Ellen Hu ’24
It has been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shutdown across the state of California and around the world. Scripps College was no exception, sending students home the week of March 11th and maintaining campus closure through the Spring 2021 semester.
Over a year later, students find themselves in completely different situations than they were at the beginning of the shutdown. Then-seniors have graduated and moved on to the next steps of their lives; then-juniors are now preparing to graduate; then-first-years have declared their majors; and current first-years are finishing their first years of their college careers.
What does this mean for the emotional and mental states of Scripps students?
Senior year cut short
Rowen Light-Wills ’20 watched students file out of campus in mid-March of 2020, halfway through her final semester as a Scripps student. Knowing her mother was in an at-risk demographic, she decided not to return home. Instead, she spent the next two months in a “pseudonormal” situation.
“There was a COVID-case on campus and we had to quarantine… I would stick my legs out the window to feel sun because for the first week they were like, ‘Don’t go outside.’” Light-Wills recounted.
Light-Wills left campus on May 15, 2020 and moved into a shared space with her friends before returning back to New Jersey to be with her family. While she officially graduated Scripps, she had asked that diploma not be mailed and instead received a letter that confirmed her achievement.
“It was an extremely tumultuous time,” Light-Wills said. She describes the shift from interactive in-person environment to finishing her thesis and classes on Zoom as “abrupt” and “startling”.
“You’re doing college kind of waiting for this pat on the back,” Light-Wills said. “But it became chasing that kind of validation of doing two thesis presentations and trying to feel like I was earning something by finishing college, which ultimately I didn’t feel like I got.” If there was one last thing she had hoped for, it would have been to have had a graduation ceremony where her family could have seen her walk across the stage.
Like many members of the Class of 2020, Light-Wills entered a challenged job market that held a 14.7% unemployment rate. As a result, she found herself in what she called a “Plan B situation”.
“I had imagined myself in some flashy production assistant job in film, or trying to be a junior editor in publishing or something ridiculous that I thought was impressive that I thought would show people that my degree was worth something,” Light-Wills said. “That mindset has shifted so much for me just in terms of how you spend your time and what is genuinely rewarding.”
Light-Wills is currently working for Outside In, an organization similar to Americorps. There, she worked with unhoused youth and found herself reassessing her worldview.
“People were dealing with so much that the things I was dealing with really felt so small and so conquerable,” Light-Wills said. “Being in this program felt more meaningful.”
Within the program, Light-Wills has been trying to find different ways to engage the youth she works with. One of these activities includes a space to chat and respond to writing prompts. She has greatly enjoyed seeing the creativity of each person who joins her.
Light-Wills knows that she was very fortunate due to her employed position in comparison to many other graduates. “I don’t take it lightly,” she added. “That’s not to say that my job isn’t difficult, but I hope that I am becoming a more well-rounded person than if the pandemic hadn’t happened.”
Studying abroad- from home, that is.
After her study abroad group had spent three days in Barcelona, Spain, Olivia Gleason ’21 got a notification that she and her peers would need to fly back to the United States. “Honestly, it only was a matter of days,” Gleason said.
While the program leaders had originally believed that the group could continue their time in Barcelona and end in Cape Town, South Africa, it soon became clear that was not an option.
Instead, Gleason and the cohort of students in the program caught flights back to their home locations to finish the semester. The days after students were notified were filled with stress, much of it coming from the unknown surrounding closing borders and the difficulty of booking flights back home.
“One of the mornings the day before we left, I got this call at six o’clock in the morning from one of my peers in the program,” Gleason said. “She was just like, ‘we have to pack up our bags and get ready to leave now’ because Trump had issued the order saying you couldn’t get back into the United States from Europe.”
Luckily, they soon realized that the order did not apply to U.S. citizens and were able to find a flight back. Furthermore, the program assisted the students in finding and booking outgoing flights. Still, Gleason saw the dynamics of the group really play out.
“A few of my peers in the program booked their own tickets to go home when they heard, just out of panic,” Gleason said. “I feel like you can see class privilege playing out there, just in who can get home and pay for their own ticket.”
