When the novel coronavirus shuttered USI’s campus March 17, sending nearly 9,000 students home, it left 75—approximately 50 international and 25 domestic—students living in campus housing because they had nowhere else to live, attending class virtually and adjusting to life in a pandemic. A security guard shack was erected at the main entrance, just past the roundabout, and barriers blocked all other avenues to keep unauthorized people from coming onto the closed campus.
Living on a ghostly campus, dealing with Zoom classes, project and assignment deadlines, limited dining options, no bus service and isolation, was quite a learning curve. Mara Monterrosa Morales, Fatin Yaro, Hortensia Almanza Guizado and Nohemi Chumacero Mancilla share what life, learning and their final weeks of the semester were like on a closed campus.
Alone but never forgotten, Dr. Ronald Rochon, USI President, Heidi Gregoi-Gahan, Associate Provost for International Programs and Services, and Amy Price, Director of Housing and Residence Life, along with a limited staff and a skeleton crew from Sodexo Food Services meet the students’ needs and cared for them like the family they are.
Mara: Before everything happened, I lived in the apartments on campus with three other roommates who had to move out, so I ended up living by myself. At the beginning it was hard because I felt lonely, plus I had to keep up with my classes. For me, classes started being a little bit harder online than in person because the workload increased significantly. I had to start being more organized and really measuring my time to meet all the deadlines.
Fatin: Before the University closed, I was a student worker in the Center for International Programs. In that capacity, I interacted with international students daily and took them into the Evansville community to volunteer with local nonprofit organizations. When I wasn’t in the office or volunteering in the community, I spent my time in the library working on my master’s thesis or going to the Rec Center. After the University closed, I no longer had access to the office. I couldn’t volunteer anymore. I couldn’t spend my nights in the library or go to the Rec. That was a drastic change, but we had to cope with it to prevent the spread of the [new] coronavirus.
Hortensia: It was hard to go from being around all your friends to being alone. It was scary for me to even go out for a walk, and I know that other international students felt the same. Despite that, we understood that it was in our best [interest] and we got used to this new normal.
Nohemi: Before and after this pandemic and shutdown, my living situation was about the same, just that my daily routine changed. I live in a two-bedroom suite with a roommate from Panama, who remained on campus, too. When the campus closed, I could not go to the labs, the library or the gym. I usually make my own food, so it was basically the same. I needed to adjust to a new routine, however, which took a lot of discipline. Now I cannot stay in my room without making my bed, everything needs to be neat and organized so I can focus on what I am doing. Having that type of atmosphere helps me stay productive.
Mara: It was hard at the beginning since I had many group projects to complete and sometimes the communication between my classmates was not the best. Overall, the professors were really helpful, but it was not the same experience.
Fatin: I was taking only one class—research methods. In this class, we were using SPSS, a software installed on computers in the labs and in the library, to analyze research data. It’s not a free software and many students do not have access to it on their personal computers. I knew it was going to be difficult for me and many other students to gain access to the software to complete our programs in a timely manner. During one of our Zoom meetings with Dr. Rochon and Heidi, I mentioned that, and they [arranged to] have the license shared with students so that we could install it on our own computers.
In terms of taking the Research Methods class online, I found it more beneficial because the teacher was very familiar with technology and he would record the classes and post them on Blackboard so that we could go back and watch the videos and catch up on what we failed to understand during the synchronous class. During in-person classes, the professor was a little fast for me to comprehend the material. But when it moved online, it became much more accessible.
Hortensia: It may have been the nightmare of every college student. It was hard and stressful. I was taking an anatomy class and not being in a classroom or the lab, I felt that I was missing some information—all the detailed explanation that the professor gives you. However, I must say that I discovered, with effort and patience, I could succeed, even though online classes were not what I was used to.
Nohemi: It was a challenge, since I was used to in-person instruction. I felt limited in all aspects. On the other hand, having my professors record their classes, helped, since I could go over the recorded lectures if I did not understand something.
