College During COVID-19 Blog: Ashley Miznazi

College During COVID-19

Editor’s Note: KXAN’s interns are both learning about the news and living it — experiencing virtual learning and changes in their college and universities because of the coronavirus pandemic. Each is keeping a weekly blog about their experiences during the fall 2020 semester. See other interns’ blogs here.

5/22/21

When I started this blog in February, I never would have imagined that life would be on the road back to normalcy when I finished.

Thank you to KXAN for giving me the opportunity on this platform to work through the ups and downs of being in college during a pandemic. This internship was one of the best parts of my semester and I have felt myself grow by learning from a newsroom full of people passionate about their jobs.

This year emphasized that being a good journalist requires more than the ability to interview and turn around a story to be published. We are taught as journalists to be accurate, to be a skeptic and to hold institutions accountable. But the core of journalism is really an an invisible code of communication — empathy. 

There is a journalistic duty to  understand our sources’ perspective and let them tell their own stories in a way that accurately shows their humanity. Between the anxiety  about getting sick this year and the anger, restlessness and burnout associated with the pandemic, I feel this past year or more took a toll on all of us. I wanted to thank each of my sources for the willingness to let me hear a piece of your life during these times of fear and uncertainty. 

I appreciate my professors’ empathy towards students too. During one of my last student worker meetings, my journalism professors took time to talk about their own personal experiences with mental health and burnout. It was a vulnerable conversation, and after each of them shared, they  told us they were here for us. The meeting was not traditional, and no projects were discussed, but it reminded me that I was cared for and supported. This was enough to end the semester on a high note. 

I am still amazed by the science that got us here. My final article for KXAN featured members of a lab at The University of Texas whose research helped make the FDA-approved Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines more efficient. UT researchers are now keeping an eye on a new low-cost vaccine they helped develop called NDV-HXP-S in human trials in Vietnam, Thailand, Brazil and Mexico. I enjoyed challenging myself by translating information about extensive science to a story containing sources who cared about making global change. 

Next year, my classes will be in person. I still may sit in class on a rainy or cold day wishing I could be inside my own apartment, but I will reenter the year with a sense of renewed appreciation for my academic community and my friends who stuck with me during hard times. One thing I have learned since March 2020 is not to take things for granted, and I am looking forward to making the most of my senior year. Thank you KXAN, for everything.

4/26/2021

When you first step into the Belo building at the Moody College of Communication, the first room you see is the Student Leadership Suite.

It’s a large, green conference room with smaller meeting rooms that line the wall. While the room is open for use by the entire university, it serves as the meeting ground for Communication Council, the student governing body of the college.

Communication Council was the first organization I joined as a freshman at The University of Texas. The room has always been a safe place with friendly faces, always ready to make me laugh or comfort me on a bad day. During the pandemic, I decided to be an inactive member of Council to limit my online workload.

The last few weeks I have tried to get back into the routine of leaving my home to do work. Changing up my environment helps me create physical separation between work and home, as well as avoid burnout. As I write this, I am sitting in the Student Leadership Suite and I’m happy to say my tripod left in February 2020 is still here. It’s a lot quieter than what I am used to, but it still feels good being back.

4/18/2021

The housing rush looks different for many students this year, including me. 

When I moved to Austin, my older friends told me the safe thing to do as a student was secure a place to live before the spring semester. For the first two years of college, I followed this advice and signed leases almost a full year before they began.

Last year, I signed my lease  a couple of months before the pandemic hit, and it was a decision I ultimately regretted. I was locked into a contract and watched as my apartment building and others dropped their prices drastically. 

Looking back, I had no idea that the decision to live this year with one roommate would matter so much. In a normal year, your university roommate is usually the person you see as you’re heading out for the day or as you’re coming home. When the pandemic hit and my home suddenly became my sphere for work, rest, recreation, and school — I noticed a shift. I realized I was lonely whenever my roommate was not at the apartment. My home was no longer just a respite from the hum and buzz of campus; it was my whole life.

For my senior year of college, four of my friends and I decided to rent a house together to have more of a sense of community. I learned it was not just me thinking this. My realtor told me, “This year is weird, lots of renewals and lots more interest for the houses.” 

Yesterday, we filled out the application for the house we are hoping to live in. I am excited to have a new area of Austin to explore, more space and an outdoor area within a few steps of reach. With classes being in person, we are already planning days we can drive each other to campus.

Living in a house is a new phase of life that I am ready for. I am very excited for a “near normal” final year of college with my friends.

