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.

See you later: A Covid Commencement

December 2, 2020

When I decided almost two years ago to graduate in December 2020, a semester early, I figured that would still leave more than enough time to soak up every bit of the college experience. My foresight, like most of ours, failed to take into account the possibility of a crippling global pandemic that turned out to slightly tweak those plans.

I don’t know how I expected to feel about graduating, but I never expected it to feel like this. This time in our lives, typically a season of celebration, reflection, and excitement for the possibilities to come, will instead be most memorable for being completely unnoteworthy. I remember the sympathy we all gave the Spring 2020 graduates, whose celebrations were nixed just weeks before commencement, and how we all felt optimistic they would be the only class to miss out. Now, another class of graduates all around the country is leaving school to enter into an uncertain void without the usual fanfare they worked for four years to earn.

Yet still, I am fortunate for everything I have and have learned during this final pandemic semester. I feel very lucky to work in journalism with the kind and talented people of KXAN, and I will miss the platform to tell stories and grow in my craft until I find another. I cannot think of any better time to be in news than election season during a pandemic.

I am also fortunate to be able to stay in Austin for the foreseeable future. This spring, I will continue to learn and practice in government from the Texas Capitol as the state confronts the unprecedented challenges that have been building to a breaking point since the last legislative session. Between reconciling the pandemic’s budget shortfalls, protecting businesses during recovery, making good on the state’s education promises, and drawing the lines that will determine democratic representation in Texas for the next decade, this will be a historic session and I am excited to contribute my small part to the state’s success. I hope to run into the “State of Texas” team reporting on how we do under the pink dome soon.

As I now set out to put my degrees to task, I am fortunate to have crafted so many possibilities for my future. Which one of those possibilities I seize, however, is yet to be decided.

But that’s why, more than anything, I am fortunate that the pandemic taught us all a lesson about embracing uncertainty and leaning into change. It’s an uncomfortable position that every graduate must confront and a lesson they all must learn quickly. Fortunately, I think everyone was taught a little about how to adapt to uncertainty this year. The pandemic gave everyone a trial by fire in resiliency, adaptability, and optimism. This year’s graduates will need to lean on those lessons, and that uncertainty makes me excited to close this chapter of my life in anticipation of what comes next.

This pandemic does not hit all of us the same. Society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.

David Carter stands across from the University of Texas in 2018. Credit: Ann Mark Photography

November 10, 2020

Back in 2018, I reported on a man in stories that showed me the real power student journalism can have.

Through my reporting on homelessness in Austin, I met a 69 year-old man named David Carter who had experienced homelessness for most of his adult life. He was a familiar sight to the many UT students – at that point, he had spent the last six years asking for spare change along the bustling strip of shops across from campus known as “The Drag.” But while many students knew his face, few knew his story. Some may have seen David as out of place on campus, but he felt right at home. Beneath his unkempt beard and worn leather jacket, David was a Longhorn. 

Four decades prior, David was a student at the University of Texas. After earning more than 80 credit hours, he succumbed to a story all too common among people experiencing homelessness. A series of misfortunes including family fallouts, mental health decline, and addiction diverted his path to a degree and bound him to a life of hardship. 

My reporting about David’s incredible backstory, and his aspirations to become a student once again, gained national attention and ignited a slurry of support for him. Less than a year after my first story about him, David was readmitted to UT. He gained a Pell Grant, he was featured in UT’s magazine “Alcalde,” and a charitable alumnus pledged to fund his revived educational journey.

With no family support, little money, and a roof over his head only thanks to charity, David embarked on what he hoped would be a fresh start in his troubled life. And for a while – it worked. He successfully completed two semesters of college in spite of the pessimistic predictions of many of his fellow students and even professors. He formed friendships with other classmates and professors who saw the potential in him, and he finally found a community in the school that for too long only he saw himself as a part.

And then the pandemic hit.

This year has set us all back in some way or another. Some students have moved back home, some lost trips abroad. Others lost their livelihoods, and some their loved ones. Nothing in our lives was immune to COVID-19. Yet this pandemic hits some far harder than others. I know of nobody else in my life who has suffered more this year than David.

