“No one said college was easy, especially living in a pandemic where hugs are a weapon and a mask is the difference between life and death. I hate it. I hate that there was a possibility of this never occurring. Week 1 down. Online College: 1 Franny: 0. Content: doable; Motivation: non-existent.”
So wrote Frances R. in one of her contributions to a new book, There Is No College in COVID: Selections From the Oregon State University–Cascades Student Journaling Project (Parafine Press). The book consists of a curated collection of journal entries from first-year students at OSU-Cascades enrolled in a fall 2020 academic success course designed to help ease the transition to college.
Jenna Goldsmith, the professor of the course, assigned students to write two journal entries per week, of any length, about their experiences as college students during a global pandemic, and to choose a selection of their entries to appear in the book.
Together the entries paint a picture of students transitioning to a college experience that was unlike what they had imagined.
“There really is no college in COVID-19. It may still exist in some reduced form, but it isn’t truly a college,” Spencer V. wrote in an entry from which the book’s title is taken. “Something is wrong. You can just feel it in class, when you go to get your food, when you try to fall asleep at night. It feels like a hastily cobbled facsimile.”
Students wrote about the 2020 U.S. presidential election, about the wildfires raging across the west, about pandemic lockdowns.
“I cannot lose my job right now,” wrote Lucy F, who noted that her job was at risk if a two-week shutdown on businesses was extended.
The students also wrote about loss.
“I attended my grandfather’s funeral this week. He died of the virus. No comment,” wrote Susan G.
“I miss you Abuelo./It sucks you left us this way./At the hands of this virus,” Gulian C. wrote in an entry titled “COVID-19 Poem.”
The entries ran the gamut and touched on everything from frustration with lax adherence to public health measures to the stresses of undergoing COVID testing and fears of getting sick to internal debates about whether to travel home for Thanksgiving. The students chronicled their feelings of isolation and claustrophobia, lamented what might have been, and imagined what might yet be.
Their entries consist of a mix of pathos and humor, cheeky at times, sincere at others, finding joys in small pleasures—among them a “Purple Dinosaur off the secret menu” at Jamba Juice—and chronicling the frustrations of pandemic life.
“I went swimming this morning and after I got out, I went to walk into the building and had to stop really hard at the door and dig through the pocket of my bag to grab my mask and I got the string caught on the pop socket on my phone and almost flung it on the concrete,” wrote Alexandria M. “But thank goodness I managed to get it on my wet face and #SaveLives.”
The book was funded with a grant from Oregon State University Women’s Giving Circle, and all proceeds will go toward OSU-Cascades scholarships. Goldsmith said she did some light editing for clarity but the entries are otherwise true to the students’ own voices. She made the editorial decision to identify students by their first names and last initial only.
“I wanted the students to be able to recognize themselves in their work without necessarily being recognizable to the world,” she said.
Goldsmith, who left OSU-Cascades for Illinois State University, where she is the assistant director of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, never met the students whose voices she published in person. All the interactions for the course were via Zoom.
“When I was originally conceiving of this project for students, it pretty much occurred to me right away that I wanted to create something that the students could have for themselves beyond the class,” she said. “Thinking back on my own college experience, I knew that I would not have kept or known to keep any kinds of journals or writings from my first year in college even if I would have thought at the time, ‘I’ll probably want to look back on this when I get older.’”
Anya Rozek, an elementary education major at OSU-Cascades and contributor to the book, said she enjoyed the class and the experience of writing about her first term in college. Among her contributions was an Oct. 1, 2020, entry that states, “2020 is a dumpster fire. No amount of water can put it out.” Another entry of hers, from Oct. 11, 2020, reads, in part, “Weighted blankets and lots of ice cream will get me through college.”
“When I’m thinking about the first term, I think there was for me personally loss and confusion,” Rozek said. “I felt like there was a little bit of lack of support, almost. We didn’t have the normal freshman college experiences. There was a lack of meeting professors face-to-face and meeting other students and being able to see their faces on Zoom. It was hard, too, because not everyone was able to turn on their cameras or wanted to for many different reasons. It was hard to find support and to meet people.”
Wyatt Didway, who is pursuing an outdoor products major at OSU-Cascades and also contributed to the book, recalled the isolation of the first term, arriving at college, where he didn’t know anyone, and living in a dorm room with no roommate. His resident adviser instituted “open-door Tuesdays” to encourage residents to interact.
“I found a group just by walking around on one of these Tuesdays,” Didway said. “It was really rare that you could really meet anyone even if those people were your classmates or were going through the same thing. It was hard to reach them. Everyone had a shut door, and it was really hard to find opportunities where they were open.
“I definitely do think we had a lot to learn from it,” he said of the experience. “There’s a lot of discussion to be had on the isolation a lot of students went through.”