College Amid COVID-19: 'You Don't Feel Like You're In College At All' WBEZ is sharing the stories of four freshmen this fall from the Chicago area — two on campus and two taking classes from home.
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College Amid COVID-19: 'You Don't Feel Like You're In College At All'

College Amid COVID-19: 'You Don't Feel Like You're In College At All'

College Amid COVID-19: 'You Don't Feel Like You're In College At All'

College Amid COVID-19: 'You Don't Feel Like You're In College At All'

Julia Korzeniowski, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is one of thousands of freshmen from Illinois starting college during the pandemic. With all her classes online, Korzeniowski opted to study from her home in Hoffman Estates. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ hide caption

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Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

This story is part of the series "2020 Lessons." This fall, WBEZ education reporters are following students and teachers from the Chicago area as they make their way through an education world turned upside down by the coronavirus.

Like everything else during this pandemic, college life is remaking itself this fall. Some students returned to subdued campuses for remote classes while others are redoing their childhood bedrooms and logging in from home.

For first year students, this college experience is all they know.

"You still feel like you're a high school student," said freshman Karen Rodriguez, who attends the University of Southern California from her house on Chicago's Southwest Side. "I'm a college student. It's so hard for me to process that because 'am I really?' ... It's just like this identity crisis."

Reporter Kate McGee is following four freshmen from the Chicago area during their first semester as they adapt, adjust and aim to create a new normal amid a global pandemic.

Ismael Beltran: Finding his place

Before Ismael Beltran flew to Colorado Springs to attend Colorado College this summer, he was living in Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood with 10 family members.

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He needed some space.

Beltran picked Colorado College before the pandemic hit. He applied for an early decision after falling in love with the campus on a visit during high school. He also liked that the school is on a block schedule, when students take one class at a time for three and a halfweeks. His first class was online.

He graduated from Mansueto High School on the Southwest Side and is a self-described extrovert with a bright smile, a messy tuft of pink dyed hair and great sense of humor. He was excited to meet new people and flew to Colorado early to attend a virtual orientation for first-generation college students, which allowed him to move into his dorm in mid-August once he tested negative for COVID-19.

The Bridge Scholars program allowed him to meet students like himself and he quickly developed a small group of friends. They'd eat meals together on campus, watch movies in their dorm's common room and go to the gym. Still, he misses his family, especially gossiping with his sister.

He jokes that the biggest transition has been the altitude.

"The first time I ran a mile on the treadmill, it took me 45 minutes," he said, laughing.

Beltran was at the mall one morning when he got an email: all students in two residence halls, including Beltran's, were required by the local health department to quarantine in their dorm rooms for two weeks. There were just ten positive cases on campus.

He's been in his dorm room since Aug. 29. At first, students were only allowed outside one hour per day. Since then, that's been extended. The school delivers three meals daily.

Then, the college announced all classes were going online and students must leave campus by Sept. 20. But students in the Bridge Scholars program can stay. Beltran was happy because he was nervous about exposing his family to COVID-19, and he was enjoying his new found freedom. Some of his friends are staying too.

Now, he wonders what campus will feel like once the majority of students head home. But he's happy to be able to stay with a strong group of friends as the semester progresses.

Julia Korzeniowski: A balancing act

When Julia Korzeniowski learned all her classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago would be taught online this fall, she decided to live at home in suburban Hoffman Estates. She wanted to save money and also needed to help her eight-year-old brother with remote school. Her parents, who immigrated from Poland and work full time, aren't home during the day. Her grandparents, who also live with them, don't speak English.

But Korzeniowski insisted on making some changes first.

"This room was bright pink and magenta before," she said during a Zoom call earlier this month, gesturing to the now greyish walls and new white curtains behind her. "I was like, 'Okay, we are remodeling my room. ... Let me start fresh.'"

She draped fairy lights along the window and got rid of the sashes and trophies from when she participated in pageants as a young girl.

"[It's] almost like having my own little dorm room," she said.

Korzeniowski, who graduated from Elgin High School, is trying to make the best of her foray into college, though she said it doesn't really feel like she's a college student yet. She wants to eventually attend law school and is taking an extra course this semester so she can try to graduate early.

Multiple online platforms, including Zoom and Blackboard, crashed on her first day of classes, which meant her history lecture was canceled. She's enjoying her classes, but she's mourning the missed social interaction that she feels is so valuable during the first year of college.