Nearing 70 years old, David has been out of academic life for four decades filled with adversity that most students do not have to consider. David succeeded thanks to generous professors and students who gave their time and energy to watch him grow. He relied on support outside of classroom hours for tutoring and technology training. I knew David was going to suffer as soon as classes went online and personal help became impossible.

Since the shutdown last semester, David has resorted back to the street corner in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. He misses the education and work from UT, but most of all, I think he misses the support and companionship of the UT community. Time will only tell whether school will return to normal and allow him to continue, but he does not have the ability to finish his degree as long as classes are online. Right now, he is forced to worry more about his basic needs than his Bachelor’s.

In my most recent conversation with him, back in May, we tried to navigate UT’s bureaucracy to secure him a lifeline from UT’s Student Emergency Services, an office that provides UT students short-term help with money and academic needs. I realized the value in being part of a greater community that can provide financial and social support – that David should be a part of that UT community not in spite of his position in life, but because of it. Unfortunately, that was assistance David never ultimately received. 

From the very start, people treated David as a step below other UT students, as an “other.” Some of his professors had resigned to letting him “filter out of the system,” as I was told. Some may still judge David today for his inability to keep up with our new online life. But his ability to get there in the first place is an astonishing feat that demonstrates more grit and intelligence than I have seen in any other student. As Nelson Mandela wrote, “Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up.” 

David getting so greatly set-back due to the pandemic is more a criticism of his support system than of him. And that problem is not unique to UT. Our governments have the same mentality towards people like David.

David did not need to be so hurt by the pandemic. A society that prioritizes compassion would not have allowed it to happen. Nobody should ever be one misstep away from ending up on the street corner, yet David is one of so many Americans who have fallen through the cracks that our governments have left open for them.

David’s predicament is a reminder that when it comes to elections and lawmaking, especially this week, it is important to frame how we think about these issues with respect for the weight they carry. 

The recent headlines about a new COVID-19 relief bill are too often discussed in the abstract. What is Pelosi going to give? What will Mnuchin compromise on? Will the White House get their language in the bill? Will there be another stimulus check? But these are not abstract conversations. When we talk about policy, we are literally talking about whether people like David are going to get the support they need to survive.

Nelson Mandela wrote something else strikingly pertinent to this issue: “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones.”

David may not be in class this semester, but he has a lot of lessons to teach us, instead.

Anchors up: The freedom of hotspot-hopping in our new online life

Working remote.

October 26, 2020

I’m currently writing this from the passenger seat of my girlfriend’s Jeep Wrangler as we whiz through middle America on hour 10 of our weekend road trip. It is 4:40pm on a Thursday. I have class today, I work my internship tomorrow, and I find myself in the middle of Kansas. That sounds like a stress dream I would have had a year ago, but the world has changed to make this strange situation possible. Even preferable. 

The pandemic has raised the anchor in many of our lives. With classes online, work remote, even dinner and groceries able to be summoned to your door, this new online life can seclude you to your house with no reason to leave.

Or, it can open up a world of possibilities with no reason to stay.

That lifestyle change was not smooth, and we certainly did not ask for it, but my new virtual existence gave me the flexibility and freedom that I have never before experienced. It has taught me to be less tied to my physical location and more intent on living as a digital nomad with no home base. 

Why does it matter where I am in the world when I can carry the classroom and the conference room in my pocket? All of my responsibilities and associations go where I want them to now, and I can juggle them on my time in the meeting room of choice. Today, that’s a Jeep with the windows rolled down to bring in panoramic views of America’s countryside and the cool fall weather that I can’t get at home. Another busy day at the office.

From this car, I have sat in class and participated in a lively online discussion about the day’s topics. I have reported on the elections in Austin, now 600 miles in the rear view, and the fact that I can do all of that without losing any substance or productivity makes me wonder why I would walk to a classroom or a desk to do that anyway. 

Of course, there are valuable aspects of in-person life that I do miss. Despite the months I have attended class this semester, I have not and will likely never meet my professor or classmates. Despite working with KXAN for months, there are co-workers I work with every day that I have never met. There is no replacement for that personal collaboration and connection, and there are important parts of life that a wifi hotspot cannot replace.

