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Kansas College Students Face Uncertainty In A World Changed By The Coronavirus

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Student dorms across Kansas, including at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, have emptied out. Students' classes have been fully online for weeks.

Kansas college students now sit in virtual classrooms, their daily lives disrupted as universities try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They're having to adjust to their new reality, and a possible shaky entry into the workforce.

A few weeks ago, University of Kansas senior Fatimah Alsinan was in a workshop finishing the last design and construction projects for her architecture degree.

Now, she’s meeting with classmates online, reviewing premade blueprints and building projects with K’Nex and Legos at her apartment.

“We don’t really have a clear idea of what [we are] doing in the future at all,” Alsinan said.

College students across Kansas and the rest of the nation are in a similar boat, trying to stay on track with classes while the COVID-19 outbreak brings everything to a halt.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued a statewide stay-at-home order at the end of March, coordinating social distancing efforts across each of the state’s 105 counties. She also ordered K-12 schools closed until at least next school year.

Courtesy of Fatimah Alsinan
Fatimah Alsinan is on a visa to study at the University of Kansas.

Kansas’ universities moved classes mostly online for the rest of the school year, and pushed graduation ceremonies, a celebratory cap on years of hard work, to the Internet or postponed them.

But attending a later graduation ceremony is simply not an option for many international students like Alsinan, who’s originally from Saudi Arabia.

“Maybe it makes sense for so many people because they live in the next state, or two states away. But I’m not gonna come from the other side of the world with my family to attend graduation for three days,” she said. “I’ll need to make a whole new visa to actually come.”

Students who’ll be at out-of-state grad schools by then, like Fort Hays State senior Kaytee Wisley, likely won’t get to walk across the stage for their big moment, either.

“I didn’t realize how much that that had meant to me until we got the email that it was going to be postponed or canceled,” Wisley said.

Courtesy of Kaytee Wisley
Kaytee Wisley's internship was cut short due to COVID-19 precautions. She'll be part of Fort Hays State's Class of 2020.

Wisley’s internship with the League of Women Voters of Kansas was cut short because of coronavirus shutdowns. She said the internship was integral to her plans after grad school, when she hopes to work for a nonprofit to advocate for voting rights.

Keeping the community

Many students, especially those from another country, are still separated from their family. Alsinan, who hasn’t been back to Saudi Arabia in nearly three years, has gotten used to not seeing them.

“The one thing that would make me miss my family more is that I can’t even see my friends,” she said.

It’s why some university officials are doing their part to make students feel supported and connected at a distance. Alicia Sanchez, director of Wichita State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said she has always aimed to make her office a “home away from home” for students. And even if COVID-19 is keeping students locked in their real homes, Sanchez said that effort has not stopped — only changed.

The office has taken to hosting video “webinars,” including one for Transgender Day of Visibility in March. It also plans to set up virtual office hours.

“One of the things in our physical space that we pride ourselves on is being able to provide connections,” Sanchez said. “We feel like this is really important right now, especially for students who might feel isolated or need an opportunity to connect and just step away from, ya know, their academics for a little bit and be able to engage with their peers.”

And business must go on, as Wisley learned. As a member of her school’s student government, the group had to have an emergency meeting to allocate 2020-21 student fees for campus organizations.

“We absolutely had to get those passed before we left or else — we didn’t know how to do that via Zoom,” she said.

‘Overcoming adversity’

Courtesy of Josh Wolf
Josh Wolf, who played trombone in K-State's marching band, will be trying to find a teaching job at the end of the semester.

Navigating video-conferencing software like Zoom is a major challenge in online learning, especially for students who don’t have high-speed internet at home. Universities are trying to help bridge that gap by providing them mobile hotspots.

Josh Wolf isn’t a professional educator just yet. The K-State senior is a student-teacher who’s been helping to create online coursework for a seventh grade social studies class at Eisenhower Middle School in Manhattan.

Needless to say, he’s had an unusual first teaching experience. But he said he thinks it’ll ultimately make him a better teacher.

“I don’t know necessarily if I’m ever gonna have to teach an online class again,” he said, “but I think the lessons to be learned about overcoming adversity in an education setting definitely is something valuable to me.”

As someone who’s preparing to enter the workforce, he said he has some anxiety. In March alone, nearly 10 million Americans filed for unemployment; Kansas reported a 1,000% increase in claims just in the third week of March.

But Wolf’s keeping a positive mindset, for himself and for his students.

“You know, even if it takes a little bit, even if it is a rough and a little bit of a scary period,” he said, “I know and I believe that ultimately we will overcome all of this.”

Daniel Caudill is a Statehouse intern for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @byDanielCaudill. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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