College During COVID-19 Blog: Mercedes Gonzales

College During COVID-19
Mercedes Gonzales

Mercedes Gonzales

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.

Cherish the past holiday season

The holidays are coming up and as with the past holidays celebrated during a pandemic, it’s different. The things we look forward to, like being with the entire family, must be done with caution or not all as to not unknowingly spread COVID and put our family at risk.

I always look forward to Thanksgiving—seeing my grandparents and having all my cousins under one roof. My aunt’s chocolate pie. The goodbyes after the Thanksgiving meal but only to meet up again a week or so later to prepare tamales for our Christmas eve dinner.

And Christmas. I love walking into my grandma’s house on Christmas eve with bags of presents for my aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and placing them under the tree. Joking with my family how we can never make it to midnight to open presents because my younger cousins can barely make it to 9 p.m.

But on Thanksgiving we won’t be going to my grandparents house. Instead we’ll have our own turkey, our own stuffing, our own Thanksgiving meal. Christmas will be the same. It’s strange to think about. It makes me think how I should of cherished last Thanksgiving and last Christmas a little more.

“It’s still so lively online”

It’s weird to think how in 3 weeks the Fall 2020 semester will end. Last week I registered for my last semester as an undergrad. All my classes are online again for the spring semester, of course.

It’s interesting to see those moments when it’s almost like a normal semester. We still do group projects, setting up times when we can meet and work on our presentation. We figure out ways to make a presentation interesting for Zoom.

There’s still (virtual) on-campus events. One event that I always enjoyed going to were the free movie showings at the Union. Now the event still goes on— not in the empty Union theater, but on our computer screens.

Student organizations still meet and recruit new members. They meet online and continue to do their work as an organization. My student organization still went on with the show, creating a weekly broadcast in the past few weeks.

The grounds of the Forty Acres maybe quiet this semester, and will be next semester, but it’s still so lively online. As we head toward the end of probably was the hardest semester for a lot of students, it’s nice to know we still have ways to reach out and connect with our peers so that we aren’t alone.

“The calm before the storm”

Today is Halloween. A year ago today I was dressed as a witch with a long purple wig, wearing my favorite witch hat that had a veil, and a witch outfit thrown together with articles of clothing from my closet. I was at a small Halloween party with people from TSTV News. We were having a good time, a time to get away from our academic responsibilities.

This year, of course, we didn’t have a get-together. Some of us are in Austin, but some are home miles away. Halloween doesn’t look the same this year for everyone, as nothing really has for the past few months. But people still try to find ways to celebrate, from socially-distance trick or treating to a horror movie night.

I think that’s a good thing. This holiday is always one of the most looked forward to, probably now so more than ever. However people decide to (safely) celebrate this holiday, at least for one night we can get a little timeout from everything that has been going on.

But we can’t necessarily hit pause. In the morning, it will be November 1st. Two days before an election that has seen record numbers of early voting turn out. An election that the results could determine how our nation moves forward. An election that is in the middle of a global pandemic.

This Halloween feels as though it is the calm before the storm. On Tuesday night the nation will be glued to their screens, hitting refresh on their social media, watching the numbers point to a winning presidential candidate. Halloween is suppose be the night of tricks and ghosts. But I’m more nervous on what will happen on the night of November 3rd.

“This time of year seems harder than usual”

Midterm season is just around corner, meaning we are half way through this fall semester. On campus every floor of the Perry–Castañeda Library, or PCL, would be filled with students studying alone, in a group, or studying in a group but not accomplishing much for midterms. There would advice on studying habits and on-campus events to help students de-stress, at least for a little bit.

There was almost a sense of comradery among students. We’re all experiencing the same thing. We’re in this together.

But what about now?

It’s hard to connect with others through zoom. In a classroom it gives you the chance to meet new people and talk to them before, during, and after class, and form study groups. In my first year Spanish class we had a big group studying time in the PCL before every test. It was comforting to be around others during a time where stress tends to peak and we all feel it.

Now it feels like we’re on our own. Midterms on their own can be hard, but factor in everything that is going on right now from the pandemic to the quickly approaching, most important presidential election, this time of year seems harder than usual. There’s a lot going on in a college student’s mind right now.

“How many exams do I need to take online?”

“How much time after work do I have to do online assignments?”

“When will people take COVID seriously and wear their mask?”

“Will our next president take COVID seriously?”

Perhaps we can still achieve that sense of comradery, even when we are miles apart. We can make sure our fellow peers go out to vote. We can zoom with friends and study. It doesn’t have to be the same subject. We can still make sure our mental health is okay by taking breaks from online lectures. Take a break from the room we’ve been in for the past month that is the substitute for a classroom.

