Aliyah Edmonds was in the middle of doing homework, adjusting to her new online class schedule when she found a new email in her inbox. The email was from the Associate Dean of Advancement James Lambert, and it held a message from Chancellor Jeb Spaulding of the Vermont State Colleges System.
One of the subheads read in bold, underlined lettering, “Remote instruction to continue through end of semester.” Less than 30 minutes later an email from Castleton University President Karen Scolforo came through expressing her sorrow to the student body.
That’s when Edmonds, a senior in her final semester, read that her commencement ceremony was going to be postponed until the spring of 2021.
Tears began to fall from her eyes.
“I read that email over and over again because I didn’t believe it,” she said. “It felt unreal.”
Edmonds is one of many seniors who won’t be able to walk across that stage and accept diplomas on May 16. There was one word that was echoed by members of the senior class.
“This year has not gone as planned. I thought I was going to get all the things I looked forward to: award ceremonies, campus events, a graduation ceremony. But most importantly two more months of those little moments with the people that have become my family at CU,” said senior Max Tempel.
Professors were told to transition to online instruction after Friday, March 13 while residential students were strongly encouraged to return home Sunday, March 15. Students and faculty alike have found themselves having to adjust to life outside of the confines of the university’s campus.
Student Wellness Task Force steps up
According to members of Castleton’s Student Wellness Task Force over the past few weeks students have expressed their concerns on a number of issues regarding the transition to online learning.
The online course load.
The lack of human interaction
“Some students are really feeling a lot of anxiety about this new way of learning, and the new technology and not being in a classroom,” said Victoria Angis, the chair of the Student Wellness Task Force. Angis also mentioned that the Academic Support Center is trying to reach out to students who are struggling with the transition into online learning.
The task force is made up of five community members, two faculty members, two students, and about 14 staff members. “It’s a really representative group,” Angis said.
One of the community members is Castleton Police Chief Peter Mantello. He was motivated to join the task force because as an alumnus he wanted to reach the students.
“My biggest motivation was to establish a compassionate response…to develop relationships,” he said.
The task force’s mission is to, “increase collaboration and awareness among campus and community partners to develop and sustain a university culture that supports multi-dimensional wellness, including its essential role in achieving academic success.” The board also works to get students to make the right decisions in terms of their own wellness and the wellness of others.
Martha Coulter, the director of the Wellness Center and a member of the task force said that students are hoping for more interaction with fellow students and faculty, but they are also eager to participate in clubs.
Allison Andrade, one of the student members of the task force and president of Castleton’s Active Minds Club, has started holding club meetings over Zoom.
“I wasn’t sure at first what to do with Active Minds,” she said. “But I think it’s just good to see people, on a screen, that you know from college and you can talk because you’re all going through the same thing.”
Andrade went on to say that she aims to make Active Minds a support group.
“Human interaction is so important at times like this,” she said.
Wellness Center still putting in work for students
Coulter has held meetings with the Student Support Network and started a group chat through Zoom for students.
“What came through loud and clear in the task force and in these groups was that students really are craving connection, face-to-face connection,” she said.
The Wellness Center has increased its presence on social media as well. Its Facebook page contains many resources to help students during this difficult time: including news articles related to Covid-19, inspirational and motivational quotes and ways to prevent loneliness while practicing social distancing.
“Facebook allows us to more quickly pick up on something that’s available right away,” Coulter said. “We try to really vet the information we put up there.”
The Wellness Center is also on Instagram, and Coulter said that she hopes to extend its reach on Twitter as well.
Counseling services are also continuing through Zoom.
“Students aren’t feeling like they’re losing a lot of that intimacy with their counselor,” Coulter said. “The counselor sets up the Zoom appointment once the students say ‘what’s a good time for me? Would I rather work with a male, female, or someone in particular?’”
While Angis and Coulter brought to light all of the resources that the task force and the Wellness Center are going to be providing to the students during this time, there was one thing that they believe students could be doing to get through these times.
“Get outside, that’s what I would practice,” Angis said.
Papa Patry deals with life without students
Matt Patry’s office sits in the Student Government Association wing of the Campus Center. His door is almost always open for students to walk in with any questions, concerns or just to strike up a conversation. Patry has signed memorabilia hanging up on all four walls from some of his favorite television shows, including “Star Trek” and “Dr. Who”.
