Gabriel McGill did not expect to spend his senior year of college serving fried chicken in Plano, Texas. But after learning that he would not be able to compete on the football team due to the cancelled 2020 season, the business/economics major decided to take time off school, stay home and extend his summer job at Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers. Despite the loss of a Wheaton classroom, McGill found a unique community in the people he worked alongside.
“I was working with adults, like thirty-five [year-olds with] two kids, something that’s way down the line for me,” he said. “I definitely got to know a wide range of interesting people, but that made it a lot more enjoyable.”
Some of McGill’s co-workers juggled second jobs. One of them worked as a DJ and a radio voice. “If you listen to the radio, he’s the dude who says, ‘Playing your hottest hits!’” said McGill, imitating a deep and energetic voice. “‘It’s one-o-five!’ He would always do that at random times in the middle of the day, and it would crack me up.”
McGill found himself asking his co-workers about their life experiences and learning lessons that would have been difficult to find on Wheaton’s campus. While McGill headed to the gym for a two-hour workout after his shift, some of his coworkers went home to their kids. McGill talked with them about what it was like as a parent. “One of them, when I was working mainly nights with him, was always talking about how tough it is because he can’t see his daughter at night. Talking with him and seeing what that’s like was pretty eye-opening,” McGill said.
“We go to college, and then we think ‘Oh, they’re a McDonald’s worker, or a Raising Cane’s worker. That’s not me.’ Well, it was me, and I’m definitely grateful for getting to know what it’s like on that side,” said McGill. “It makes you even more grateful for the privileges you do have: being able to go to college and get a degree. And I learned not to take anything for granted, like the time at Wheaton with friends or on the team or in class.”
Instead of studying abroad in New Zealand, anthropology and pre-med major Stasia Lyon spent the fall semester taking online courses through College of Dupage (COD) while rooming with recent Wheaton alumni, as well as current students of Wheaton’s graduate school, in a house near Wheaton’s campus. Lyon had spent two years preparing and petitioning to get the college to approve her participation in a summer program in New Zealand, which was canceled last spring due to COVID-19.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, all of this work, for what?’ And because I’m a senior, not being able to study abroad at all during my time at Wheaton was a wake up call,” said Lyon. “I think we always have this knowledge that tomorrow’s not for sure and anything can change at any point, but then when it actually happens, it’s like, ‘Oh, now I have to figure out what I’m doing and how I’m going to live my life.’”
Lyon started the summer waiting to hear whether Wheaton would bring students back to campus for the school year. After waiting about a month, she decided to save money by taking online general education requirements at COD for the fall semester before returning to Wheaton.
“I was definitely scared going into it. ‘Will I be able to graduate with all my friends? Will [my new plans] meet the expectations I’ve had for college? That was hard to grapple with,” Lyon said. “I’ve had these expectations of [completing college] in four years and graduating in May, and all of it was just thrown up in the air. But this was a good exercise in questioning those expectations and figuring out the real meaning behind my college experience.”
Because she was able to fulfill general education requirements through COD, Lyon is still on track to graduate in May. She’s back at Wheaton this semester and completing her final requirements to graduate, including her senior seminar. Back on campus, she’s enjoying spending time with friends she hadn’t seen for months.
“Even though I was here [in Wheaton] and not a Wheaton student, I still had long-distance friendships,” said Lyon. “A lot of my friends were on HNGR [internships], so we could commiserate that we couldn’t go overseas. But at the same time, we were all dealing with our own mental and physical health and everything in our own separate places, trying to just stay afloat. It was a semester of disconnection in a lot of ways.”
Junior business/economics major Walker Schuchardt had twelve hours to pack his things and fly home from Jordan last March. He was studying abroad for the spring 2020 semester when the country closed its airlines in response to COVID-19. Back home in Wheaton, reeling with reverse culture shock and feeling claustrophobic under quarantine restrictions, Schuchardt decided he couldn’t stay. So he and a friend embarked on a road trip across the American West in his black pickup, living on canned goods and strangers’ hospitality from April through late May.
Come fall, Schuchardt evaluated how Wheaton’s COVID-Safe, Thunder Strong policies would change life on campus.
“The two reasons people come to Wheaton, given how expensive it is,” Schuchardt said, “are the community that Wheaton can offer and the quality of classes. In my opinion, when you can’t see other people’s faces, that immediately takes from community, and then having some of the classes online takes quality out of classes.”
Based on these factors, Schuchardt decided to defer for the fall 2020 semester. That same semester, his father, professor of communication Read Mercer Schuchardt, moved the family to Merida, Yucatán in Mexico for his sabbatical. Walker stayed with them, riding his motorcycle, learning Spanish, finding community and overcoming his fear of horses.
“I’d been terrified of horses since I was a little kid and decided to get over that fear by going to a horse riding school with my little sister,” said Schuchardt. “That was our buddy thing.”
Schuchardt’s community in Merida consisted of a small group of local friends. “I spent most evenings in this little four-walls-and-a-roof shack that was one of my closest friends’ places,” he said. “One of the biggest values we should have [as Christians] is hospitality and community and welcoming people in. None of my friends in Mexico were Christian, but I felt like [by showing hospitality], they lived out a Christian life much more than we naturally do here.”
Despite his friends’ generosity, Schuchardt struggled living apart from a Christian community. “At the end of a long day,” he said, “if I don’t have people I can pray with or just sit in the knowledge that Christ is the center of our identity, for me it’s hard to feel like I can fully relax.”
Schuchardt is back in Wheaton and studying remotely this semester so he can work off campus. “I’ve got to pay off loans,” he said. “But it has been very good to be back in this area and be around other Christians. It’s good to be back in the Wheaton College community and also the Wheaton town community.”
This school year, sophomore BITH major Katy Tate is cleaning up after horses and children. On her family’s farm in Elburn — roughly 20 miles west of Wheaton — she cares for six horses and gives horseback riding lessons. She also nannies part-time for a family with three kids under age seven.
Tate is considering becoming a pastor or missionary and interns at Chapelstreet, a Converge church in Geneva, Ill. Each week, she researches for the pastor’s sermon, using her knowledge from two semesters of Greek at Wheaton. She then outlines how she would preach the sermon and meets with her pastor to talk it over. Sitting in the pews on Sundays, Tate gets to hear some of her material from the pulpit. “It’s super exciting for me to be like, ‘Wait, that was my sermon!’”
Tate had planned to return to campus in the fall until she received an email from Wheaton College regarding “COVID-Safe, Thunder Strong” procedures. “I’m paying for a decent amount of my college, but I love Wheaton and think it is worth the money. However, even though social distancing is a good thing, I don’t think attending some online classes is quite worth the money I was paying.”
For the fall 2021 semester, Tate plans to travel to Israel for Wheaton’s semester in Jerusalem, which wasn’t in her plans pre-COVID. Tate applied to be a part-time student this semester so she can take the two-credit prep class for the semester abroad. “It will be quite a shock going from COVID to Israel,” she said. “I’ll be back at Wheaton’s campus by spring semester of next year, which is sad because that’s a really long time away, but that’s the plan.”
For now, she is staying in touch with Wheaton through her sister, Annie, who is a sophomore studying on campus this year. She also has a weekly Zoom Bible study and hangout with her closest friends, who also deferred for the fall 2020 semester.
“I’ve learned that although I would love to be at Wheaton, I don’t have to be at Wheaton to have the Lord do radical things in my life,” Tate said. “He’s doing that right now, just in my house. It seems very small, but the Lord just desires for us to be with him, and we can do that anywhere and in anything in our life.”
Wheaton College, IL