The possibility I didn’t think about

This past spring, the UT graduating class of 2020 had a virtual commencement. Their graduation ceremonies were held at home with a virtual presentation. As of right now, UT is planning for the Spring 2021 commencement. While they haven’t said how much would be in person versus virtual, I have a feeling it would look similar to Spring 2020 commencement.

A college milestone I was looking forward to was getting my UT class ring. I was ecstatic this past spring to receive an email saying I had completed enough credits to get my class ring.

When you get your UT ring, you can order it during Ring Week to be part of the Ring Celebration. The night before the celebration the rings are put into the tower and presented to students the next day at the ring celebration.

The thought of the ring ceremony not happening was perhaps at the back of my mind. This is was in early February when I got the email and ordered my ring. The pandemic was barely starting to make its reach into the U.S.

I guess I didn’t think about the possibility because of how much I wanted the celebration. My mother graduated from UT when I was in eighth grade and I got to see her receive her ring at her ring ceremony. I wanted my family to be at my ring ceremony too.

Of course, my ring ceremony didn’t happen. It was suppose to be in April. But campus closed as the COVID pandemic reached Austin.

While I was sad that I didn’t get to celebrate my ring at the ceremony, it didn’t mean that there was no reason to not celebrate when I did get my ring. My family was there in July when I opened a package to find my UT ring mailed to me. The ring still symbolized my hard work in the past three years, working towards a Journalism degree that I wanted since middle school.

Now, I do think about the possibility of my graduation in the spring being virtual, like how the spring 2020 commencement was. While it might not be how I’ve wanted it to be, it’ll still mean as much being surrounded by my family.

“We didn’t have a blue print to follow”

At the beginning of the pandemic, we all had to abruptly change our daily lives. Streets all over were quiet as people stayed indoors. Businesses closed or tried to stay afloat with less people out. Schools switched to online learning half way through the spring semester.

Now, seven months later, we’ve all adjust to this new way of life, with making sure we have our mask with us when we go out. With schools beginning the fall semester with virtually learning. With store announcements reminding us to keep 6 feet apart from other customers. We’ve adjusted, but sometimes there would still be this tinge for normalcy.

Even though this isn’t what I thought my senior year of college would be, as many college students would attest to, I tried to find some sort of ‘normalcy’—or close enough to it—in even the smallest things to adjust being a college student during a pandemic.

I get that most from student news broadcast.

At UT Austin, I am part of a student run broadcast station called Texas Student Television, or TSTV. I am the co-News Director. I help manage our news shows Texas News Channel and Good Morning Texas.

Before the pandemic, Texas News Channel would have a live news broadcast on Monday evenings and Good Morning Texas would have their live show on Wednesday mornings. We would be in our studio on campus, running teleprompter and be in the control room to make sure behind the scenes was smooth. Our anchors would be at the news desks reporting the news.

But when campus closed to shift classes online in the spring, we had our last shows without realizing it. There was still a lot to look forward to— our senior show, the last show of the semester that we bid farewell and well wishes to our graduating seniors, the station wide banquet with other shows in TSTV.

We were all adjusting to the shift of online learning, so we didn’t focus on doing a virtual news broadcast—not yet.

As the spring semester ended, summer came and went, and the fall semester was arriving, I knew we had to produce our news shows virtually, as many news broadcasts all over the nation had to do.

Due to COVID, the TSTV studio couldn’t be used. As they say, this was an unprecedented time. We didn’t have a blue print to follow. We had to figure out how to produce and air Texas News Channel and Good Morning Texas without stepping into the studio.

The end solution: pre-recording the shows. But there’s a lot into producing the shows: creating graphics that you see appear on the screen, writing the script for an entire 30 minute show, recording anchors doing the script on Zoom then getting all the recorded parts to put together so that a new Texas News Channel or Good Morning Texas broadcast will air the next day.

Of course there was some hiccups, mainly technical difficulties all around. But, heading into our third week of shows, each new broadcast that aired each week looked smooth. Each week is better than the last. It’s all the hard work of our staff and volunteers, as it’s always been.

“Sometimes we can take a traditional classroom for granted”

In my three years of college, I had only taken two online classes: ‘Social Media Journalism’ and ‘Issues and Policies in American Government’. I tried to keep all my classes in person because I didn’t want to add onto the time I already spent on my laptop doing homework. I made an exception for the online courses I chose because 1) I’ve wanted to learn how to use social media as a journalist and was excited to take the course and 2) I heard the professors were great for the online government class.

