“Being a student kind of feels like it’s on the back burner now:” Tales of an unconventional senior spring

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Alice Feng/The Occidental

Over spring break, Ian Van Dusen (senior) went backpacking in Canyonlands National Park in Utah with five friends and no cell service. For three days, they hiked around the desert park and camped out under the stars. When they eventually stopped at the visitor center and got phone signal, one of Van Dusen’s friends checked his email and said that Occidental had announced the end of in-person classes. After charging their phones, they had hundreds of texts from concerned parents and friends, Van Dusen said.

“I was pretty shocked,” Van Dusen said. “We were pretty sad at first for a good bit and then we had a 12-hour drive home. That was a sad drive, thinking, ‘Oh… no graduation.’”

The coronavirus pandemic brought the class of 2020’s college experience to a halt as Occidental’s administration announced the move to online classes and remote learning March 12. For many seniors, this meant no spring comprehensive project (comps) presentations, no goodbyes and no possibility of a return to the college life they once knew. President Jonathan Veitch also announced that the College’s 138th commencement has been postponed to an undetermined date. Spring break was replaced by dozens of emails informing students about move-out processes, online learning, amended deadlines and BlueJeans video calls.

Oh, the places you’ll have to go!

Spencer Nussbaum (senior) had been home in San Diego, CA, for a few days during spring break when he received the announcement. He left the next morning to spend his last week at Occidental. Before the March 12 email, Nussbaum did not think the administration would ask people to leave the dorms.

“It’s not just freshmen living here, we have a small school where most people live in the dorms,” Nussbaum said. “And then we got that email.”

While many students were faced with displacement, the senior class was left in a purgatory between college and the next stage of their adult lives. In the initial March 12 email, students were given the option to petition to stay on campus for the remainder of the semester if they had special circumstances. According to a March 17 email from Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot, administrators approved 217 of 432 applications.

Nussbaum petitioned to stay at Berkus Hall but was denied. He headed back to San Diego March 20.

“I’m living at home again. It feels like the summer before college where I have no real idea what’s next,” Nussbaum said. “I’m just weirdly floating until I have something to do.”

Jessa Jeter (senior) finished comps for both her cognitive science and Group Language majors Fall 2019 and planned on making the most of her second semester. Now, that opportunity is gone.

“I feel like a lot of my fellow seniors would probably agree in that it hasn’t quite hit me that all of this is still happening,” Jeter said. “It just feels like a really long spring break.”

Evan Sarafian (senior) lives off campus across the street from Occidental and said he feels lucky that he was not suddenly uprooted.

“The strangest part of this whole experience is that it happened during spring break. There are a lot of people who left who I probably will never see again,” Sarafian said. “I didn’t even realize I was saying goodbye to them.”

According to Sarafian, the pandemic adds to a list of significant events that the class of 2020 has had to grapple with during their time at Occidental.

“Our first semester started with Trump [in 2016] and then we’re ending with a pandemic,” Sarafian said. “While we’ve been at Oxy, the Sycamore Glen goes down, the fountain goes down. We never got the pool open. There has been construction the entire time here they never actually finish.”

Putting school on the back burner: the struggle to finish out the semester online

Online classes have proven challenging as seniors are asked to put aside the frustration and change in their lives to finish the semester, according to Jeter. Seniors are tasked with finishing an extensive thesis project, fine-tuning their resumes and considering what they want to do with their futures, all within one year. Coupled with the recent passing of two classmates, Occidental students have experienced a difficult spring semester as many navigate the trauma of losing their friends amid a pandemic.

Nussbaum, a Media Arts & Culture (MAC) and politics double major, said he feels it is unfair for professors to hold their comps to the same standards in remote learning.

“I’m going to do film editing on my laptop without the school’s resources, without a computer that can run it reliably without crashing,” Nussbaum said. “But we still have to have it up to the standard that they want for graduation.”

Sarafian, a double major in Diplomacy & World Affairs and Comparative Studies in Literature & Culture, said his comps will take place online.

“We’re still doing a presentation, but a digital, public, online presentation,” Sarafian said. “So it’s not quite the same. But at the very least, I suppose I still get to talk about it.”

Nussbaum’s MAC comps will also take place online, as opposed to its usual “Film Festival” format in Thorne Hall.

“The MAC comps screening is a personal big loss that they’re replacing with a livestream — basically an online film festival — which I think, sort of similar to the [potential] online graduation, just misses the mark,” Nussbaum said.

For seniors trying to juggle housing, graduation requirements and job prospects, online classes seem secondary to problems that have been enhanced by the pandemic, Sarafian said.

“Being a student kind of feels like it’s on the back burner now,” Sarafian said. “The consequences of it don’t matter as much, especially now that credit/no credit (CR/NC) is an option. Because right now I’m much more concerned about graduating into a possible recession — hopefully not [a] depression.”

Nussbaum said he is unsure if professors are aware how disruptive remote learning is for seniors as they focus on other important tasks, such as finding places to live.

Some students have found silver linings while self-isolating. Sarafian said he is happy to be self-quarantining with his friends in a house filled with board games and vinyl records. Van Dusen turned in his geology comps the Friday before spring break. When not in his 9:30 a.m. class, he has been going for runs through Eagle Rock and hanging out with his housemates. He still works as a tutor for geology classes remotely.

