In March of 2020, the first COVID-19 cases were reported in America, and the lives of Western Illinois University students changed drastically. From seeing the Macomb Walmart instantly sell out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer to adjusting to a class schedule that was suddenly 100 percent online, virtually all aspects of student life changed in some way. Many students opted to move home for the remainder of the semester, while other students adapted to living on campus despite the closure of all non-residence life buildings.
When in-person classes resumed in the fall, students were given the choice between staying home and completing coursework virtually or coming to campus and participating in a hybrid model, with some classes fully online, others fully in person and some a mix between the two methods. All classes were strictly socially distanced, and many adapted to new locations such as in residence halls, University Union, and even outdoors. The reopening of North Quad as an isolation/quarantine residence center changed student life in many ways, as students with exposures or positive COVID-19 tests were immediately moved into a private room in Bayliss Hall. Although we currently have no active residential cases on campus, this procedure is still in place if we are to see positive COVID-19 tests for students living on campus later this semester.
Many students experience feelings of reflection as they look back on their full year living through a global pandemic. Phrases such as “new normal,” “unprecedented times” and “online learning” have become commonplace around the world. Over the past year, every student has experienced unique challenges and changes that were likely not an expected part of their college experience. According to graduate student Jesse Mercer, “Learning to adapt to this new normal has been difficult, but it has also been an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our mental and physical health needs.” Because COVID-19 has created a widespread lifestyle change, it has opened up many conversations about topics such as health, wellness and self-care. Students studying both virtually and in-person at WIU have advocated for themselves to other students, professors, family members and more, as many of these students have learned important life skills and lessons as a result of remote learning. By opening up these important conversations about prioritizing physical and mental needs, some changes in the university environment will long withstand the widespread virus and its implications. For example, the continuous sanitization of everything on campus, the normalization of students staying home when they are sick and the conversations that have opened up about burnout and mental health will likely remain important to the Western Illinois University community for many years.
The conversations about personal health brought up by Mercer are particularly important to students, but it is important to note that academic expectations did not slow down during this time. According to WIU sophomore Katelynn Paulen, “The year 2020 was difficult, because it forced me to live with myself and do a lot of self-reflecting, on top of being a student and making a challenging transition to online learning.” The compilation of focusing on self-reflection, growth, new living arrangements (as some students lived alone, moved back in with family, or other abnormal arrangements during the 2020 and 2021 years), social distancing, being infected with COVID-19 or concerns for family members and friends contracting the virus, and all other adjustments that students made as a result of COVID-19 were all in addition to their regular expectations of being a student. For many students, including Paulen, this was one of the biggest challenges of facing COVID-19 as a college student.
As students make these challenging accommodations, many have experienced a great deal of personal growth. According to WIU sophomore social work major Mya Mays, “Living in the world of COVID-19 is so awful, but all the time alone actually helped me to become more of the person I’ve always wanted to be. Maybe it’s because I’m becoming more mature with age, or maybe it’s because of the way things have been. But it’s been the best and worst year.” Mays describes an experience that many students have felt because of living in a world with COVID-19, as it has really forced students out of their comfort zones and caused them to question their personal development, which for many has led to positive lifestyle changes. As students reflect on their year living in a changed world, looking back on the losses and the challenges, as well as the personal growth and positive moments, it is clear that as vaccines become more widespread and restrictions loosen, this generation of students will never be the same.