But still, the gaps in this new way of life open up room to connect with other parts of life. When we cross the border into Missouri in a couple of hours, I’ll have visited three new states today. I have spent this weekend seeing new places and meeting new people that I never would have otherwise, and I did not sacrifice any of the work I would have done at home. Instead, I gained a much greater education than I would have received on campus.

This pandemic can make your world very small. For the first long stretch, it felt that way for me. Yet taking advantage of newfound physical freedom does not have to mean sacrificing safety. Out here in the Kansas plains, I’m learning a new meaning of “social-distancing.”

It is possible to protect your physical health by following COVID-19 guidelines while also maintaining your mental health by not resigning yourself to the same four walls for the foreseeable future. If you are one of the millions of remote workers and students this year, adapt your perspective to focus on the possibilities of online life rather than the pitfalls. Try filling in the holes of our new life by seeing where a laptop and a wifi hotspot can take you.

Fumbling in Fourth Overtime: Handling COVID Like We Handled OU

Photo: Roger Wallace/KXAN

October 14, 2020

It was three years ago this weekend when I first fully realized the unique privilege of being a Texas Longhorn. There’s no other experience like riding the bus up I-35, arriving rowdily in Dallas full of Czech Stop and angry excitement fueled by the greatest rivalry in college football. Ask any Longhorn their favorite college memory, and one answer will always be the Red River Rivalry. 

It’s weekends like this that force us to realize just how disappointingly different this year is. There was no bus to Dallas this year. No fried Oreos or beer gardens at the State Fair, no Cotton Bowl stadium shaking from the cheers of 90,000 orange and red fans. For the thousands of Longhorns not lucky, wealthy, or healthy enough to score one of the precious few tickets into the game, the coronavirus pandemic took away UT’s most resilient tradition yet.

Yes… I learned pretty quickly that the pandemic was not the only disappointing thing about this year’s OU game. Four nail-biting overtimes later, and I leave my UT career 1-3 against our most bitter rival. But that I can deal with. What struck me more were the striking similarities between that depressing, overextended game and this… depressing, overextended pandemic. 

UT entered the Cotton Bowl as confident as ever. But, as is usually the case when UT is the favorite, we find some way to mess it up. Our hubris crippled our preparation and our performance. Well… remember February? The virus was an underdog. We were the top-ranked United States. And then we fumbled. 

And now we’re in the fourth overtime of this pandemic. The game has dragged on for far longer than anyone could have imagined, and we just can’t seem to secure a win. After every Texas touchdown in that OU game, my friends and I cheered, confident that would be the end of it. But OU always answered, and UT made yet another mistake. The bars opened, then closed again. The curve flattened, then spiked again and again. We keep committing unforced errors, and we failed to get the job done within the time allotted. This pandemic was supposed to be over by Easter… then summer… then Labor Day. Overtime after overtime after overtime. And we keep fumbling the ball.

This is not normal, acceptable, or sustainable. We owe it to our freshmen to not treat it as such.

October 4, 2020

As a senior taking all of my classes online, this semester is full of nostalgia for my old college routines. Some day back in March, I walked off of campus without knowing I would never need to go back.

Living just ten blocks from campus, I feel a world apart. But this is my last semester as a student, so I can’t help but make it feel as normal as possible at times. Whether by volunteering to hand out masks on campus or changing my running route to cut through Speedway, I used to find any excuse I could to go to campus. 

I haven’t done that in awhile. Without the normal bustling crowds pushing their way to classes, it’s not the same. I miss walking to class past the tower and waving to familiar faces. I miss the long line of student organizations selling food and spinning signs on Speedway. I even miss the usual protesters and demonstrations on the West Mall. There’s a special character to UT that makes you feel like you belong among the crowds, making a massive school feel small. But now those crowds are gone, and that feeling went with it. The campus experience is so underwhelming. The emptiness is overwhelming. 

Yet I feel like we’re starting to get comfortable with this new world, even complacent to it. It’s easy to become accustomed to our new way of life. After seven months, all the new procedures and expectations are routine. Don’t forget your mask. Spend most of your time at home. Keep your circle small. Think twice before doing anything that diverts from that. It’s just the drill at this point. But the last thing we should do is make this normal. 

