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Students revisit path forward after pandemic disrupts college plans

A year with the COVID-19 pandemic has brought mixed emotions to students who are now in much different academic situations than they had originally envisioned at the start of their college careers. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Senior geology major Kaylie Headings expected to graduate in spring 2022, following a normal four-year plan. Pivotal travel plans were halted by COVID-19, and now Headings is one of several students scrambling to restructure the paths toward their degrees. 

Since USF’s transition to an online format following the emergence of COVID-19 last spring, some students, like Headings, have changed their education plans at USF due to restrictions on opportunities crucial to fulfilling their graduation requirements. 

As some saw new opportunities arise over the year, others are concerned for the future of their academic careers, Headings is one of these students. 

Headings said they had to add an additional semester to their plan following adviser suggestions as their degree track calls for activities that would be rather difficult to accomplish during a pandemic. 

“Every geology major has to take three field camp classes in order to graduate,” Headings said. “Normally these would involve some degree of travel and in-person activity. Some of the classes take place around Florida, some involve flying out to the West or Midwest to look at geologic formations there.” 

Headings opted out of taking any field camp classes in summer 2020, the first summer with restrictions in place due to COVID-19. Originally set to graduate in spring 2022, Headings will now graduate in summer 2022. 

“A lot of people who were juniors that year apparently thought the same thing, because then there were so many seniors this year who still needed to do their field camps that the geology adviser said there wasn’t enough room for any juniors to take field camps this summer,” Headings said.

Senior music education major Malena Sellen said this year has, overall, been overwhelming. 

“I was very burnt out due to the pandemic and worrying about the health of my parents and friends, and some professors were not understanding about the situation and kept their strictness with deadlines,” Sellen said. “I felt burnt out and I dropped from my normal eight classes to four classes while I’m studying abroad.” 

Despite dropping her courses, Sellen still expects to graduate on time.

Allison Crume, dean of undergraduate studies and associate vice president of student success, said cases like Sellen’s were more common this school year than any year prior. 

“The consistent feedback we’ve been hearing [from students], certainly through the Counseling Center and our other health and wellness departments … is a sense of feeling overwhelmed and feeling disconnected,” Crume said. “So figuring out how to support them, we have done a lot more individual reach-out, and really [spent] time following up and figuring out how we can be more supportive and provide that care.

“In 2019-2020, there [were] about 2,293 interactions with students individually and in 2020-2021, that increased to 2,712.”

Education major Payton Gibson said her graduation was also delayed, but only partially, because of COVID-19.

“[Fall 2021] was my original [intended] graduation, because I was going to do my internship then,” Gibson said. “With the course not being offered these past two semesters anywhere in the state … I am forced to delay my graduation.”

Gibson said the potential budget cuts to the College of Education announced last November made her consider programs at other schools. 

“USF had plans to close the College of Education due to lack of funding so I also tried to transfer out of USF,” she said. “Unfortunately, I’m too far along in my degree progression.”

Other students, such as recent graduate Alicia Tivoli, found herself graduating earlier than expected. 

“I’m an out-of-state student who returns home over the summers,” Tivoli said. “Since I’m a biology major, all of my classes and labs are traditionally in person. By having classes online last summer that were only available in person previously, I was able to take 10 credits that actually mattered for my major … and graduate early.

“But, that also meant I didn’t have the opportunity to study abroad over this upcoming summer like I had planned.”

Music studies and chemical engineering major Joe Tremper is heading down the same early graduation path as Tivoli. 

“As a music major, I’m very involved with the marching arts (drum corps, marching band, indoor percussion, etc.) and was actually fully contracted to go on tour with [the Boston Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps] over last summer. Unfortunately, with the health crisis, we had to cancel the season and tour,” Tremper said. 

“The bright side of that is that I was able to enroll in summer classes. These courses got me a year ahead of the flowchart for chemical engineering, so I was able to add a minor in biomedical engineering and graduate in three and a half years.” 

Crume said she hadn’t noticed any statistical graduation trends related to COVID-19, but a sudden turn to an online format was certainly a factor.

“I haven’t seen any changes significantly specific to COVID. More about helping students and assisting them. And you know, the remote environment and making the decision on whether or not individually they needed to take the semester off,” Crume said.

“We had some students who were in a situation where we wanted to accelerate their pace and they wanted to be able to complete faster, and take advantage of the ability to take more online courses, so it definitely depended on the individual students.”

Several students have reevaluated their majors given the online format of the last spring semester, according to Crume. 

“Some students may choose to do hybrid delivery, or may choose a different path than what they originally thought they were going to do,” Crume said. 

Changes of when students will walk the graduation stage have some concerned about the future as the overarching impact of COVID-19 is still somewhat unknown for students like Headings. 

“It’s not that much of a change, but I’m a little worried about how it will affect my grad school applications, since I plan to go to grad school right after I finish my undergraduate degree,” Headings said.

“I’m just not sure how it’ll all play out. [The situation is] still not as bad as my friends who graduated right as COVID hit and then had a lot of trouble finding jobs, but I’m still worried.”