Johnson County natives forced home from college returning to uncertain futures

Students at the University of Kansas look forward to walking the hill on graduation day for years. But the prospect for the tradition taking place this year seem increasingly unlikely. Photo credit Lauren Cunningham. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Note: The Shawnee Mission Post is making all of its local coverage of the coronavirus pandemic accessible to non-subscribers. (If you value having a news source covering the situation in our community, we hope you’ll consider subscribing here).

For many college students, the past week has been a blur. Elizabeth Ballew, a freshman at the University of Missouri, was sitting with her friends at lunch last Wednesday, talking about the rumors that her school might switch to online classes.

“We were like, ‘There’s no way, that would be so crazy,’” Ballew said. “And then that night we got the email.”

She went home the next day. She isn’t planning to move back to campus this semester.

Most major universities in Kansas and Missouri have announced in recent days that classes would be delivered online for the rest of the semester, including the University of Kansas, the Kansas State University and the University of Missouri system. Johnson County Community College did the same.

Johnson County Community College closed its campus last week as efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus took shape in Johnson County and beyond. File photo.

The impact of these closures, short-term and long-term, is just starting to become clear to college students from Johnson County. From seniors missing their final hoorah to post-graduation plans and study abroad travels being disrupted, college students in Johnson County are doing their best to reckon with what their future looks like now that coronavirus has cut their semester short.

Senior Spring

As schools began to move online, one event’s cancellation hit seniors the hardest: graduation. While KU has yet to cancel theirs, seniors at K-State have been roiled by emotion since they learned they wouldn’t be able to partake in the momentous occasion.

“My brother, parents, cousins, aunt and uncles all graduated from Kansas State and walked across the stage — an experience and feeling I won’t be able to have,” said Hope Lancaster, a K-State senior. “This is a huge milestone in our lives, and unfortunately it’s taken away from us.”

On top of graduation, there’s a list of “lasts” that seniors like Lancaster won’t have a chance to experience. “I (am not going) to get my last sorority formal, my last senior dinner, and, most importantly, my last moments with my best friends that I met over the years, who do not live in my hometown,” she said.

But Lancaster and Addie Griffith, another K-State senior, said that they understand why the coronavirus pandemic calls for cancellations like this.

“After looking at…places that have been affected heavily, I can see why they’re doing it,” Griffith said. “This sucks, but it’s bigger than a graduation, it’s bigger than just a formal and a senior send-off.”

Meanwhile, Maddie Wilson, a senior at Emory University, has been trying to squeeze in hasty goodbyes to friends and quintessential senior traditions since her school asked all students to move out by March 22.

“We tried to schedule graduation pictures, but people either didn’t want to go out, or the weather wasn’t great, or people were just gone, so that didn’t happen,” Wilson said. Some of her friends, who live across the country in Florida and New Jersey, left rapidly out of concern that airports would begin to close.

“It honestly just doesn’t feel real,” she added.

Post graduation stress

In addition to missing out on senior spring traditions, many seniors are worried about how their post-graduation plans will hold up with an economy that’s grinding to a halt. Claire Schreiber, a senior at Colorado State University, is studying to be an environmental engineer. She was in the midst of the job search when her semester abruptly came to an end.

“I have had a couple interviews, but I’m really not very hopeful that a lot of whole job opportunities will be presented,” she said.

Natalie Kaufmann, a senior at Indiana University who wants to go into conservation work, is in a similar situation. Having just returned from New York, she’s confined to her home for 14 days of quarantine with plenty of times to start looking for jobs. However, she’s not sure what she’ll find.

“I’m sure the job market is freaking out,” she said. “I’m sure (I’ll) just have to be preparing to apply for jobs later, because I doubt anyone is taking anyone right now.”

Undergraduates with plans to attend grad school are also concerned about how the disruption could affect their application process. Drew Vander Leest, a junior at the University of Arkansas, was aiming to graduate early next December with a biology degree and apply to medical school. To do so, he was working on astrobiology research this semester and had plans to study abroad with a health-care program in Cyprus this summer, where he would earn nine credit hours towards his degree.

But the University of Arkansas is no longer allowing undergraduates to participate in research, and his summer program was canceled. Combined, that could hinder his plan to graduate early, and Vander Leest worries it will hurt his medical school application.

“A lot of things that I was depending on putting on my med school application, I can’t really do anymore,” Vander Leest said. “This definitely hurts my post-grad application cycle.”

Study Abroad Cut Short

Guanghao Yu, a junior at Williams College, had been studying classics firsthand in Italy when the spring semester began. Now, instead of lectures outside of the Colosseum, he’ll be getting instruction online. Photo courtesy Guangho Yu.

Throughout the past several weeks, many Johnson County college students who were studying abroad were forced to return to Kansas, and many of them put into quarantine, when their programs shut down.

Guanghao Yu, a junior at Williams College, is a Classics major who planned to spend his semester in Rome. His program, designed for students studying Latin culture, was centered around an experiential learning class that held its lectures in Rome’s various museums and ancient sites.

“So we (were) literally lecturing in front of the Colosseum,” Yu said. “We’ll be standing outside taking notes, getting to walk around it and go inside, to see the material and to see the construction and to see the history.”

Now, after being sent home and quarantining for two weeks, he’s taking these same classes online. Instead of exploring ancient ruins, he’ll see photos and videos.

“That’s a huge loss,” Yu said. “It’s nothing like what it was before.”