I feel particularly bad for the Longhorns who don’t understand what our “normal” is. 

It’s worth taking a step back and realizing all of the things our freshmen have already missed this year. They were not welcomed into our community with fireworks and friendship at “Gone to Texas.” They aren’t meeting new friends and study groups in class. They aren’t having those after-class conversations with classmates about the day’s concepts that deepen understanding and spark passion. They can’t stroll down Speedway to join any of the hundreds of student organizations they can join – losing the crucial early chance to find friends, academic support, and professional opportunities. They aren’t meeting on Clark Field for a game of ultimate frisbee. They won’t celebrate the end of first semester with their dates at formals.

With the news that UT’s spring semester will be structured much like the fall, freshmen are going to be in this difficult place for far longer than they imagined. Today’s freshmen lost their last semester of high school, and will now lose their entire first year of college. Two of the most special, irreplaceable times of one’s academic career, gone. 

This is not normal, acceptable, or sustainable. We owe it to our freshmen to not treat it as such. The answer is not to live life as if the world was normal, but to take the necessary steps to make it so. While it may be easy to go through the motions and live with the cards we’ve been dealt, I am not content with knowing how much we have lost. I hope we can all channel that disappointment into a commitment to making sure we don’t lose even more.

That One Week in March

September 25, 2020

UT campus – March 21, 2020

When I think back to the world I lived in just six months ago, I am surprised by the naivety of it all. Until then, I had walked through life certain that the current world would simply continue. I was confident I could control my own path. I gave more importance to some things than I should have. After the pandemic took over our lives – cancelling job offers, study abroad trips, weddings, graduation parties – I think we all learned a stern lesson on pride and planning.

On the first week of March, my friends and I were packing for Cancún. We were well aware of the virus, but back then the threat seemed benign enough to take the trip. The next few days brought a whirlwind of news that would quickly change our perspective. A once-distant headline became real, bringing a slew of travel bans and emergency declarations that seemingly came about all at once. We all remember that week in which the virus seemed to escalate by the hour. 

Yet even then, my friends and I fought for our beach party until the very last hour. I can’t help but shake my head when I look back on the many conversations we had about our trip. 

“We can still go, right?

“It’s warmer in Cancún, the virus can’t survive there.”

“You really think Trump would ban travel to Mexico? During Spring Break?”

We stayed stubborn and committed to living out our normal lives until the day before our flight, and even then, we based our decision to cancel not on the threat of the virus but on messy logistics. President Trump banned travel to Europe that week – could the same happen with Mexico?

“We’re not worried about you getting the virus,” our parents would say. “We just don’t want you to be stuck there.”

Wondering how that decision required so much deliberation seems ridiculous now. As the world changed that week, a trip like that quickly seemed inconceivable. 

But I didn’t have much time to mourn the loss of my beach vacation. The virus became personal all too fast.

On the day my flight was scheduled to take off for Mexico, I learned my dad had contracted COVID-19. He was not only the first person I knew with the virus – he was one of the first people in Texas. 

Suddenly, the headlines hit home.

I didn’t know what his positive test result meant. Should I be worried for him? How worried? Will my step-mom and step-brother also catch it while living with him? He was just with my younger brother and my mom, a recent cancer patient. Will they catch it? What happens then?

For the two weeks after, I spoke to my dad once. I never got much information from my family. All the way in Austin, I was in the dark.

The account he gave of his experience made me grateful they spared me the details at the time.

His was a story I would not have cared to know until it was over, because the happy ending was never a guarantee.

The virus hit him hard. My dad is strong, healthy, 6’2. But he had never been so sick in his life. I learned it was hard to reach him because he spent 20 hours a day asleep, trying to summon the energy to walk to the bathroom. One night he only had enough energy for a one-way trip, falling down onto the bathroom floor and deciding it was easier to spend the night there.

“There were nights when I was not sure if I was going to wake up,” he told me. “I would say to myself, ‘If this is it, God, take care of them.’”

My dad was turned away and denied a COVID-19 test the first time he went to the doctor. They treated it like the flu. At the time, there were fewer than 30 coronavirus cases in Harris County and attitudes toward the impending threat were relatively lax. Just a few weeks later, Houston’s streets would empty as its hospital beds filled. 

