eli Ouoba was at home in Jackson, Mich. attending his brother’s 5th grade spelling bee. During intermission, he checked his phone to find an explosion of missed calls and texts from friends. Confused, he opened the first text from a group chat with his friends that appeared in all capital letters: “CHECK YOUR EMAIL ASAP.”
“I went to check my email to see a long message about us not going back for the spring, and my mind was just blown,” he said.
For Ouoba, a Conservatory student involved in band, orchestra, jazz combo and percussion ensemble, the transition to remote learning meant giving up more than just in-person classes. “It definitely affected a lot of my extracurriculars because they ended up canceled altogether or changed in some form,” he said. In his percussion classes, Ouoba had to shift to practicing only smaller instruments, which were more friendly to remote learning, and he felt this limited his ability to improve.
Percussion ensemble moved their remaining performances to the fall semester, and “Jazz Combo basically just disintegrated,” Ouoba said with a laugh. However, the orchestra invited Conservatory faculty and musicians from the Chicagoland area to meet with student musicians over video call. The group also met for weekly dinners and shared an end-of-year-performance by recording their individual parts and combining them into a single audio file.
Ouoba has audio equipment in his room at home, so practicing and studying were not too much of a challenge, and even with a large family he was able to focus. He admitted that this was a distinct contrast to many of his friends who found remote learning mentally draining.
Back on campus this semester, classes for conservatory students have continued to adapt. As a percussionist, Ouoba is not required to get tested every two weeks, unlike wind players or vocalists. Since percussionists share equipment, however, they must be vigilant in sanitation procedures, break into groups of 10 and bring personal equipment whenever possible.
As Ouoba looks ahead, he hopes the rest of the semester will go as planned until Thanksgiving, when Wheaton is expected to shift back to remote learning.
“As long as things stay the way they are, I’ll be happy. It would be ideal if we were to stay the entire semester, with the rest of November and December, but it could be worse.”
After waking up from a nap at home in Maryland, Sophomore Zachary Lee checked his phone and saw the news. At first he worried that the school was making a rash decision by shutting down, but as the number of cases continued to rise, he realized it was the best decision Wheaton’s administration could have made.
“I FaceTimed one of my close friends, and her reaction was way bigger than mine. She was crying and everything, and I just didn’t know how to feel,” he admitted. “I felt somewhat in denial.”
Over the summer, Lee focused primarily on academics and maintaining friendships he had built during his freshman year. Alongside his Student Government duties as part of the freshman class council, he continued to attend weekly online get-togethers with his Koinonia Family Group, the Asian and Asian American student organization on campus.
This year, Lee is intent on making relationships a priority, especially through his role as a Community Life Counselor (CLC) in Traber Hall.
“I want to connect with people on my floor through one-on-one meals,” he said of his goals for the year. “So I am trying to commit to at least a one-on-one meal with everyone. I really like one-on-one meals because there is nothing in between us — no big groups or anything that gets in the way of really connecting with other people, in the sense that they are very transparent. You see me, and I see you. That’s it.”
Even with trying to navigate how to plan events in a way that abides by the Covid-Safe, Thunder-Strong restrictions, Lee remains optimistic about how the rest of the semester will play out. “I really love in-person in any capacity. It is just so much better than FaceTiming.”
The atmosphere on the bus was poised, excited and full of anticipation. Adjusting bow ties, smoothing hair and throwing banter across the aisles, the Men’s Glee Club was on its way to an evening performance in Florida. They had just spent a day at the beach, a moment of respite in the midst of a busy spring break tour schedule filled with concerts and traveling around the state.
Suddenly, silence. Conductor Mary Hopper stood at the front of the bus and told the men they were about to receive an email from the college about the impact of COVID-19. Although nothing was official yet, she said Wheaton’s campus would be closed for the rest of the spring semester.
“I just remember not knowing what to think — texting and calling my mom and my girlfriend. I definitely cried,” Davis Gibson said. “Everything just kind of slowed down.”
Over the next few evenings, gathered around a campfire on the beach and eating a lot of pizza, the men confided their fears and uncertainties to one another. The Glee Club motto, “Truth, Integrity, Brotherhood,” took on greater meaning for them in the face of lament. “Those last three and a half days of tour were my favorite memories of my time at college,” Gibson said with a chuckle. “I’ve never seen the brotherhood of Men’s Glee Club shown in a better way than what happened in those last days.”
Now, Gibson is back at Wheaton for another year while he finishes his master’s degree in TESOL and intercultural studies. Anxious at first about returning under COVID-19 restrictions, his fear diminished once he saw familiar faces. Interacting with friends and professors again, after months in quarantine, gave him hope.
“I’ve been able to really connect with the community and see what God wants me to do with this extra year that I get at Wheaton,” Gibson reflected. “And I’ve been seeing that a little bit each day — just being able to wake up in the morning, go for a run and see the beauty of God’s creation and where God wants me that day.”
Traipsing down classically European streets with their neutral brick and stone exteriors and lofty turrets, Mattea Gernentz was exploring Scotland in the days surrounding Wheaton’s announcement. She’d been accepted to the University of Edinburgh and St. Andrews University for graduate school, and spring break was her chance to get to know the locales of each before making a decision.
Gernentz and her parents took a day trip to visit St. Andrews, a remote, coastal city surrounded by sheep pastures. Returning to their rented AirBnB at the end of the day, Gernentz received notification of Wheaton’s decision.
“I remember the feeling of my heart just plummeting,” she said. “And I think I was in shock for an hour or two. It felt so surreal. As someone graduating an entire year early, I felt the weight of all that lost time.”
Upon returning to campus at the end of spring break, Gernentz said she was “comforted that we were walking through it together and that I was able to see a few friends before leaving.”
At first she grieved the loss of her last weeks, especially since God had helped her graduate in three years rather than four, and suddenly some of that short time had been taken away. “I think we had no idea that the implications would last for so long and really bleed into this school year,” she said from her new apartment in St. Andrews. “I feel very at peace that my final memories with friends were so vivid.”
Gernentz recalled one of those last moments she had in her senior year apartment, surrounded by brown boxes and the last few things she needed to pack away. “I looked out the window and the snow was softly falling. That felt like a fitting farewell to Wheaton,” she said. “I think the snow was always my greatest enchantment and also the bane of my existence, so it did feel especially sweet to have that final glimpse.”
Wheaton College, IL