Students Overcome Changing Circumstances to Finish Fall Semester

After returning home to finish the semester, students faced new challenges ranging from mental health to Internet connectivity and study space.

By Helen Huiskes | News Editor
Emily Brabec and Kaitlin Liebling contributed to reporting.
January 13, 2021
A lone snowman on Fischer lawn.

After 13 weeks of in-person instruction, Wheaton College fully transitioned to remote learning after Thanksgiving break, following the plans the administration announced at the start of the semester. The weekend of Nov. 21, students dispersed across the country and the world for a short break followed by two weeks of course work and a week of finals on Zoom and other virtual platforms. 


The last three weeks of the semester triggered memories of the spring 2020 semester, half of which was conducted remotely. The shift also foreshadows the start of the forthcoming semester, which Wheaton’s administration announced in a Nov. 17 email would begin online due to the expected uptick in COVID-19 cases in Illinois. In the campus-wide email, the COVID-19 Leadership Team — a task force composed of staff and administrators — said that the shift to online learning would likely be short-lived and that they planned on announcing a move-in date by Jan. 8.


In less than a month, a campus that was home to nearly 2,000 students dwindled to 45 who will stay on campus during Christmas break, according to Director of Residence Life Justin Heth. But the mass mid-semester exodus is just another example of the peculiarities marking life driven by COVID-19 prevention. 


Junior history and social science major Ethan Colangelo lives in Wheaton and occasionally walks through campus. He described it like a ghost town: only the abandoned COVID-safe, Thunder-Strong wristbands indicate students were there at all. 


For many, the transition to virtual learning posed new challenges to a strange semester. Students said one of the key issues with remote learning has been the difficulty of focusing on school responsibilities without an academic setting. With family, hometown friends and other distractions nearby, students told the Record about the challenges they faced wrapping up the semester.


“It was harder to adjust and focus on what I needed to do because [school] didn’t feel that real to me anymore,” said junior Applied Health Sciences major Grace Yoon, who returned for Thanksgiving to stay in Gainesville, Va. “I just wanted to be with family and have fun with them and chill… I wasn’t used to doing school at home at all.”


Some students’ home situations couldn’t guarantee study spots or convenient places to participate in online classes. Even with a place to work, some students said their home environments provided less motivation to get things done. 


I had to find new places to work. I can’t just work in my room, right? But I also can’t just work in the dining room,” said sophomore English writing major Matt Stewart at home in Chantilly, Va. 


Due to the many time zones from which Wheaton students now operate, some students had to switch to asynchronous classwork, using recordings made from synchronous classes. Other students now living in Pacific or Mountain time had to wake up in the early hours of the morning for class. 


“[In my theater class,] we had so many students in California that would have had to get up at 5 or 6 a.m. to attend class,” said  junior Interdisciplinary Studies major Ruthie Wu, whose professor adapted to this particular challenge by changing the class time and allowing students to sign up for individual help sessions.


Students also reported feeling burned out from long hours of screen time throughout the day, with both classes and homework being online. 


“Somehow classes felt longer because you were just staring at a screen for hours,” said freshman English teaching major Grace He, who returned home to Madrid, Spain. 


Computer and video difficulties caused some students who worked alongside professors to take on a new role as tech support. Senior chemistry major Samuel Van Amberg worked as a TA for Art professor Jeff Thompson. Van Amberg said technical difficulties were more challenging after the switch to remote learning. 


“My role became more irregular,” said Van Amberg. “During in-person learning, there was a certain period each week when I would work. [After moving to remote learning] I had to fix difficulties and answer emails whenever they came up.”


While the administration said it hopes to welcome students back to campus in the spring 2021 semester, they have delayed announcing specific move-in dates. According to an emailed update on Dec. 7, Conservatory, athletic and lab students may expect specific instructions from their deans. All other students must prepare to once again start classes from their homes next semester. 


“If this is what they think is safest for us, there’s a lot of good authority at the college that has considered this,” said Park. 


“I don’t like it, but I understand why they had to do it,” Colangelo said of the planned remote start to the spring semester. “What if there’s a scare? It’s better to wait, and then gradually come back when we can once there’s more of a plan.”


According to the Dec.7 email, the administration has taken feedback from students and is planning to create additional COVID-safe social spaces indoors and allow more student rest even without a traditional spring break next semester.

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