4/11/2021

When South by Southwest was canceled last year, I knew COVID was no joke. Along with professional sports games, live music was one of the first things to go and surely will be one of the last to return. One of my favorite pre-pandemic activities was attending concerts at different venues. It is hard to replicate the multi-sensory experience of bass drumming in your bones and sharing a night with a diverse crowd of screaming strangers on any other medium.

The damage done to Austin’s live music industry has been relentless and is nowhere near over. With the rise in availability of vaccines and warmer weather fast approaching, live music is slowly returning to the city through some venues testing social distanced table-seating models. Darlene Bhavani, disease epidemiologist at The University of Texas, said outdoor, small-to-medium-sized concerts could be safe if they choose to follow certain risk mitigation strategies.

Opening act, Buffalo Hunt, performing at Empire Control Room and Garage on Saturday April 10.

“It’s not foolproof, which is why when someone enters into the event, we really want to make sure that we maintain the social distancing, the good hygiene, including the hand washing and also those that mask use when they might be around others who are outside of their household or their bubble.” Bhavani said in a Zoom call.

Saturday, I saw Austin-based band The Greyhounds perform for the first time in a year at Empire Control Room and Garage. When I was in the venue, everything felt like it faded away for a moment and the music consumed me as I discovered I also liked the opening acts. I covered the event for my university’s television show and connected with the musicians backstage. They were excited to share their art with a crowd, even if it meant a sold out show was 200 people instead of over 1000.

Music has been my solace throughout the pandemic and will always be an important part of how I connect with my emotions as well as other people. My most played song of the year was Vienna by Billy Joel. The lyrics, “slow down you crazy child —” translates to “you have a whole life to live.” The song has been a comforting reminder to take things one step at a time during a year where I have caught myself comparing where I am in my journalism career.

4/3/2021

As of April 2 7,780,666 people are vaccinated in Texas. One of these people being me!

Last March I got an email notification that my summer study abroad program was canceled while I sat in what I didn’t yet know was my last in-person class of the year. 

I remember walking home and googling on my phone: “How long does it take to make a vaccine?” I read article after article learning previous vaccines have taken years, even decades, to develop and I felt my stomach drop as I discovered the long, arduous road ahead of us. 

In hindsight, I could never have predicted the scale to which our world would be altered by the pandemic: the fight to minimize all risk and exposure to it, the anxiety it has caused nearly everyone I know, the politicizing of masks, the rise in anti-Asian hate, the over 500,000 death toll just in the United States. I am endlessly thankful for the global scientific community, for their collaboration and their rapid advances towards mass distribution of the vaccine. 

Waiting in my car 15 minutes for observation period before driving away

Getting the vaccine was a surprisingly efficient process for me: I didn’t even leave my car! I arrived 30 minutes early to my 12:30 p.m. appointment and parked my car in a long line. I was handed a clipboard to fill out paperwork and learned I would be receiving the Moderna vaccine. I brought a book to read but was too excited to get through the pages.

By 1 p.m., volunteers directed me to drive towards the tents where the vaccines were kept. A man named Anthony who wore a camo cap that said “good vibes” gave me my vaccine. It was quick and painless. Later in the day, I had a headache and my arm was sore, but all my symptoms were easily manageable. 

I’m relieved to have gotten my first dose of the vaccine. I feel like I have a shield to protect me and the people I see. It doesn’t feel like the end of COVID-19 by a long shot, but eligibility for all adults to get a vaccine is an incredible step in the fight against this virus. 

3/21/2021

My parents are immigrants who came to the United States in their 20’s from Iran and Syria. 

When my older sister was born, my parents named her Neda, a Persian word meaning “voice.” When she started elementary school, kids taunted her name by mispronouncing it “nada, nothing.”

My parents made the decision to legally change it to Emily. My sister’s teachers then asked my parents not to speak to her in their first languages, Farsi and Arabic. 

Six years later, I was born, and my parents thought it would be best for me to have an American name like Ashley and didn’t speak to me in their mother tongue. Not knowing their language has always left me feeling disconnected from my culture.

One tradition that we always participated in was the celebration of Nowruz, or Persian New Year. The holiday always falls on the first day of spring and resembles growth and prosperity in the new season. 

When I came to college, I stopped acknowledging the holiday. During the pandemic, however, I have spent a lot of time seeking refuge in nature. Nowruz resembles nature’s rebirth, and this year I decided to reconnect to the traditions of my youth.

Saturday was the first day of spring and this weekend was the first time the sun had shown its face in a week. Outside finally felt like a reminder of upcoming summer days. I am thankful to have spent hours in Zilker park and on Lady bird Lake with my friends.

