College During COVID-19 Blog: Hannah Falcon

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 spring 2021 semester. See other interns’ blogs here.

‘The road goes on forever, and the party never ends’
May 1, 2021

Hannah Falcon’s graduation photo (Photo by Kate Greene)

A good bar always has a closing song. The famous bar in College Station, Dixie Chicken, is in a little wooden building with saloon doors and more pool tables than regular tables. Always toward the end of the night they’ll play “The Road Goes on Forever” by fellow Aggie Robert Earl Keen. The song is far from perfect, but the message is there.

As my time as a student at Texas A&M comes to an end, Mr. Keen reminds me that my party will never end. Although I may be exiting Highway 6, my road trip continues. In my first post, I compared life to a road trip with no certain destination. That still rings true. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m definitely on a ride.

I’m so grateful for all the pitstops I’ve made along the way, especially this most recent one in Austin. After many dreary months, going out on my own in a colorful new city was exactly the refreshment I needed. I got to reconnect with old friends, make new friends and of course learn so much from everyone at KXAN.

I’ve always been a big advocate for learning outside the classroom. When it comes to the fields of communication and journalism, experience is far more valuable than your GPA. I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunities I did while in college. My metaphorical car stopped in College Station, Spring, Houston, Washington, D.C., and ended up here in Austin, and at every stop I learned so much more than any textbook or powerpoint could ever teach me.

Thank you to everyone who allowed me to be their shadow for the day. Thank you for bestowing your knowledge unto me. Thank you to my supervisors for guiding me and allowing me the opportunities to grow. Thank you to my teachers, both those who bare the title and those who do the teaching for free. Thank you to my friends and family, whose support never waivers.

To answer the question people cannot stop asking, I will be walking the stage in person on my graduation day. I will be wearing a mask and I’m sure there will be lots of precautions, but A&M is doing in-person ceremonies. I will get to celebrate with my fully vaccinated family and friends. This semester began with much more caution and hesitancy than what we have now. As we slowly come out of this pandemic, my optimism and excitement for the future grows.

I’d be remiss to say my life is all celebration and congratulations right now. I’ve been very emotional since my last class. Despite all its flaws and all the times it caused my headaches, I’m going to miss Texas A&M. Despite spending half my four short years as a student outside of College Station, that little town down road holds a lot of special memories for me. I didn’t get a proper goodbye to college life, like the graduating class before me.

After three semesters of distance, college will most likely return nearly back to normal come fall. I can’t speak for every university, but Texas A&M will have all classes and activities in person this September. Freshmen will go to Fish Camp again, students will study in the Memorial Student Center again, people will meet their new best friends in classes again. But I’ll be gone.

My time as a student is over, and College Station already seems so far in the rearview mirror. Soon, Austin will be behind me too, and I’ll be on to new adventures. I can’t quite make out the next stop yet, but I hope it’s just as good as the last.

My sweet escape
April 21, 2021

Grand Canyon National Park

New Year’s Day 2020, I made a resolution to explore more.

March 13, 2020, I was in the Grand Canyon when I learned my school was switching to online classes. What a perfectly peaceful place to be while the world falls apart.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Fortunately for me, my new year’s resolution came true. I visited four national parks in 2020. (Not record-breaking by any means, but that’s four more than I’d visited before.) I don’t want to slow that momentum any time soon. I invested in a National Parks Pass, a beautiful little card that gets you into all the parks for one annual fee.

The parks were my escape. What better way to social distance than on a 10 mile hike? I couldn’t possibly get further away from strangers (or the stress of being a full-time student in a pandemic).

While I rediscovered a love of nature, I wasn’t alone. I saw a big trend of people getting outside, whether it was picnics, hikes or swimming. Despite the trend I observed, National Park Services 2020 report showed that visitation dropped 28% due to closures.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Texas is home to two national parks, and they are worth the six hour drive from Austin. Guadalupe National Park hosts the tallest peak in Texas (and yes, I climbed it!), and Big Bend National Park has the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. Big Bend was actually named an International Dark Sky Park, which means it is the perfect place for stargazing.