He also has candy on his desk for students to enjoy.
Prior to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s stay at home order, Patry was still going into work, sitting behind his desk and trying to find out what the students of Castleton need and want.
But the usually busy, student-heavy Student Government office was empty. There was no one to talk to or hear from.
“When I was there for those three days by myself, I was the only person on my floor,” Patry said. “It was kind of eerie how quiet it was. Even during the summer it’s more active.”
Patry, known as Papa Patry to many students, is the director of Student Activities and the advisor for the Student Government.
“I thrive off of being around you guys,” he said in reference to the students.
Even without students, Patry was busy finding ways to make a difference for the students and the community. He organized an emergency “Pop up Food Pantry” for students still on campus or living in the surrounding areas.
“A lot of these students had already paid their rent, so they were staying in their apartments, but they had lost their jobs and didn’t have money to buy groceries,” he said.
Patry started out with seven tables filled with food donated by the faculty and staff of the university. He was overjoyed with the amount of support.
“I shouldn’t have been surprised because it’s such the Castleton Way,” he said. “We even had one staff member who came in with a bag full of canned cat food.”
Patry said that two young men walked in and were thrilled with the inclusion of the cat food.
“Our cat is going to be so excited,” he recalled them say.
Seniors cope with campus life coming to a close, commencement postponement
The reaction from students when the news broke that the remainder of the semester would take place online and that the 2020 Commencement was going to be pushed back a year varied. Some were upset and found themselves crying at first, while others are a mixture of angry and upset.
“I’m still annoyed about it now,” said senior Meranda Allen. “But mostly I’m just sad because I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone.”
There are those who feel that there are better ways to go about rescheduling commencement. Edmonds was in a commencement team meeting with her fellow class officers to discuss the options on the table.
“The team and I came up with a lot of other options that would be better choices because we didn’t like the idea of pushing it a whole year,” she said. “Making people wait a whole year for something they might have taken four or five years to finish isn’t fair.”
Senior Kendra Ross found herself fighting tears, not being able to finish reading the email that delivered the news.
“I broke down,” she said.
Seniors are not the only students dealing with struggles though. Many students have been trying to adjust to online learning and create new schedules for themselves.
Andrade, a sophomore, finds herself sitting on the floor in her room next to her bed for the majority of the day trying to get her schoolwork done.
“It takes me about an hour, hour-and-a-half to finish a 30-minute lecture and take adequate notes, take the post-lecture quiz,” she said.
Writing long, detailed to-do lists has helped Andrade stay on track with her course work, but she still struggles finding time to do the things she enjoys.
“I can’t have Allison time until it’s all done. I need to finish it and then I don’t have to worry about it,” she said with a sigh.
Some students are staying optimistic during these difficult times. Tempel recently started a fitness page on Instagram called “GET GET FITNESS.”
“I’ve been putting a lot of energy into my grind. Just trying to continue to better myself, especially my mindset,” he said.
While Allen is upset about commencement being postponed, she thinks that there are still ways to have fun and celebrate your accomplishments.
“Take your own graduation photos, get all dressed up in the cap and gown,” she said. “I think I might be doing that, just to have some fun.”
Many students are finding themselves stuck in their homes, not being able to see the friends that they not long ago woke up daily knowing they would see walking around Castleton’s campus. Many students, however, stressed the importance of staying in contact with those friends, and maintaining those bonds.
“Anyone that you reach out to, everyone’s struggling through this, so everyone understands the feelings that you’re going through,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a professor, or just a fellow student or a friend. Everyone so far that I’ve experienced has been so helpful and so willing to just talk.”
Reilly Knipes, Student Government president and member of the senior class, says that she felt devastation when she received the news. But she has a message for all of her fellow seniors.
“Your degree is still valid, and your accomplishments are still huge even if we can’t recognize them right now,” she said.
Tempel said that he knows these moments have been taken away from the senior class, but he wants everyone to keep those connections that they have made throughout their time at Castleton.
“Just check in on each other and make the most out of the situation,” he said. “When all this boils down, get together and celebrate your accomplishments with one another.”