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‘I Could See Everything Just Passing By.’ As Colleges Close Amid Coronavirus, Students’ Dreams Are Put On Hold — Perhaps Forever

7 minute read

Track and field athlete Petronela Simiuc doesn’t like to call her training a “sacrifice,” but it’s been exactly that. The 25-year-old University of Toledo graduate student largely gave up her social life to train twice a day and push herself to set new personal records. That kind of commitment helped her become one of just 16 athletes to qualify for the one-mile race at the 2020 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships.

But after she arrived at the track to prepare for the championship races on March 12, her coach told her that the whole competition was cancelled. It had become just one of the thousands of events nixed or postponed to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“I couldn’t process the possibility that they could cancel the whole competition, so I wasn’t ready. Actually getting the news while I was on the track was heartbreaking,” says Simiuc, who dreams of becoming a professional runner and representing her country of Romania in the Olympics. “I’m not a very emotional person. But this time I started crying. I could see everything just passing — all my dreams, all my goals. All my tactics. Everything just passing by.”

Simiuc is just one of thousands of college and graduate students across the country and the world whose dreams are suddenly and drastically being upended by the COVID-19 outbreak. As universities and colleges close dorms, switch to remote learning and cancel all manner of extracurricular activities, students are coming to terms with a decidedly bleak future — one without nights out with friends, championship games, study abroad opportunities and, for many, even hard-earned graduation ceremonies.

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For some, the situation is far more dire. Many college students depend on normal campus operations for their basic needs, from housing to access to food. As schools shut down, these students are left scrambling to find alternatives that may not exist.

“There’s a certain amount of security when you know where you’re going to sleep at night. This is tense,” says Anastasia Lee, a 23-year-old senior at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. Lee, who has endured chronic homelessness, isn’t sure what she would do if she was kicked out of her dorm. She depends on income from her professional singing career to make ends meet while at school, but the gigs have dried up as venues close and people stay home. “Everything has been such a mess,” she says.

Lee recently found out that St. Norbert will let her stay on campus for the foreseeable future. But she has other worries, too. She depends on food stamps, but they’re difficult to use when the basic items they cover, like bread, are consistently cleared out by panic-buyers. Furthermore, Lee struggles with chronic health issues, and she fears she’s more vulnerable than others her age to the virus.

Many other college students are in a similar situation as Lee, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. “When you see something like this, that causes a closure, and they say ‘go home,’ you begin to really expose the extent to which many students don’t either have the money to go home, or they don’t have a place to go home to,” she says.

The Hope Center’s 2019 survey of 86,000 students at two- and four-year colleges found that 42% percent were food insecure, 46% were housing insecure, and 12% were homeless. All of these students will be at risk as schools close or consider closing student housing, campus food pantries, dining halls, and other on-campus resources, like counseling. Even when things return to normal, students in precarious positions may not come back to finish their educations, forever disrupting their lives. Lee, for instance, depends on a scholarship, but it only covers eight semesters, and if she falls behind, she may never finish.

“I think it’s entirely possible that two or three million of these people never come back,” says Goldrick-Rab. “They are now out of college, their debt’s going to be collected on, and they’re going to have some college and no degree. That is such an economic risk for them.”

Goldrick-Rab warns that some of the most vulnerable students are also parents or caregivers, many of whom will be left in the lurch as daycares and elementary schools across the country close. About one in five of undergraduate students are parents, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research analysis of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

Juliana Barton, a 33-year-old senior and former foster youth, is the sole caregiver for her adult biological sister. Barton, who has had to drop out twice already due to financial concerns and to help her sister, says she’s the “closest [she’s] ever been” to fulfilling her dream of graduating from college and applying to medical school. But the COVID-19 pandemic could change things.

“As all of this is going on, I’m facing this risk — I’m her caregiver,” says Barton, whose sister is immunocompromised, chronically ill and mentally impaired due to a delay in her cancer treatment. “Will I pass this virus to her? That will have major repercussions for her health. But even, let’s say I do become infected and I manage not to spread it to her. Then the issue becomes, there’s no one else to care for her. Because we don’t have a support system.”

“I had to choose between pursuing my education and taking care of her, and taking care of her was my priority,” she adds. “So I left school. And if something like that were to happen again, if she were to get sick again, I would be faced with that same decision.”

Students are struggling in other ways, too. Nicolle Valladares, a first-generation sophomore at Boston University, says that she has both financial and academic concerns now that her school has asked students to try to vacate their dorms and take their classes online. Valladeres is no longer able to work her on-campus jobs, and her expenses have mounted since she moved back to her parents’ home in Virginia. The cost of food, utilities and transportation are more expensive for the family while she’s at home, and paying for unexpected flights back and forth from Boston was a financial strain for them as well, says Valladares.

At the same time, Valladares says, her ADHD has made it more difficult to concentrate in online classes compared to in-person lectures. While she was at school, her friends and roommates helped hold her accountable by organizing group homework sessions. But she says her parents, who did not graduate from college, don’t seem to understand that college requires work outside of class. They expect her to help with housework, too.

“Doing online classes is just going to be so tough,” says Valladares. “I can have three tabs open, I can be on my phone. Or if they’re just recording the lectures, I can just not watch them. It’s going to be very hard for me to do my regular Boston schedule.

Despite the obstacles, many students already have their sights trained on the days when they return to campus. Simiuc, for one, is set to graduate at the end of this semester, but she plans to reenroll to get back to training with the track and field coaches. But to compete in the NCAA tournament, she will need to qualify all over again. “I was so ready for it, and I know I will never have a chance to reproduce this,” she says.

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