‘It just didn't feel real’: Seniors reflect on fundamental college experiences and opportunities lost to the pandemic

After two years of living with COVID-19, seniors recall their struggle with the online format of virtual learning and missing out on key experiences

‘It just didn't feel real’: Seniors reflect on fundamental college experiences and opportunities lost to the pandemic
Students flock to the quad in 80 degree weather on April 6.

In spring 2020, American University students were away vacationing on spring break when they suddenly found out about the shift to online learning. All classes were to be conducted over Zoom indefinitely, and students were expected to immediately vacate campus. 

As current seniors reflect on their time at AU, they shared the losses and unique experiences of having a majority of their college experiences interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s a reason that universities are in person in the first place, and there’s a reason that you live on campus and you have all of these resources available,” said Ariel Krysmalski, a senior in the School of International Service. “One of the big things is, it just didn’t feel real. The entire sort of college experience and my classes just didn’t feel real.”

While many seniors agreed with the University’s decision in the spring of 2020 to move online, they also felt that their education and wellbeing suffered under virtual learning. 

Krysmalski struggled with the online format and decided after experiencing the initial shift to virtual learning in the spring 2020 semester to only enroll part-time for the 2020-2021 academic year. Yet even under part-time enrollment, he found his courses to be difficult. 

“I would say I’m generally a fairly good student. I had made the Dean’s List the semester before all my classes [went online],” Krysmalski said. “Then I failed Chinese class the fall semester of last year and then I failed Philosophy spring semester of last year.”

Krysmalski ended up retaking and passing both of these classes when he returned to campus for the fall 2021 semester, but retaking these courses in addition to only enrolling part-time last year delayed his graduation by a semester. 

For some majors and fields of study, the move to online learning did not translate well for their courses. Sofia Husainy, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in neuroscience, felt that her science classes and labs did not adapt well to an online format.

“A lot of the information doesn’t translate well through Zoom and my labs were not labs,” Husainy said. “They were a joke.”

For Husainy, her struggle with her online classes took a toll on her mental health, and she lost motivation to even be on Zoom. Being online meant her grades suffered, she said.

“I’ve always had clinical depression and a general anxiety disorder, it’s just I never did anything about it and the pandemic and the school situation, it really brought that out,” Husainy said.

For some students, like Rae Puterbaugh, a senior in the School of Communication, classes last year did not pose as much of a challenge, but still had long-term consequences. 

“I think that the quality of education, it was easier last semester, but it was easier because our education was suffering because of it,” Puterbaugh said. “I feel like I didn’t really learn anything during the pandemic. I feel like I was just going through the motions of learning.”

Krysmalski, like other students, found motivating himself during virtual learning last year to be particularly difficult. He said he would go to Don Myers Technology and Innovation building to study and stay there overnight when they locked the building, eating food from the vending machines. 

“But I just had a really hard time motivating myself and I had a hard time learning in general even though I was only part-time,” Krysmalski said.

Krysmalski also felt that he missed out on the typical experiences offered to upperclassmen by the University because of the pandemic. As an SIS student, he hoped to study abroad in Central America but didn’t get the chance to. 

He was also hoping to participate in an internship but struggled with applying for any during his junior year online. 

“I really didn’t want to get an internship that was also going to be online in addition to all my other stuff that’s online because I thought I’d do badly at that too,” Krysmalski said. “It’d just be another thing that would be hard for me.” 

Krysmalski did apply to a few online, government-related internships. However, he said that these internships were overloaded with applicants, which made internships increasingly competitive and difficult to attain.  

“Instead of competing with people from the DMV, which is what would usually happen for that kind of internship, all of a sudden I was competing with anyone who wanted to apply online,” Krysmalski said. 

Interaction with the AU community is also something that seniors felt they were deprived of during the pandemic. 

“I feel like I missed out on half of what I should have been experiencing in college,” Puterbaugh said. “I feel like my personal on-campus ex perience, like meeting new people every day, seeing all my friends on campus and everything, being a part of the AU community, that was kind of robbed from us.”

Husainy felt similarly. 

“Being in college, a huge part of that is you really learn about yourself in your interactions with people, being in classrooms, being in clubs, being on campus,” Husainy said. “And not being able to have that, you kind of really lose that part.”

In particular, Husainy said that her extracurricular activities suffered last year. Husainy is a member of AU in Motion and was the president of American University Rotaract, a community service and professional development organization on campus. While AU in Motion was able to pull off several virtual performances last year, Rotaract has not been as active. 

“The pandemic really destroyed that club, so we’re working on reviving it,” Husainy said. 

Despite the hardships of virtual learning, many seniors feel that AU has had a good overall response to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Puterbaugh praised the University’s response to masking and the on-campus testing clinic

However, Puterbaugh and Krysmalski didn’t feel that the quality of their education was reflected accurately in the tuition charged, despite there being a 10 percent discount on tuition last year, and that tuition should’ve been further lowered. Puterbaugh said she understood that there were University financial losses, but college students experienced losses as well. 

Husainy also said it was hard for upperclassmen to be held to the same academic standards of in-person learning during virtual learning and to meet the University’s high expectations of upperclassmen.

“With this pandemic and with AU being a very naturally competitive and rigorous school, it put a ton of pressure on upperclassmen,” Husainy said. “So it was just I think very very difficult for us because I feel like a lot of people probably lost sight in wanting to go to school and wanting to further their education for their own personal growth.” 


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.