Mara: Everything being fully online I had to reach out to my professors by email or in some cases we stayed a couple minutes after our Zoom meeting to clarify questions. It was harder to discuss project guidelines and there were a lot of miscommunication problems. Talking about my classmates, it was a challenge to communicate, but for the most part we managed to arrange Zoom meetings to discuss about our final projects.
Fatin: Before the campus was closed, I used to have a meeting every other week with my academic advisor in his office to discuss my progress on my research. After campus closed, we moved to Zoom meetings. To be honest, I preferred the Zoom meetings because I was able to record them and refer to them at my convenience in order to consider the suggestions he would make. It was completely different than sitting down, listening and taking notes.
As far as my interactions with my classmates are concerned, they were affected in the sense that we couldn't meet in the library to complete activities and assignments together anymore. We would sometimes have a short conversation on the phone about assignments since we were all practicing social distancing.
Hortensia: I feel it became distant. The professors were too busy trying to figure out how to make our classes work and I did not have the opportunity to keep close contact with my classmates since we did not have any projects, labs or homework together. As we moved to online, it was, for me, a job between my laptop and me, and not with my professor and classmates.
Nohemi: I was pushing myself to use the office hours of my professors more frequently, and I was doing great. All of a sudden, the shutdown came. I felt more limited in my interaction with them since all we could do was to email and make appointments through Zoom, which I do not really feel comfortable with. At the beginning of the online classes, I was struggling with some labs and assignments and sometimes and it was so hard for me to focus and get things done for that class. Dr. Trent Engbers reached out to check in with me and asked if I needed any help, several times. He was able to see the potential I have and helped me.
Mara: It was really sad to see my roommates and American friends moving out, and it was sadder to see how empty the campus was at that time.
Fatin: Seeing everybody moving off campus in the middle of the semester was unexpected. I felt isolated and lonely on an empty campus. I couldn’t say goodbye, in a proper way, to some of my American friends whom I had met and built solid friendships with. Seeing them leave in an abrupt manner and knowing it was probably the last time for me to see them, deeply saddened me. This was my final year at USI, as well as some of my friends who left too.
Hortensia: I felt sad and melancholic. Suddenly the campus became the loneliest place in the world. However, it got worse for me because many of my international friends had to return home. (For many of them, it was their only opportunity to fly, so even if they wanted to stay, it was an impossible situation.) Students who were leaving were going to see their families, but for me it was about seeing fewer people on campus, not being able to see my family and feeling that everything was uncertain.
Nohemi: It was an interesting week, mostly because people were leaving campus early and all of a sudden. I was ok until I started seeing posts on social media from friends that were very affected, and I felt sorry for them and just prayed that things would work out for them. I felt sad for them but blessed that I was permitted to stay on campus.
Mara: At the beginning we did not know what to think, we were really uncertain about our future at USI, but as the days went by, we realize we had a large support system at the University and a lot of people helped us through this transition. Knowing that, I felt more relief and just focused on finishing the semester strong.
Fatin: After the campus closed, I continued working on my thesis. Instead of spending my nights in the library, I adjusted to working from my apartment. It wasn’t easy because of the many distractions around. To manage stress, I sometimes went jogging on the trail [off] campus. I stayed connected socially by talking with my family and friends back home.
Hortensia: I had to realize that even though I could call anybody, nobody was going to come and be with me. So, I pushed myself to change the uncertain time into the most successful one. I had classes, called my family, cooked the food I liked, and I found ways to entertain myself and feel happy. For example, I bought some puzzles, got some plants and watered them every day, and started to practice yoga. Trust me, there were days that I didn’t have time to finish everything on my list because I was busy taking advantage of my day.
Nohemi: I would say that it was not such a big deal. I am a very go-with-the-flow and patient person. But it affected me in that I was not able to work. I was a bit sad that I could not use the buildings, since sometimes it gets a little boring to stay in my apartment all the time. Thank God I was able to go for short walks by the apartments and breath fresh air.