The naivety of it all. 

The pandemic became personal to me sooner than it did to most, but now most people I know have a similar story. 202,329 families have one far worse.

Not 200,000. That was earlier this week. More than anything, my experience taught me to not round death counts. 

The difference between 202,329 and 202,330 makes no difference to a headline. But it is the difference between my brothers and I having a father. It is not 202,328 because another father fought the virus, lived a story probably very similar to my dad’s, but did not have the similar fortune.

Our national perception of the virus transformed within that one week in March, one that forced a new world upon all of us that would persist for far longer than we imagined. It is probably best we do not forget that perspective after this is over, but learn to live appreciating every stretch of normalcy the world affords us.

To hell with Cancún. I am feeling fortunate and happy in this moment, right here.

Fall on Campus: A Ticking Time Bomb

September 18, 2020

first day of classes fall 2020 ut-austin
The first day of fall classes for the University of Texas at Austin was August 26. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

When I moved my freshman brother into his dorm on The University of Texas campus this August, we made sure to leave a few boxes in the corner of his room. Best to hang onto them for a bit, we agreed.

We couldn’t help but tame our excitement for his first semester of college with anxiety and doubt about how long he would actually be there, still left cautious and confused by the rapid removal of students from campus in March. 

The only difference between that move-in day and March’s emergency move-out is that now, the threat of COVID-19 in Austin is far greater. 

When the pandemic transformed Austin into a ghost town overnight, I stayed here while thousands of fellow students retreated home. I will never forget the lonely runs I would take down 6th Street and “The Drag,” the typical booming centers of UT life now replaced by empty streets and boarded shops. Austin was a major COVID-19 hotspot back then, and to think we achieved that status when the campus that brings 50,000 students to Austin was closed makes me worry that the shops will not get to remove the boards from their windows before I graduate.

It seems that UT’s efforts to avoid that scenario are inadequate. Just 23 days after the first day of class, 1,127 members of the UT community have contracted the virus – an average of almost 50 every day. No amount of masks, closed water fountains or socially-distanced dining halls have prevented UT from adding hundreds of virus risks to the city, because any college reopening comes with certain inevitabilities that UT could and did see coming months ago. 

I knew more than ever that UT was in for a rocky semester when the administration announced their “no parties” rule. The ban on social gatherings, on and off campus, sparked laughs and groans from the student community. The administration stated they do not intend to enforce the rule, and any stroll through West Campus this week will tell you it was a formality at best. Any plan that relies on college freshmen – fresh out of six months of isolation at home, dutifully following public health orders and refraining from gathering together instead of vying to live a normal college life – is a plan destined to fail. 

Of course, students can and should abstain from the normal festivities that typically define the fall semester, but it is naive to think they will do so to a level necessary for a clean reopening. 

The effects of this already show. The day before the Texas Longhorns’ football season opener, 95 out of 1,198 students tested positive for coronavirus on the tests the University required of students wanting to attend the game – 95 students who likely would have cheered in the crowd without knowing they had the virus if UT did not require a test. One can imagine how many infections were lying in the 14,000 other attendees who went untested. That same weekend, the fire marshal shut down a party of “hundreds” of unmasked students at independent fraternity Texas Rho. 

Yet, the largest party hosted that weekend was in Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, sponsored and promoted by The University of Texas in defiance of Austin Public Health guidance. 

“We need students to know we are serious,” Mayor Adler told me ahead of last weekend’s game. “I think it sends the wrong message.” 

Indeed, it seems UT has taken a “do as I say, not as I do” approach when it comes to mass gatherings.

Still, UT has been committing real efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus in other areas that they can control. They moved 75 percent of all classes to an online format, and their proactive community testing program has ambitious goals to test asymptomatic students every week.

Yet, this semester will only be a success if students dramatically change their lifestyles and diligently follow the guidance of university and city officials – something that may or may not be compatible with reopening campus. I hope I do not have to touch my brother’s spare boxes until May, after he has made invaluable memories and experienced this amazing university as it is meant to be.

Only time will tell.