This Earth Day and National Park Week, I will be soaking in the star-studded skies in Big Bend, just at the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower. Yes, I’m bragging.

Vaccinated and it feels so good
April 16, 2021

FILE – In this Jan. 18, 2021, file photo, a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 is prepared at a vaccination center of the 3rd district, in Paris. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

I’ve known since the beginning of this pandemic that it will only end when we get a vaccine. Now, it looks like the light at the end of the tunnel is coming fast.

This week, I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Honestly, I was scared, but not for the reason you may think. I’m terrified of needles.

As a child, I was the kid who would kick and scream when I had to get shots. They used to call in multiple nurses to help my mom hold down my hands and feet. Now, I’m old enough to control the fight or flight instincts that kick in every time I think about those sharp little needles stabbing into me, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

There’s a lot of things you have to do as an adult that you don’t like, but you do them anyway because it’s for the greater good. Nobody likes paying their taxes, but we wouldn’t have road maintenance or public schools without them. Nobody likes going to the dentist, but we would all have rotten, crooked teeth if we didn’t. Nobody likes sitting in traffic, but… Well, I don’t have one for that, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

Getting the COVID vaccine is like that, though. It’s not fun, it hurts, you may even have some unpleasant side effects, but you do it because it means going back to normal.

I understand a lot of people have reservations about this vaccine, and I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m just sharing my personal experience and thoughts.

This vaccine is going to have a big impact on schools. I won’t be surprised if they start requiring them for students the same way they do meningitis and HPV vaccines. But for now, it’s a hot topic of discussion.

This hits close to home
April 9, 2021

The scene in Bryan, Texas where a shooting at a business killed one and injured four. (Jessica Riveras/KWKT)

Kent Moore Cabinets in Bryan is exactly 13 minutes away from the apartment I lived in for my sophomore and junior years at Texas A&M. Exactly 13 minutes down the road from where I laid my head for two years, five people were shot and one died

I first heard about it on Twitter, then texts from friends still in College Station began to roll in. “Did you see the news?” “Don’t go outside right now.” “Is everyone ok?” Our reflexes in times of tragedy are to check in on others. We want to protect our community, even when we feel helpless.

I was shocked to say the least. Mass shootings aren’t new, afterall I grew up in a time when mass shootings proliferated. But, a mass shooting in my quiet, unassuming college town?

Bryan-College Station is the smallest town I’ve ever lived in. There’s not much to do there, everything closes at 9 p.m., but it’s charming. On the drive from my student housing apartment complex to Downtown Bryan, where my friends and I liked to eat and drink, I’d pass cattle peacefully grazing and wildflowers and the horse stables.

A senseless act of violence put a red stain on this idyllic little town. It’s hard to comprehend why someone would want to harm others. Why would they want to tear apart a family? Why would they want to take away the peace of mind for a whole community?

I continued to grapple with the weight of the situation the next day while I worked. As the politics intern, I write about a lot of proposed legislation. Just this Monday, I shadowed a reporter covering a bill that would remove the requirement for a license and training to own a gun. This bill passed out of committee and is awaiting a vote on the House floor. The same day as the shooting, President Joe Biden announced his plan for more gun control in light of several other recent shootings in the United States. Governor Greg Abbott promised Texans our state would never give up its right to bear arms.

All of these events are just headlines to some. You might read them, give them a moment of reflection and then move on with your day. But as I marinate in the recent tragedy of my small college town, I cannot see these as just headlines. These are people’s lives, these are my life.

Bryan-College Station is nuzzled deep in the heart of conservative Brazos County. It’s no secret that they want to be different from Austin in every possible way, including political ideologies. How will community leaders address this tragedy? Will it change the way they look at firearms, or will they remain steadfast Second Amendment advocates? How will leaders at Texas A&M address this tragedy? Will they worry for the safety of the students? Will they address it at all?

All this is to say, sometimes the news hits close to home, even for those covering it. Recently, it feels like the news is personal more times than it’s not.