"If you've lived in Illinois, you think of it as the most boring state ever with cornfields, plus Chicago," she said. "And it's like, let me meet somebody new from, like, California and see what their experience growing up has been like."

So far, she's joined the Criminology Law and Justice Society and the Polish American Student Alliance, remotely. But she wonders how she'll make meaningful friendships from Hoffman Estates and when she'll find the time between her large course load, brother's schooling and an extra tutoring job she took on.

Karen Rodriguez: Caught between home and school

Heading to California for college has long been Karen Rodriguez's goal. And this fall, she made it.

Sort of.

She's now a student at the University of Southern California, but she's not in the Golden State.

She's taking classes from her childhood bedroom in Chicago's Archer Heights neighborhood, where she lives with her mom, brother and her dog. Her parents are divorced and her father lives nearby.

"Just knowing I could stay home, save the money and apply it to the future, that encouraged me to say," she said. "And being with my family especially during this tough situation. I didn't feel right leaving."

Still, Rodriguez says it was bittersweet watching her friends who are on college campuses this year.

"They're able to experience new things," she said "[the] emotional rollercoaster of being happy and then being sad they're away from their family. I'm just staying home, everything's the same."

Rodriguez worked hard and earned top grades at Mansueto High School and said USC provided a substantial financial aid package, which was helpful because her father initially lost his job working construction at the start of the pandemic. She and her brother both worked during the summer, and she said they often contribute to groceries and help pay for a new family expense: wifi. Before the pandemic, they would use their phones as hotspots at home.

Her classes are in Pacific Time, so she often doesn't finish her day until after 11 p.m. She loves animals and wants to major in biological sciences. She says labs that would be easy in person now take five hours. It's also awkward to have small class discussions with people you've never met in person.

Neither of her parents went to college, and she said it's also been difficult to explain her new college responsibilities to her family.

"Your parents want you to do things ... so it's kind of hard being like, 'No, I can't because I'm in class," she said. "It's kind of this battle between my parents, [where I say] 'It's my personal time. You cannot enter. I'm sorry, I do respect you, but I just cannot. I'm in class.'"

She's gotten used to her daily routine of classes and homework, but wonders what comes next: What will remote exams and midterms be like? How harshly will they grade assignments knowing the semester is unlike ever before? She also plans to get a new job to help out at home and also cover school-related expenses, which she feels strongly are her responsibility. She worries about how she'll manage it all: work, college and home responsibilities.

Elizabeth LeBeau: On campus, for now

Elizabeth LeBeau had one major worry before she moved on campus this fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Students wouldn't follow COVID-19 safety guidelines and would force everyone to move home.

The Glenbard East High School graduate is one of the few freshmen in the country attending a university that developed its own COVID-19 test, which undergraduates must take twice a week. It's attracted national attention and Illinois is hoping to distribute the test to other universities in the state in the coming weeks.

But LeBeau's concerns were confirmed two weeks into her fall semester when UIUC asked all students to restrict in-person gatherings through Sept. 16. There was a spike in cases that university officials attributed to large off campus gatherings among undergraduates. LeBeau canceled plans to visit her family in Lombard over the Labor Day weekend.

The positivity rate on campus has declined steadily since a peak on Aug. 30, but the threat of getting sent home looms.

Already, she's loving her new independence, meeting friends and eating meals on the quad. Otherwise, she mostly stays in her dorm with her roommate. She says she's avoided parties.

LeBeau is enjoying her classes, which are all online except a course that she attends in-person once a week. Desks are all six feet apart and each student is required to stick to a square on the ground around each desk.

She has trouble understanding other students behind their masks, but she's grateful for the class. "I like the fact I get to walk across campus and be there and I get to leave my dorm."

LeBeau plans to major in political science. She's also applying to write for the Daily Illini newspaper and is already pulling all-nighters to finish homework.

But she's frustrated that the school's messaging about COVID-19 cases on campus blames students. She thinks they should place more restrictions on fraternities and sororities, and should have expected students to break the rules.

"They needed a social scientist, and did not consult a social scientist, if they think all the students are going to be nice little angels in their rooms studying like this isn't a college campus, a Big 10 school," she said.

Despite the number of positive cases, LeBeau says she still feels safe on campus. And she sees most students taking safety guidelines seriously. But as the weather gets colder, making it harder to socialize outside, she wonders how that will impact the virus' spread on campus and whether she'll be forced to pack up early.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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