After the program booked her a ticket, Gleason flew back home to Southern California where her father picked her up from the airport and brought her to her parent’s house. This didn’t mean that she couldn’t continue the program– instead she met with her cohort through Zoom with adjusted content that allowed them to learn without having to physically be in the locations they were not able to visit.
The irony of “study abroad from my room” was not lost on Gleason. Still, hearing about the experiences of her peers who were studying on the Scripps campus reminded her of how lucky she was to be able to explore part of the world during her academic career.
“I know this year programs got shut down and next year will be interesting too so I’m lucky and grateful that I got to do a good chunk of it,” Gleason said.
Finishing the spring semester in a virtual format set Gleason up well as she entered the fall semester of her senior year. “Obviously it wasn’t ideal, [it was] more of the same thing, but at least [I was] in the virtual mindset,” she said.
Since she’s been home, Gleason has gotten a job at a local coffee shop and has had more time to engage with her local political organizations. She now feels as if the classes she has taken for her politics major are being used in real-life situations, furthering her understanding of the content.
“I feel like I can do the actions and work that this education, in theory, prepares us to do in combo with doing school,” Gleason said. “I can be more of a person that’s applying this education which I think is important and I am realizing is a pro considering everything.”
Now, Gleason is looking towards her graduation and reflecting on the recent lift on COVID-19 restrictions within California. She’s excited for the opportunities that more openings provide for members of the community, but also worried that the openings may be overlooking the question “are things actually getting better?”
“I’m getting used to it, and I’m ready for change, but I’m also willing to wait to make sure that that change is representing actual progress and people getting vaccinated,” she said.
The calm between storms
Blessing Roland-Magaji ’24 found herself overcommitted in the pre-pandemic first semester of her senior year of high school, burning out by the time pandemic shut-downs were put in place.
“My parents were actually concerned for me,” Roland-Magaji said. “It was really bad. I wasn’t sleeping or eating.”
For the first time in a long time, Roland-Magaji found herself in a space where she didn’t need to do anything. Her school was postponed for weeks on-end. “By the fall, I was an expert couch potato,” she added, noting how this lack of activity made it difficult to transition to a more rigorous schedule for the fall 2020 semester.
While not officially a student when the Scripps campus shut down in March of 2020, Roland-Magaji was a member of the Discover Program at Scripps and had planned to visit campus two weeks after the shut-down was announced. “I think it was in that moment when I realized, ‘dang, we may not go back in August,’” she said.
Roland-Magaji had also applied through early decision and knew that she would be attending Scripps by December of 2019. It became her motivation for finishing high school in the face of mental health issues.
“It was something I was looking forward to so much,” she said. “My hope started to dwindle as time went on.”
The moments between her high school’s shutdown and the end of her first year of college, filled with difficulties from all directions, helped Roland-Magaji learn a lot about herself.
“I learned that for me to want to do something, I don’t have to be good at it at all. I’ve just taken so much autonomy over so many aspects of my life,” she said. “I’ve created a freedom for myself and just freedom of being who I am unapologetically in the middle of a pandemic.”
Scripps College maintained its closure through the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, making up the first-year of classes for first-year students like Roland-Magaji. Yet, this did not deter her from getting involved within the Scripps community. She was elected SAS First-Year-President in the Fall 2020 semester, is a member of the African Student Association Board, and was elected to the Faculty-Staff Relations Chair in the Spring 2021 spring semester.
Nearly a year after Roland-Magaji officially learned that her first semester of college would be virtual, she finally has confirmation that Scripps is planning to return to in-person learning in the Fall 2021 semester. This news of the return to campus excites her, but she still is not sure she has fully grasped what it will mean.
“It’s such a weird feeling because we’ve been online all year,” she said. “Until we’re actually there, I don’t think I’ll believe it.”
Still, there’s a lot that Roland-Magaji is looking forward to doing while on-campus. Her imagined to-do list starts with her responsibilities as Faculty-Staff Relations Chair and spans all the way to considering joining the rugby team.
“Even though we’re still in a pandemic, I’m looking forward to a sense of normalcy. You know, that flow of life,” she added.
Image Source: Inside Higher Ed