Sick days in Zoom school
April 2, 2021

Medical-doctors-office-heal_155521

This past Friday, I knelt in front of my toilet as I tasted my breakfast for a second time. But even after that revolting display, I didn’t want to stop working. My long to do list taunted me. Fortunately for my health, my boyfriend was visiting. While he was supposed to be working on his own computer, he tore me away from my desk and convinced me to call a doctor. 

I’ve always had this problem; I’ve always tried to work through sickness. Before the pandemic, my supervisor or teacher would send me home, and once I was home there was no work to be done. Now, I can do everything from my room. I can work and attend classes without anyone knowing how I feel. This isolation makes me responsible for my own well-being.

At first, I thought COVID would create a healthier, more balanced work environment. I thought employers and educators would be more willing to let people stay home when they’re feeling bad, and workers and students would be more likely to stay home out of fear of spreading something to their peers. I had not considered how working from home would make it so easy to pretend you’re not even sick.

Not only have I been physically ill this past week, I’ve been suffering from burnout. Staying motivated to work and study when I know I should be on spring break is challenging. Texas A&M took away spring break and-—unlike other schools—we are not getting “wellness days.” My semester has been shortened to the point where I feel like I have no time left at all.

Even when I know I should be taking breaks and relaxing, there’s a nagging in the back of my head telling me to open the computer and check my email again or work on that essay. The nagging teases and taunts as I stare at the computer screen, unable to make my hands type or my eyes read because I’m far too tired.

Schools don’t acknowledge the mental and physical exhaustion students are feeling. They don’t offer relief from the humdrum of online school. They’re actually offering incentives to encourage students not to take a break.

But, I think I am to blame more than schools or workplaces. I am responsible for creating my own work-life balance and setting my own boundaries. And sometimes when I don’t want to take a break, my body will force me to.

Tik Tok trends and boredom
March 26, 2021

Hannah Falcon and friends partaking in a TikTok trend where you dress up like it’s the ’90s and take “awkward” family photos

I thought my days of recording videos of myself dancing to pop music in my bedroom were over long ago, but pandemics have a way of changing things. This week when my roommates and I participated in a trend we saw on TikTok, I couldn’t help but think about how this app exploded in the past year, partially due to stay-at-home orders.

As I dressed in my most ‘90s fashion and headed to JCPenny’s to recreate embarrassingly awkward family portraits, it dawned on me that I would never have participated in this or many other TikTok trends if I hadn’t gotten exceedingly bored during quarantine. I’ve made countless recipes I found on TikTok, recreated outfits I saw on the app or, in this case, committed fully to the bit.

TikTok got so big so fast it earned attention from the sitting president at the time. Several times in the past year, TikTok was nearly banned in the United States for allegations that it was harvesting data from users. The company appealed to the past administration, but the new administration shelved the issue.

The app, which started with people lip-syncing to popular songs, exploded into the new home for pop culture. Fashion, music, food and more are all influenced by the app. Popular TikTokers quickly become celebrities, and established celebrities flock to the app to stay relevant. Even the way news is gathered has changed with the popularity of this app. 

For my friends and me, TikTok allowed us to connect when we were separated by the pandemic. We could send each other funny videos that held the underlying message, “Hey, I’m thinking about you.” TikTok provides endless ideas of fun things to do. My friends and I did PowerPoint nights over Zoom, where we would present each other with silly slideshows made to draw a chuckle out of the others. What would have otherwise been a very boring summer was kept relatively interesting with the endless ideas provided by this new social media.

TikTok isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even as new apps, like Clubhouse or Dispo, break onto the scene, TikTok has asserted its dominance as a social media app. Just like any new social media, the younger generation knows it best, and the older generation needs to learn it if they want to stay on trend.

Through the rocky road, TikTok has proven to be innocent fun at the end of the day. As I look back at the pictures of my roommates and me, I can’t help but be glad TikTok gave us the most ridiculous yet fun idea.

Finding joy in the everyday
March 19, 2021

Hannah Falcon holding a warm chai latte on a walk

Living through a pandemic is upsetting. Some days it’s hard to get out of bed. Most days it’s difficult to motivate yourself to do work. The silver lining is the normal things, the small everyday things. To get through the most mundane and repetitive yet hectic and uneasy days of my life, I’ve allowed myself to find great joy in little habits.

