With the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) decision to cancel in-person classes for the remainder of the spring semester due to the widespread coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, students, faculty and staff are expected to switch to a strictly virtual method of learning to finish out the academic year.
For members of UNH’s senior class, however, a newer reality emerges amongst those already grown from the global coronavirus pandemic: The loss of the remainder of their final semester on campus as undergraduate students.
Per the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of mid-day on Thursday, March 19, there were 10,442 reported cases of COVID-19 in the country, spanning all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three of the nation’s territories (Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands). As a result of the spreading virus, the CDC reported that 150 people have died, prompting individual state authorities to enact curfews and cultural shutdowns in recent days to help limit the virus’ spread.
In his email to the UNH community on Wednesday evening, March 18 announcing in-person class cancellation, UNH President James W. Dean Jr. referenced COVID-19’s continued rampage throughout the nation but maintained that prioritizing public health is the main focus.
“We made this decision to significantly reduce the population density of our campuses and the towns and cities our campuses are located in, as a preventive measure to enable more social distancing at a time when many new infections and even deaths are being reported daily. While we regret the inconvenience and lack of on-campus life for our students this will cause, the health and safety of our community must come first,” Dean wrote.
As a result, seniors on the UNH-Durham’s campus are thrown into an earlier than anticipated bout of self-reflection and a state of confusion, their final months on campus stripped away as a result of COVID-19.
Hannah Machado, a senior political science, International Affairs and Italian Studies triple major, is proud of the experience she was able to give herself despite such an abrupt ending.
“Like most students, I call UNH home so it really doesn’t feel real that I had to say goodbye so abruptly and without the closure that comes with graduation. I’m going to especially miss being so close to my friends and being involved in the UNH community,” she said. “I really just feel so lucky to have had such a wholesome experience. Having opportunities like being an RA, an orientation leader, a tour guide, studying abroad, being involved with the Italian department, etc., have all led me to find all the people and things I love.”
Despite the continuous reports of growing confirmed cases and the magnitude of the situation, Machado acknowledged that constant communication between loved ones can minimize festering uncertainty.
“I also think this is an important time to be extra vigilant about reaching out to friends and loved ones as this can feel very anxiety-inducing, lonely, and isolating,” she added.
Abigail Fisher, a senior history and philosophy dual major, is pained over the university’s decision but feels that the only way to move forward is through acceptance.
“I get frustrated when I see people blaming administration because I think everyone is trying their best to make decisions that are best for everyone and they aren’t decisions that were made easily, I’m sure. There’s always room to criticize but I think right now everyone needs to practice heightened empathy. Truthfully, I think deep down we all could have expected this decision to be made, but hearing it still hurt. My quarantined friends and I still cried. There just was no way to prepare and now we all just need to sit in our feelings and embrace it,” she said.
Fisher stated that, when she looks back on her senior year at UNH, she is going to remember the last weekend before the university spring break period when all of her friends, many of whom were all from different social circles, were together at her best friends’ apartment for a night of impromptu singing, dancing and comfort in the presence of one another.
“People from classes and jobs, my friends from freshman year, former residents and friends of friends all started to know and love each other, too. No one specific memory made this year special; it was that unique feeling of all coming together that brought me so much joy this year,” she said.
Additionally, she has appreciated the efforts of UNH’s administration to look out for the well-being of the university community amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I hope the university is hyper-aware of students’ financial concerns. The fact that school serves as a sanctuary for so many people and now we’re all being forced back into whatever home life we have, that can be scary for some,” she added. “I think between administration, Residential Life, Housing, Dining, PACS and beyond, students’ health and well-being is being looked after fairly effectively and thoroughly right now. I hope they continue to do so.”
Shadi Zamani, a senior chemical engineering student from Iran, is stressed not just with the suspension of the rest in-person classes but also what it means for her to go back to her roots in the future.
“My country is also hit by the virus seriously and new cases are increasing every day. Plus, Iran is under sanctions by the United States and there is not enough medical equipment for the hospitals to cure patients that are affected by the virus. There are around 1000-2000 new cases every day and going back is not safe for me,” she said.