Mara: The International Office and Dr. Rochon (we like to call him “Baba”) have been such a great support for all of us. The International Office arranged buses for us to go to Walmart to buy groceries, and came up with activities to keep us occupied, such as gardening and baking.
Fatin: The University has supported me and many other students by allowing us to stay on campus during this difficult time. Not only did the University leadership allow us to be here but they made sure every weekend that we had food. They checked on us daily, making sure we had everything we needed. I know that this was not the case in many other universities across the United States because I have friends at different universities throughout the country. I know we were lucky to be at USI and we are grateful.
Hortensia: I should say USI has the best president, but also the best staff. When the University closed, the support from every department was tremendous. I remember that every night we (international student on campus) would have an online meeting with someone from a different department, for example, Public Safety, Health Center, Housing and Counseling Center. In all those meetings Heidi and Dr. Rochon were present. The goal of those meetings was to make sure that the students on campus were safe, and whoever needed to come to campus be safe.
Nohemi: The University has been doing a great job since the first day. Dr Rochon and Heidi Gregori-Gahan have made sure we have what we need and are always concerned about our situation. A Quarantine Café was installed in the Townsend building, every Saturday Dr. Rochon and Heidi fed us and brought some groceries. The Health Center offered help and interest in our well-being, and the Housing staff looks after us too. Having Dr Rochon as our president made me feel at home during this time; I cannot emphasize that enough.
Mara: The hardest for me during this time has been being away from my family. I see how my friends are spending more time with their families during this quarantine, doing fun activities like baking, playing, watching movies and I wished I could do the same things with them.
Fatin: One of the most difficult things for me was not having access to the library. I get easily distracted in my apartment. The library was the place for me to go and focus on my schoolwork.
Hortensia: The most difficult thing has been being away from my family. These are times when we want to be together, and we want to feel supported Being in the middle of a pandemic, not knowing what is going to happen next, was terrifying.
Nohemi: I would say, not having a job. I do not depend on my parents or family financially, rather I help my father financially. I think having that responsibility and not being able to do much has truly been difficult.
Mara: One of the positive things about the campus closing was being able to connect more with all of the other international students. We really bonded with each other; going through the same process and having all their support was a big help. It was sad to see them return to their countries [at the end of the semester].
Fatin: The most positive thing for me was being able to complete my degree program despite the pandemic and these unforeseen circumstances. I saw the challenges as hurdles detouring me from reaching my destination. But I overcame them one at a time and completed my program as I originally set out to do. It wasn’t easy, but I’m proud to say I now have a Master of Public Administration.
Hortensia: I learned to become positive in difficult times. I knew I was going to be alone for a long time and staying at my bed 24 hours a day was not going to be helpful. I changed my mind and challenged myself to be better.
Nohemi: I think the most positive thing during this time, was that I made a lot of friends in the First Love church family. I have friends in Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Missouri, Minnesota, Tennessee and other states—all students studying in different universities. Also, many do not believe me, but every week I have Zoom meetings, prayer meetings, Bible studies, gatherings, not to mention that on Sundays, I am at church from 7 a.m. to 3 p.ml, sometimes 4 p.m., which would not be possible if this situation did not happen. I have made a lot of connections during this time and I really appreciate and thank God for them. I indeed went through a lot of new experiences and developed new amazing skills.
Mara: How uncertain the world is and how fragile we are we as humans.
Fatin: The social skills, empathy, respect and acceptance of our differences made me grow culturally and individually. I realized that I was capable of more than I thought. Coming from a French-speaking country and being able to write a 78-page thesis was a great accomplishment. At times I doubted I could complete it, but by dint of perseverance I made it happen. As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s always a way.”
Hortensia: There are always going to be barriers and difficulties in my studies, but it is up to me to overcome them and become a better student.
Nohemi: That no matter what happens I still need to continue learning and acquiring new knowledge and skills in my field. I also learned that I do not have to conform to what I am studying but find strategies to build new skills as the world changes and enters a new normal. I came to the U.S. to study and get a good education in a field that will allow me to help society.