For me, a cup of chai tea made just the way I like it, a moment to play with my dog, a phone call with my best friend who lives across the country, these things bring me the most happiness right now. At a time when nearly everything is unprecedented, the most normal things are the ones that matter the most. The things I didn’t think twice about before, are the things I look forward to for my whole day.

A year into this pandemic, and I have found ways to make a trip to pick up coffee the highlight of my day. Taking my dog to the park is an entire outing. Talking to my dearest friends gives me the warmest feeling. I hope that I can always keep this love for the little joys.

Imagine how much more exciting everyday life could be if we made a bigger deal about wearing our favorite socks or making our favorite meal for lunch. Before last year’s life altering events, we were so rushed we only made time to celebrate the biggest accomplishments. It almost felt silly to be happy about something as simple as rewatching my favorite movie. Now, I could plan an entire day around a screening of “Clueless.”

The past year has taught me to slow down and make the most of every moment. Never before could I even imagine feeling so at peace just sitting in the park. Now, I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a sunny day.

I know this isn’t a permanent feeling. I know the hustle and bustle of normal, non-pandemic life is quickly approaching. Soon, I’ll be working a full-time job, no longer a student, and vaccination rates will be high enough for life to return to relatively what it was before. When that happens, I just hope I can still make an entire day better by ordering a chai tea made just the way I like it.

COVID and the City: Dating with six feet of separation
March 12, 2021

Charcuterie boards are a popular date or picnic item this year

I know we’re all waiting for the John Green-style teen romance about people falling in love during the pandemic. How they’ll wish they could meet up or kiss without masks. The drama practically writes itself.

Now, I realize writing about dating is less Barbra Walters and more Carrie Bradshaw, but I think we can all agree that dating is a huge part of the college experience. Date parties, guys asking you to dance at the bars, the awkward flirting with your lab partner: what’s not to love about college love?

Of course with dating there’s always fear. Fear of rejection, fear of heartbreak, fear of catching *something* under the covers. But, now there’s a fear of catching something more than an STI.

As COVID concerns amount, I couldn’t help but wonder, is there hope for a single girl in 2021?

Well sorry to ruin the fun, but I’m currently spoken for. However, I can shed some light on how my friends are meeting people during a pandemic, and it’s probably exactly what you’d expect: dating apps.

With no parties to attend, no clubs to go to and no social events in person for the foreseeable future, many college students have turned to their phones for human (and romantic) connection. Dating apps, like Austin-based Bumble, are getting creative with features to allow remote dating. Video dating is becoming more and more popular.

A friend told me he actually put that he’s vaccinated in his Tinder profile as a conversation starter.

But sometimes people decide they do actually want to meet in person for a date. The options for dates are limited. Dining options are hard to come by, so more and more people are having picnics for special occasions. Personally, a sunset picnic is a new favorite of mine. From swimming to hiking, the outdoors offer many date spots if you’re willing to break a sweat.

Now, things are opening back up, 100% back up. Maybe dating will be easier soon, but it was never easy to begin with.

‘The only thing certain is uncertainty’
March 5, 2021

graduation cap

I googled that quote and at least five different people are credited with saying it. It’s pretty fitting that even the origin of the quote is uncertain.

Graduating college and moving on to the next stage in life comes with a lot of uncertainty. Fortunately, uncertainty is something I am very familiar with thanks to COVID-19. I graduate in May, and somehow it is already March. Time is moving far too fast for my liking.

There are a lot of things nobody prepares you for when it comes to living through a pandemic, one of those is that life doesn’t stop. Honestly, this has been a tough week. Things got very real. 

I ordered my graduation cap and gown, and my school announced the date and time of the ceremony. I don’t have the energy to celebrate my upcoming graduation, because all I can think about is what comes after. Soon, I will walk across that stage straight into an uncertain future.

In the past two years, the job market has seen extreme highs and devastating lows. Currently, prospects are bleak. I could count on one hand the number of people I know who graduated college in 2020 with jobs.