3/14/2021

After a year of profound uncertainty, this week made the end of the pandemic feel closer. As of March 13, 23.4% of Texans received at least one dose of the vaccine. Many of my friends are vaccinated or on their way to be. With a downward trend in new hospital admissions for COVID-19, officials moved the area to Stage 3 risk levels. The University of Texas announced students and staff should plan for a “near normal” fall semester. 

I completed distanced, in-person interviews for the first time in a year for a podcast I am coproducing for the The Drag audio production house at UT about the 2018 Austin bombings. 

This was the third anniversary of the explosions. After months of communicating virtually with sources, I set up a meeting with the Public Information Officer of the FBI outside of the Belo College of Communications. My professors joined the meeting, which was the first time I was able to see them in person in a year.

My partner on the podcast and I then jumped in the car for a 24-hour trip to Dallas to meet with another interviewee. 

Kenny Jones, my podcast partner, and me on the way back to Austin after completing an interview in Dallas.

There is something special about connecting with someone in person. We were present and free of distractions. For me, it was a reminder that face-to-face interactions make for vulnerable, honest connections that foster trust.

This was the year we searched for meaning amid incalculable loss. I know we still have ways to go, but dates on the calendar are starting to signal things to look forward to. There are stirrings of hope.

3/7/2021

Back in November, I had the coronavirus. I lost my sense of taste and smell and had breathing issues, a hazy brain, fever and chills. The most difficult part of my experience was the mental implications of the positive test result. 

I knew during my quarantine I was doing what I could do to protect myself and others, but I felt guilty. I was confused with no idea how I was exposed. Making the call to tell the three people I saw during the week was brutal. 

As a college kid, I had to handle the idea I would be alone in my apartment for two weeks and that others would be doing the same thing because of their exposure to me. I knew the grim realities of the virus and worried every minute about someone getting sick.

The pandemic has emphasized the importance of mental health for college kids. Three out of four Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 report poor mental health tied to the pandemic, according to the CDC.

The University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center has had an increase in students utilizing their services according to Katy Redd, the Associative Director of Prevention, Development and Media relations.

“This has been a year so far of our life, that is a significant amount of time.” Redd said in a phone interview. “It is normal for people to be struggling with mental health right now. If a student is struggling, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional.”

With physical distancing and college campuses stripped of campus life and tradition, students had to pave the way for a new normal. A resource for The University of Texas offers is the workshop “How to Deal – COVID-19 Edition.” According to Redd, the workshop teaches mindfulness, self compassion and soothing skills.

I have sought help in my reporting to stay mindful during this time too. This week, I virtually attended the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting,  a program by the Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. One of the sessions was called “Coping with a year of trauma” with Elana Newman speaking from the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism. 

The Dart Center suggests that journalists should not only have plans for their story but also a mental health and emotion processing plan. “Stories are going to interact with identity, who you are and your experiences,” Newman said during the conference.

Newman advises journalists to have rituals for wrapping up stories which might be anything from writing, vlogging, taking a walk or lighting a candle. During interviews, she said to remember to breathe and bring a water bottle.

I am unsure how my ritual of blog posting will help shape my identity in the future but I am thankful for an outlet to express myself.

2/28/2021

Today, I am tired. 

This week started off with me waking up and looking into the mirror to see a puffy face and swollen eyes staring back at me. I figured it was typical Central Texas allergies, but when my symptoms continued into the end of the week, the doctor let me know it was an eye infection that could have been caused by washing my face with unboiled water during the storm.

Because of my infection, I was homebound, which wasn’t a big deal because I don’t leave my apartment much anyway. I haven’t skipped class since the start of the pandemic because even with a puffy face in my dark room, I can still tune in with my camera off. 

My internships, classes and job are all online so one of the most riveting outings of the week is the grocery store.

Shrimp and vegetable sheet pan. Recipe here

At the start of the pandemic, I feared even doing that and ordered my groceries to avoid crowds. Now that I hangout with a small “bubble” of friends, we’ve made it a weekly tradition to come together over a home-cooked dinner. We had conversations about class and work that led to talks that went deeper about memories, politics, life and loss. 

My apartment is directly next to a private freshman dormitory and like clockwork every weekend we hear the hollers and laughs of maskless students going to themed parties. I got a Snapchat memory that showed the last party I went to was a year ago today, and I can’t help but feel frustrated. At the same time, I empathize because I had the time to meet my friends as a freshman that I now sit around the dinner table with. 

This week and many others since the pandemic have looked much different than the life I used to have before the pandemic. However, I hold onto my connections with my loved ones and tell myself, “It’s okay to be tired.”