“I’m so fortunate to have my on-campus job,” Van Dusen said. “But it’s crazy weird. I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m probably just gonna go home and figure out a job from there.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg announced in a March 17 email that the school will alter its grading policies for the remainder of the spring semester, allowing students to select a CR/NC grade after seeing their letter grade in a course. In an email March 14, Sternberg addressed the unexpected academic predicament the senior class finds itself in.

“Let me reassure you that the College is doing everything we can to make certain that the class of 2020 will be able to complete their coursework this semester to graduate on-time,” Sternberg said via email. “I know this is not the senior spring you were expecting, and for that, I am truly sorry.”

Courtesy of Jessa Jeter

Jeter is self-isolating near Occidental in an off-campus house, spending her free time streaming online yoga classes and reading books for fun. When she can, she does her work in her yard. But as she spends hours in front of a screen every day, Jeter said she feels like she is working constantly with little reward.

“It doesn’t feel worth it anymore. I don’t have anything to look forward to,” Jeter said. “I was really excited about this semester, my last semester, and I loved my classes. And now, I’m feeling a weird amount of lack of motivation and stress about the future, while also suddenly being online all the time.”

As classes and events shift online, there is no chance for seniors to physically say goodbye to professors and staff they have been working with for years. Sarafian said he has good relationships with several professors he has taken multiple classes with and is not sure when he will get a chance to meet with them again.

Seniors are also forced to leave their underclassmen friends behind without a proper goodbye, Van Dusen said.

“All my closest senior friends are here, so I’ll be able to say goodbye to them,” Van Dusen said. “It was pretty hard to say goodbye to all of my younger friends because that all happened so quickly.”

Van Dusen said he will also miss senior soirées and end-of-year dinners with professors.

“There are many things I am quite bummed about missing out on,” Van Dusen said. “It comes in waves.”

Jeter’s last Dance Production performance, scheduled for March 20, was canceled abruptly. With much of the ensemble home or away for spring break, they were unable to film or display their hard work.

“Had we all been on campus, we could have hosted a last-minute dance,” Jeter said. “But of course, that was impossible because so many people had already left.”

Life in a new world

“I walked through quad the other day, and now it’s super sad,” Van Dusen said. “The quad was shining even though no one is there.”

Sarafian likened the empty quad to a “post-apocalyptic battlefield” where something terrible occurred.

Even York Boulevard has been quiet, according to Van Dusen. On a recent, spooky drive through LA, he said no one seemed to be around. He and his housemates still frequently venture to Delia’s, a local restaurant popular with Occidental students, for takeout. Van Dusen said Delia’s is appreciative of the business since Los Angeles County restaurants have been limited to takeout and delivery due to the coronavirus.

Nussbaum said these days, he usually wakes up sometime between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. At the moment, Nussbaum’s daily routine consists of scrolling through Twitter, religiously checking the news, transferring from his desk to the couch and waiting for nighttime.

“All I have to look forward to is the next day that gets me closer to being able to exist,” Nussbaum said.

Graduation?

President Jonathan Veitch announced via email April 3 that commencement has been postponed from its original May 17 date and that a celebration will take place in person once it is deemed safe. The college emailed a survey to seniors April 7 to determine when and how commencement will occur.

Students shared a variety of reactions to the postponement. Nussbaum said the lack of graduation leaves him unmotivated to complete school work.

“We had the rug ripped out from under us, and now we still have all of the work to do to graduate but none of the graduation things to look forward to,” Nussbaum said. “There is no motivating force to push it forward, aside from it being held over our head.”

According to Nussbaum, the survey asked seniors to rank aspects of the typical commencement ceremony from personally “unimportant” to “important,” as well as to rank three different graduation formats: an online ceremony, regional in-person events or another ceremony at Occidental at a later date.

Van Dusen said he thinks graduation might occur in Spring 2021, a year after its original date, but he would much rather have it in Fall 2020.

Nussbaum said he does not anticipate a large turnout if the class of 2020’s graduation takes place alongside the class of 2021’s.

“We’d get an Oxy graduation, but late,” Nussbaum said. “I think realistically, maybe a quarter of the class shows.”

Sarafian said he was looking forward to school being over, but was not too upset about commencement being postponed.

“I wasn’t very stoked on graduation anyway. I went last year. It seems really exhausting,” Sarafian said. “I don’t really care honestly. I just want to be done and just not have homework anymore.”

If graduation takes place much later, Jeter said she hopes the college would help fund travel expenses for members of the class of 2020.

“If they were to postpone graduation, I would want [the administration] to work with the Office of [Institutional] Advancement to see if they could do some last-minute fundraising. Perhaps the Senior Gift could be designated to paying for the flights of the students who can’t afford to pay for it themselves,” Jeter said. “I wouldn’t want a graduation if not everyone could come.”

According to Nussbaum, the pandemic has made preparing for the end of college particularly difficult.

“Not having that two months to process moving on to the real world and saying goodbye to everybody, that’s devastating,” Nussbaum said. “That’s the real damage of all of this.”

Van Dusen said he was able to move past the lack of closure within the first week of quarantine. Similar to Nussbaum, Jeter said while she is mourning her senior year and college life, she understands that there was no alternative.

As the pandemic has upended the typical senior spring, Sarafian said he feels as though he is not currently a student.

“It still feels like I’m at Oxy, kind of like an alumni who lives nearby years later,” Sarafian said. “It feels like I’m still kind of in limbo. There’s part of me that is not in college anymore.”