In every seminar or lecture I’ve attended on job searching, they always discuss how to stand out in a pool of applicants. Everyday I scroll past my peers posting their accomplishments and casually moving up in the world. How am I to stand out?

I’m entering my job search with a nervous knot in my stomach. A looming feeling of uncertainty hangs over my head. But I know life isn’t stopping, so I have to move forward.

Living in a gray area
February 26, 2021

CAPITOL TESTING CENTER
State-sponsored rapid testing for COVID-19 began for free on Jan. 4, 2021 outside the Texas Capitol on the day it reopened to the public. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

My apartment has thin walls. I can hear my neighbors right now. It sounds like a party.

Nine months ago, having a party would have been scandalous. When this pandemic first started, people who went to parties were shamed for their careless actions. Now, the rules aren’t so clear.

This past week, Texas saw a decrease in cases. A positive light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in almost a year. The governor floated the idea of lifting the mask mandate in Texas, but the Austin Public Health Department says it’s too soon.

Here in Austin, we can go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything as long as we wear a mask. Of course, that mask can be removed if you’re eating or drinking. And should you wear your mask when passing others on the sidewalk or in a park? It seems to me that no one is sure.

While the majority of the country is debating if students should return to schools, my mom has been teaching students in person since August and hasn’t even been offered a vaccine. With a shortage of teachers and substitutes, she tells me she can’t miss a single day. Whether schools are opened or closed, no one is happy. Parents are either complaining their children are not getting a proper education, or concerned their children may have been exposed to COVID.

Universities’ guidelines are even more confusing than K-12 schools. I go to Texas A&M, where we were told attending football games was safe but they took away our spring break and shortened our semesters due to the pandemic.

Our lawmakers tell us it’s safe to go back to school with no vaccine, but they were first in line to receive it. Why do I have to get tested to be in the Senate Chamber, but not to go to an in-person lecture with my 75-year-old professor and students who could be at-risk?

I have friends who still won’t leave their homes, but I also have friends who go out to clubs and bars every weekend. Sometimes I miss the certainty that came with a strict lockdown. I knew what was allowed and what wasn’t. Now I feel like I have to calculate the risk vs loss for everytime I leave my apartment.

So, what is my neighbors’ explanation for the noise? Are they all vaccinated? Are they all coworkers who have to see each other everyday anyway? Do they just not mind the risk? Or maybe they’re just a couple of roommates playing music loud just because. After all, I can’t see through walls.

Natural disasters, storms
February 19, 2021

For someone who has grown up in Houston, the prospect of a snow day is very exciting. That’s how this week started out: excitement. 

On Valentine’s night, I ran outside to see the white powder falling from the sky. That first day of snow seemed magical. The whole world was coated in white. People were sledding and skiing in the streets. Texas was transformed into a wonderland of snow and ice.

Then it all fell apart. Millions lost power and water. People were freezing, some to death. There were days when we couldn’t drive, and I found myself stuck in the apartment with my roommates.

When the roads started to thaw and our pantry started to empty, we took our chances venturing out. Running errands began to feel like a survival mission. We tried grocery stores, but were scared off by the mile-long lines. Gas station convenience stores become our lifeline, but even there we were met with sparsely stocked shelves. 

Friends and family lost power or water or both, but my apartment was fortunate to be unaffected. We took in several friends. Although it was hard to tough out the storm, we had each other. My little apartment wasn’t the only place people were coming together. All across the state, neighbor helped neighbor because that’s what we do during natural disasters.

I know what neighbors do during natural disasters—and what to do when power goes out or when to ration food and water—because I’ve been through natural disasters before. I’d like to say this one was unique because of the pandemic, but this isn’t my first natural disaster since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In case you missed it at the beginning, I grew up in Houston. I grew up preparing for hurricane season, missing weeks of school because of flooding and cleaning tree branches out of the street so we could drive out of the neighborhood. This past summer was a record-breaking hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center ran out of names in the English alphabet and had to switch to the Greek alphabet. In total, there were 23 named hurricanes in 2020. 