In the past spring, a week before spring break, I remember having a class discussion in my news broadcast class about our back-up plan in case all classes were to be online after spring break. At that time, it felt as though we were bracing for something, something that was going to disrupt our lives. COVID-19 had been in the news for three months when we had that discussion. It was going from country to country, beginning in Wuhan, China and cases were coming up in Italy, Iran, Latin America, etc. The U.S was seeing cases at that point too, and the question that hung around in my mind as I kept an eye on the news was: “When will COVID-19 reach us here at UT? or in Austin?”

This discussion of possible online classes were talked about in my other classes as well. All those discussions had things in common: how the professor was going to miss seeing their students in class everyday and how they’ll miss the in-person engagement and class discussion with their students. How their students can reach out them if they had questions or concerns about this sudden change of our learning environment. How they’ll try to make this change as smooth as possible

In my reflection on how things are now due to the pandemic, I think that sometimes we can take a traditional classroom for granted. The classroom allows us to connect and collaborate with our peers, and in the process learn about the people we probably wouldn’t had met if we hadn’t happen to take the same class at the same time. It allows the opportunity for professors to check on their students about the class or life with casual conversation before class begins. I also enjoyed the mini “field-trips” some of my UT Austin classes would take to the Harry Ransom Center or the Blanton Museum of Art.

It is interesting to see the differences between being in a traditional classroom versus being in a virtual one. In the classroom, when we would be put in groups, students would often introduce themselves and ask their peers “so what year are you?” What’s your major?” In our virtual classroom on Zoom, we would be put into break-out rooms (essentially smaller zoom meetings within a main zoom meeting). In our virtual groups we’ll say hi and instead of asking what year our peers are in, we first ask “So where are you guys taking classes from?”

In the virtual classroom, it’s a little quieter. There’s no classroom chatter as students wait for class to start. The chatter now takes place in the zoom chat. There seems to be a little hesitance to ask questions in the virtual classroom during lecture. It feels more of students not wanting to verbally interrupt the lecture (in a physical classroom, students can just raise their wand and wait to be called on). Or they don’t want to speak up at the exact same time another student does as well. Or maybe it’s just live camera/audio shyness during lecture, which I had when all my classes were first shifted online.

But professors tried their best to have the same classroom engagement we would have in a regular classroom. On the first day of this virtual fall semester, my professors had us introduce ourselves with ice breakers. They’ll put lecture questions in the zoom chat and have us answer there. Or as we wait for class to start the professor would have small talk with students on zoom or in the zoom chat.

In this past spring, I think my professors did a great job in making the virtual learning change as smooth as possible, especially with the two weeks they had to re-plan an entire second half of a semester. Of course there were some hiccups: the screen they were sharing would freeze or a professor would have internet problems in the middle of lecture. But as my professors said during those spring discussions, we were in (and are still in) uncharted waters and while the global pandemic may have disrupted how we learn, we had to make a change for the best interest of our health and those around us.

“There is much that is different”

On Monday, March 9, 2020, we wrapped up our news broadcast of Texas News Channel, called it a night and said our goodbyes. As I left the building, I waved to one of our staff members and said we’ll see each other after spring break, which was to start that following week.

On March 11, an email from the University of Texas at Austin was sent to the entire student body saying our spring break was extended by one week. It was to allow UT Austin time to implement social distancing practices, such as changing many classes to online format and putting social distancing guidelines in classrooms (for classes that needed to meet in person), resident halls, dining halls and libraries. At the time the City of Austin was trying to take precaution of preventing the spread of the coronavirus as other cities in the nation were beginning to experience cases.

On March 13, UT Austin reported its first coronavirus case. Classes were canceled, campus closed, and when we got back from our two week spring break, all classes were online.

The time before and after March 13 seem like different worlds. I will sometimes find things from before March 13, such as our show script from March 9 for Texas News Channel. One of the stories from that week was SXSW being cancelled and the call to support local businesses who would feel the impact from the SXSW cancellation.

But there are many things that remind me how things are different today: reading about coronavirus cases within the UT Austin community, from dorms to West Campus. It’s making sure I have my mask with me when I do go to campus and the eerily quietness around me when it should be lively of students walking to class. It’s waking up in the morning for classes but instead of getting into my car to drive the morning traffic, I turn on my laptop and sign into zoom.

There is much that is different and much that college students did not think their college experience will go, in whatever year they are in this fall. As this semester goes on, I’ll write about my experience as a college student during a pandemic. A college student who will be going into her senior year of college. A college student who wonders about the present and the future.

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

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