Additionally, Zamani’s inspiring academic and extracurricular journey helped her to be named a Create Your Own Story recipient by UNH’s Memorial Union & Student Activities staff for the 2019-20 academic year. The ceremony was to be held on Friday, April 17- a special moment that won’t come to fruition due to the extenuating circumstances for her and the other nine student recipients.
“This is a heartbreaking situation for me, however I know this is for everyone’s safety,” she said.
Alvin Lagu, a senior electrical engineering student from Indonesia, supports the university’s decision but is uncertain about his status of living on campus for the coming months.
“If I, let’s say, was not approved to live on-campus for the remainder of the semester, I would have to go back to Indonesia or live with my sister in Oregon. This would be something I would not want since traveling out of state or (within the) country would increase the risk of being exposed to COVID-19,” he said. “In terms of plans for the future, I am still deciding on what I will do in the summer but I am looking forward to start my graduate school in September.”
A surely gratifying moment of completion that Lagu will no longer be able to work toward is the finalizing of his major’s senior project, one that he has worked tirelessly on and lost hours of sleep over.
“I will definitely miss my late-night studying and working on my senior project in Kingsbury. Because of what’s happening I will not be able to finish my senior project since it’s not possible for me to do it in a non-face-to-face environment,” he added.
Kyle Kodzis, a senior recreation management and policy major, had been self-quarantining in his Madbury Commons apartment when he received President Dean’s email containing the news. Since then, like many, he has struggled to come to terms with the scope of the situation.
“When I got the email regarding the situation, I was upset a bit. Honestly, it was like having a door being slammed in your face. While I had a gut feeling this was going to happen, the realization of so many opportunities gone was what hit me the hardest,” he said. “Seeing friends having to leave campus and coming to terms that you won’t have closure here is tough.”
With reality setting in, Kodzis noted that he worries about whether or not the senior class will be able to celebrate commencement. In keeping with the CDC’s recommendation of no large gatherings of 50 or more people for at least the next two months, colleges and universities across the country have either cancelled or postponed their commencement ceremonies.
“I trust the university will do the best for the population of the university and the surrounding area. However, I feel the university should be diligent in figuring out a way to help the seniors through this problem. Hopefully, this pandemic will slow down, and we get to do commencement, but I’m worried the university will end this chapter with just this, and leave the class of 2020 behind to figure it out for ourselves,” said Kodzis.
Kodzis’ roommate and good friend, senior finance major Chad Supranowicz, echoed similar sentiments.
“I think what the University is doing right now is certainly in the best interest of the students, faculty, and community, but hopefully the Class of 2020 will be able to enjoy commencement, at the very least. I’m hoping that everything will be back to normal for the sake of everyone who will still be here by the time the fall rolls around,” he said.
For Supranowicz, the thought of losing easy access to his closest campus relationships so suddenly is an unsettling one.
“The thing I am going to miss the most is definitely the people. Many of the bonds I have formed at UNH will last a lifetime, but so many people will be moving away post-graduation, making it impossible to see them on a regular basis,” he said.
The class of 2020, the 150th graduating class in the university’s history, is scheduled to have its commencement ceremony take place on Saturday, May 16 at 9:40 a.m. With the spread of COVID-19 keeping large crowds from gathering indefinitely, it is currently unknown what the status of the ceremony will be.
In his email announcement on Wednesday evening, President Dean briefly addressed the concerns over the potential of such a ceremony taking place.
“UNH is reviewing contingency plans for university events and activities with health and safety as the top priority. No decision has been made yet,” he wrote.
On Thursday, UNH students created a petition via change.org, a petition-creating website, asking administration to strongly consider the possibility of postponing the commencement ceremony rather than potentially canceling it. The petition, titled “To NOT Cancel UNH 2020 Commencement, Postpone if Needed,” had over 1700 signatures at the time of this publication.
“Some people have been joking about the possibility of a virtual graduation – how could this ever replace the physical ceremony where sheer excitement and relief are palpable in the air? Commencement is not something that we can log into and view from a screen. This could never replace something people wait their whole lives for. Imagine not being able to have your cap, gown, and sorority/fraternity stoles or honors cords or another form of regalia. How could we accept a replacement that takes all these things away?” the petition states.
University administration has set up a Student Emergency Fund to accommodate students in need during this time. Additionally, continued updates and more information on the COVID-19 pandemic relative to the UNH community can be found on the university’s website.