Hurricane Laura hit close to home (literally). We lost power while I was in Zoom class. Rather than freezing, I was sweating in the Texas heat. I drove 45 minutes to my friend’s apartment where there was power and stayed with her until our electricity was returned. All during a pandemic. Yet again, I was lucky. My house wasn’t torn to shreds by wind or flooded from rain. None of my loved ones died. But not everyone can say that.

These are only the natural disasters that have occurred in Texas. Let’s not forget other states or parts of the world, for example the wildfires in California.

The pandemic has made the effects of natural disasters worse and more prolonged. With so many experiencing financial hardships right now, recovering from flooding or fires is much more difficult. Relief groups struggle to provide help while using COVID-safe practices. Many of the people who are most at risk in the case of natural disasters are also most at risk of catching COVID. Already over-crowded hospitals struggle to find room for more while maintaining power and water during terrifyingly strong storms.

Today, Texas went back to normal—sunny, 70 degrees, no sign of snow—but many people’s lives may never feel normal again. Many people are still without power or clean water. I have a bleeding heart for those who continue to struggle, but I feel helpless in a world that’s falling apart around me. I don’t have the money or time to solve everyone’s problems, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still on my mind.

Life is like a road trip, except you don’t know where you’re going
February 12, 2021

Hannah Falcon while receiving a tour of the KXAN studio on the first day of her internship.

COVID canceled my plans, so I made new ones.

I am often one to get caught up in the “what could’ve been.” I frequently find myself imagining the many different roads my life could have taken. But then I remind myself this is where the car is headed, and it’s too late to turn around.

The past year has brought on so much sadness. We’ve all experienced loss. We’ve all experienced loneliness. We’ve all sat there in fear as the numbers crawled up and up and up… And as time ticked by, we’ve all realized that we weren’t getting it back.

I’m lucky to be young, healthy and to have many years ahead of me to do all the things I can’t right now. But those years won’t be in college. I’m graduating in May, and, short of a miracle, there’s no chance of having a “normal” last semester.

In addition to all the heartbreak COVID has brought, it took away a year and a half of my college experience. A year and a half of life in College Station that I will never experience. I had big plans for that year and half; but those plans are no longer possible.

There was a period of time at the beginning of the pandemic where I felt very lost. I did not know what to do with myself aside from wait for things to return to what I knew as “normal.” But then I realized there is one upside to living through a pandemic.

COVID forced us to adapt. We moved online. Because Zoom meetings became the new coffee date, I reconnected with friends across the country. In isolation, I turned to introspection and learned more about myself and who I want to be. Even clubs and college organizations moved online. I attended a virtual student org social this week. But this new digital lifestyle also allowed me to embark on a new adventure. I decided to spend my last semester in Austin to intern with KXAN.

The last time I moved was the rushed transition from my college apartment to my parents’ house in an attempt to escape the oncoming terrors of the pandemic. I vividly remember packing up my things, not knowing how long I would be gone, never guessing it would be a permanent move. That trip home was the first time I stopped at a gas station and wondered how many germs were on the gas pump. I’ve had that thought every time I’ve gone to a gas station since, a side effect of living though a pandemic I may never get over.

This recent move was much less stressful, though still unexpected and usual. I wore a mask to tour apartments. I signed lease papers while separated from the apartment office worker by plexiglass. When I moved, my mom couldn’t take a day off work to help because there aren’t enough substitute teachers to go around.

Though I’ve done semesters off-campus and internships before, every part of this semester is different from semesters past. Despite the Aggie-lore I’ve heard, I was welcomed to Austin with open arms (and masked faces). A lot of my work is done from my apartment, and the times I do get to join KXAN reporters in the field are still from a safe distance. Yet, I’m still so refreshed by being in a new city. I learned about a year ago not to guess what the future holds, but I’m still very excited for this semester.

I never would have expected a pandemic to move my classes online which would allow me to move to a new city and complete my degree remotely. This past year has been full of unexpected twists and turns. This next year is sure to be an eventful one as well. For now, I’m just going to mask-up and enjoy the ride.

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