My roommate, Emily Pape, cooking Ramen.

2/20/2021

Texas has scrambled to stay warm and alive this week. I am thankful that my apartment building’s power has stayed on throughout the freeze.

I woke up on Monday and looked out the window to see Austin blanketed by snow and students bustling around. I made the naive decision in the morning to drive my 4Runner two and a half miles to pick up my friend. In short, my car got stuck in an intersection, and five surrounding neighbors emerged from their homes to help me push it to safety.

By the time my friends and I walked home from my stranded car, the fun and awe of the snowfall turned more into a feeling of nervous anticipation. My friend Rocio’s apartment complex’s power had shut off and stayed off. We noticed this was a theme for many people in Austin. The power outages were not “rolling” and kept half the city in the dark and cold with temperatures that were dropping to 10 degrees. Since Monday, my friend has stayed with me because her power never came back on.

From Rocio’s situation and from mine, it seemed we could be sure of only thing — we weren’t ready.

At 5:30 am the next day, Rocio jumped up from bed to a ticking noise in my apartment and said, “Check the lights! Check the lights!” My power, thankfully, had not gone out. However, she felt panicked by the sound and at the thought of having to leave again from a safe place. As I write this post, her power has remained off at her own complex for more than 150 hours.

When things fell apart during the freeze, I noticed people ready to hit the ground running to help.

I was doing my neighbor a favor watching her cat while she was out of town. As things got colder her flight got canceled. Since her apartment was empty she let me offer the space to my coworker and her roommate, who didn’t have power. We shared food and wine, and when their power came back on, they returned the favor by bringing us pre-boiled jugs of water. Our water had gone out, but the fact that we still had heat made me extremely thankful.

Manually flushing a toilet. It takes a lot of water.

Many college students did not have wiggle room in their budgets to pay for extra food when their meals in the refrigerator went bad, and I saw professors step in to care for them. These professors went above and beyond their job descriptions by Venmoing students in need for warm meals and putting out offers to pay for students’ hotel rooms who needed heat. Today, I went and picked up tacos that one of those professors purchased in mass for students. Thank you to my professors for caring for us like family.

This week, I also talked with a delivery driver whose car got stuck in ice on the driveway of a house where she was dropping off groceries. The family took her in and insisted it was no extra burden to feed and house her. When I spoke to this delivery driver last, she was on the fifth day staying with the couple. By then, they were making meals together and their dogs were sleeping in bed with her.

The ice is going to eventually melt away, and if the weather sticks to its plan, temperatures will be back in the 70s next week. When things warm, I hope the community does not forget those who struggle. I also hope we continue to stick together through the recovery.

2/13/2021

This weekend is a hard freeze. 
 
I can physically feel the cold, but I can also feel a chilling effect happening in the journalism profession this year. 
 
As a student, I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of journalism roles. Just last year, I called my best friend in happy tears when I learned that I had been selected to intern for the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Before the pandemic hit, I also had big plans for the summer. I was part of a study abroad program traveling to London to shoot a small documentary. 
 
I have sought after experience in this field because this is where I get my energy. Journalism gives me energy because it is my chance to connect with people and bring the stories they have inside themselves out. Not everyone is a journalist, but everyone can be a storyteller, and I love having the ability and the audience to project those stories. 
 
However, with the emergence of the coronavirus, connecting with others has become more difficult. I am sure working journalists miss the days of conducting interviews in person and on some days feel they have lost their ability to connect with sources in a more natural way. Also, Zoom fatigue is an actual thing and I would suggest blue light blockers on your glasses for anyone who spends hours staring at the screen now like myself. 
 
The other day, I had a very important interview for a large project, and I felt a nagging feeling that my interview would only be good enough if it was conducted in person. Despite this, I decided to push the thought out of my mind and conduct the interview over Zoom with the most attentiveness and preparation possible.  
 
The interview lasted hours and was extremely rewarding. I feel at first that my sources are a little unfamiliar with being interviewed over Zoom but I have realized I can use body language and conversation style to make my sources more comfortable. 


In short, I write this post to give hope to my fellow journalists. The pandemic will eventually be under control and we will remember these days where we told stories from our living room apartments. I also write this post to acknowledge my interviewees. I hope they can still feel how much I care about their words and getting them right — even through the distance created by the screen. 

The pandemic may be happening and the streets may even be bare this weekend because of the freeze. However, I have realized that my interviews do not need to be cold and void of connection just because they are now over Zoom. I will continue to show both warmth and compassion as a journalist, and try to bridge the distance as so many have done before. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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