Student experiences during the age of coronavirus

“There was this overarching sense of anxiety that there was nothing I could do to stop this disease”

Student experiences during the age of coronavirus

Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's March 2021 virtual print edition.

Robyn Walters was enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime trip with her mother in Greece last spring while she was studying abroad. It was the first time either of them traveled outside the U.S. But, panic soon set in when Former President Donald Trump announced that borders into the U.S. would close just a few days before her mother was to return home.

“I woke up and my mom was gone and I called her and I’m like ‘where are you?’” Walters said. “She’s like, ‘I’m at the United States Embassy. I’m trying to figure out what Donald Trump means if we need to leave tonight, or if we need to leave Monday. 

Walters said that the U.S. embassy told them to get back to the U.S. as soon as possible.Without many coronavirus restrictions on the flight, including not being asked about any symptoms when reentering the U.S., Walters and her mother were just happy to be home in time. But Walters soon came down with a bad cough and so did her mother, who worked three jobs at the time. Her mother tested positive for COVID-19.

Walters said because her mother is still experiencing lingering symptoms after one year, she had to quit two of those jobs.

Like Walters, now a year into the pandemic, students are still processing the loss of a large chunk of their college experience, what it was like to have COVID-19 and how life has changed since then. 

Since spring 2020, the University has tracked COVID-19 cases among American University community members, counting 92 cases in the spring 2021 semester as of March 15 and 41 in the fall 2020 semester. However, these numbers do not account for students outside of the District, and they fail to encapsulate the emotional and physical impact the pandemic has had on members of the AU community. 

Jamey Simpson, a sophomore in the School of Communication, contracted COVID-19 in late 2020 while helping his brother move out of his apartment in Albany, New York. With a fever of 102 degrees, he said that he was unable to get out of bed, and the short nights he did spend sleeping, he had to wake up every four hours to take fever-reducing medications. 

“There was this overarching sense of anxiety that there was nothing I could do to stop this disease,” Simpson said. “I was just at the mercy of COVID[-19]. ... For our age group, everyone says it’s unlikely that we’ll die. It may be unlikely, but it’s still a possibility. That fear of dying really came into play and that was something I had never felt before.”

Simpson said that both of his parents are older and may have underlying health conditions that could worsen the effects of infection. When they contracted COVID-19 soon after he did, he said that he feared his father’s asthma may complicate his symptoms. 

“That was really scary because that’s a big player in determining whether you’re going to die or not,” Simpson said. “It would’ve weighed really heavily on me if I had killed my parents because I got COVID[-19] even though I was trying to be as safe as possible.”

Moderate-to-severe asthma may put someone at a higher risk of developing severe illness from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Simpson and his parents recovered, but all three lost their sense of smell and taste. This was particularly frustrating, Simpson said because they had not recovered their senses until after they ate a tasteless Thanksgiving dinner. 

Stella Lynch, a junior in the School of Communication, had COVID-19, along with her parents, this past January. Lynch was asymptomatic but decided to get tested prior to traveling. 

Lynch said that testing positive was a wake-up call and drove her to reassess her situation. 

“Me and my friends in D.C. had to reevaluate our bubble and realize that the bubble doesn’t really exist, even though we all wanted to,” Lynch said. “It’s better to be locked down than to always be stressed about whether or not you could be sick.”   

Ella Yard, a freshman at AU, was presumed positive after both her parents tested positive this past December. The virus spread to her extended family members as well, and her uncle was hospitalized for a few weeks. Yard now lives off campus in D.C. 

Yard said that the pandemic has upended her freshman year experience, and, due to COVID-19, making friends has been a challenge. 

“I’m still glad that I’m in college and getting my degree, but my parents were like ‘oh college is gonna be the best four years of your life, you can do this and this,’ and it's completely different than what I thought it was going to be.” 

Some students who did not contract the virus themselves felt the effects of the pandemic –– stress, anxiety and fear –– in their households. Sophomore Allison Lipkin said when AU sent students home in March of 2020, she returned to her single-parent home in New Hampshire. Her mother, who works occupational therapy jobs, was furloughed from her position at a New Hampshire hospital. She had to take from her savings, Lipkin said, in an effort to make sure everything was paid for. 

“We had to be very conscious of what we were doing,” Lipkin said. “I remember [my mom] telling me that there were certain expenses that needed to be paid for school. ... So when my mom lost her job for a period of time, it was really stressful to think about how we were going to pay for the things I needed this semester.”

Lipkin’s mother returned to her hospital job in May. This brought on new stress, Lipkin said, that her mother would contract COVID-19 from the outbreaks in her unit. 

“My whole family has been working, so if she came home with COVID[-19], it would be a huge stress on all of our finances,” Lipkin said. “It would have had a chain effect.”

Despite hardships, Walters said she is trying to remain resilient and hopeful. Her parents were able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, and she said she isn’t taking much for granted anymore. 

“'I’m just trying to stay as positive as possible. Maybe in six months, things will be better,” Walters said. “I’ve got to think about that because if I don’t, I’ll get into a downward depression spiral thinking about how many people have died, how many months of my life I’ve just been at home when I could have been out celebrating life or doing all the fun things that I had planned.”

aveitch@theeagleonline.com, ssolano@theeagleonline.com 

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.

Coronavirus Project