Lucky, stressed, and ready to graduate — How 4 college students spent an unprecedented fall semester

This summer, MarketWatch spoke to four college students as they prepared for a fall semester unlike any other. We recently checked back in to see how the pandemic has affected their studies and the way they’re thinking about their futures. 

The fall semester has been busy for Luz Chavez. The 23-year-old is a senior at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. and after a college journey that included a few years at a community college and now almost two years at Trinity, she’s eager to finish her schooling. 

To make sure she fulfills her requirements to graduate in the spring, Chavez is taking seven classes totaling 20 credits this semester while living with her family outside of Washington, D.C. “It’s been really stressful trying to juggle seven classes plus 30 hours of work every week,” said Chavez, who also works as a fellow for United We Dream, an immigrant youth network. But she’s committed to finishing on time. 

“We don’t know when COVID is going to end and we don’t know when these services will no longer be helping my family,” said Chavez. Chavez is a part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to work here legally. 

Her family, including her siblings, have all seen their jobs completely lost or curtailed during the pandemic. They’ve been able to take advantage of local food banks and other services, but Chavez said she wants to make sure she’s in a position to help her family stay financially stable long-term. 

“I need to make sure that by May I have a bachelor’s degree to be able to get paid more,” she said.  

Even without the degree, Chavez is already contributing to her household — both financially and otherwise. She helps her younger siblings navigate their own remote schooling and related work. “I have to come outside to do my homework at times,” Chavez said, noting that the multiple school-related Zoom meetings taking place in her home at once can be distracting. 

In addition to helping her siblings with schoolwork, Chavez is also working with undocumented high school students to help them find funding to pay for college. These students don’t qualify for federal financial aid and in some states they aren’t eligible for state grants or in-state tuition at their home state’s public colleges. That means they’re often cobbling together whatever resources they can find to afford school. 

When Chavez began her college journey, she hunted for funding sources herself. With the help of professors and advocates, was able to have the last two years of her community college fully funded by grants and her two years at Trinity funded by a scholarship. Now, the opportunity to help high school seniors locate these same resources is “amazing,” Chavez said. 

“Everyone has a different story coming here and everyone has a different story of how they coped with being undocumented,” Chavez said. 

Chavez saw her work in other areas pay off too. In the lead up to the election, she organized her peers to phone and text bank. On the Saturday that Joe Biden was announced as president-elect, Chavez was with fellow undocumented leaders in D.C. at a rally demanding that all the votes be counted. When Chavez heard the news she felt a sense of relief. 

“There’s still work to be done during his presidency to hold him accountable,” she said. But, she added, “knowing that although we couldn’t vote we were heard, that was the most amazing part of it.” 

Maria Sailale feels grateful to be on campus

Maria Sailale moved to her college town this semester, and feels lucky to be there.

Photo courtesy of Maria Sailale

This fall, Maria Sailale, a sophomore at the University of Texas, moved into an apartment in Austin with multiple roommates. Though the past few months haven’t been the (relatively) carefree college housing experience she’d imagined pre-COVID, Sailale said she feels lucky to have had the opportunity.  

When colleges sent students home in the spring, Sailale juggled her Zoom classes with caring for her younger siblings. Her current living situation gives her the opportunity to focus on her own goals and schoolwork. 

“I am just really grateful to be able to be on campus because I think being here has helped me take care of myself more than I would have and have more time for myself,” she said. 

Overall, Sailale said she’s felt safe in Austin. She and her friends are getting proactive COVID testing, she’s only taking one in-person class and when she’s in the room everyone is wearing masks. The school has also zip-tied certain seats to designate them as unavailable.

Sailale said she’s enjoyed the convenience of her online classes and could see herself benefiting from taking some online courses in the future, even once the threat of COVID disappears. 

Still, her largely remote college experience has been challenging socially.

“Sometimes it can be easy for the days to blend together,” she said. “You get into a habit of maybe not taking care of yourself in the best way because time — it’s a little more difficult to grasp because you’re just opening and closing your laptop.” 

In addition, the varying levels of precaution her peers are taking when it comes to the pandemic have been tricky to navigate. “Everyone has different ideas of what feels safe to them during COVID and those ideas can be different,” she said. “You could know a bunch of people and be friends with them and feel like you trust them, but they could get you sick.” 

Stuart Myers has been taking time off and saving money

Stuart Myers is taking time off of school this year, but hopes his extended gap year will come to an end soon.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Myers

Though the start to his college career didn’t turn out as planned, Stuart Myers has felt lucky not to fret about what being on a college campus would mean for his impact on the spread of the virus. 

“I’ve definitely been able to reclaim a fair bit of my own sanity,” Myers said. “I’m not so worried about classes being impeded because of the pandemic. I’m not really worried about exposing large groups of people.” 

Myers, who is part of the Global BFA in Film Art program at Emerson College in Boston, is taking a year off. He was slated to start his second year, which is largely based in Paris, over the summer. But given the program’s focus on hands-on access to professional-level equipment, Myers felt pandemic restrictions would significantly change his experience, so he didn’t go. The time off has provided him with some benefits, including the opportunity to save money on tuition and living expenses. 

“I’ve definitely picked up some tools and some building knowledge that I wouldn’t have if I continued on my higher education course for this year,” Myers said.

He spent what would have been the first few months of the fall semester living with his aunt and uncle in the Berkshires, a mountain region in Western Massachusetts, helping them with landscaping projects around their property. Until this fall, Myers’ only experience with landscaping was about a month on an olive oil farm in France through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or WOOFing program. 

“That was just collecting olives,” Stuart said of the olive oil work. “This was moving soil around, building a fire pit, planting a whole meadow of wildflowers that are supposed to bloom next spring.”  

Now Myers is trying to figure out what to do next. He’s using the resources and networks provided through his college to find internships in the Boston area. 

“I’m just trying to weather the winter and eke out as much happiness and as many opportunities as I can,” Myers said. For now, he’s planning to re-enter his program, which has a summer session, next year. 

“I’ve already taken one gap year in between high school and starting this program and I’m taking another gap year — I’m not sure I want to take any more time off,” he said. 

Mackenzie Myers took classes while living in a state park

Mackenzie Myers took classes online while living in a state park. He says he’s been ‘appreciating the little things in life.’

Photo courtesy of Mackenzie Myers

Stuart’s brother, Mackenzie, decided to continue pursuing his degree during the pandemic, despite the changes to its format, and is slated to graduate from the University of Oregon in December. 

Over the past few months, Myers has been living with his partner in Moran State Park, which is located on Orcas Island, part of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago off the west coast of Washington State. Myers’ partner is doing field conservation work as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps and she and Myers share a communal kitchen area with the other four members of her CCC team. 

The living situation has been “really amazing during COVID because it’s social and communal,” Myers wrote in an email. The group sets clear boundaries for travel and seeing family and friends, he said. 

One of the benefits of attending college during this period is that “I can live anywhere that there is wifi!” Myers wrote. Under typical circumstances he wouldn’t have been able to both attend the University of Oregon and live with his partner in Washington. 

Still, Myers, who has been taking classes online consistently since colleges sent students home in March, said he’s growing fatigued by all of the time in front of the screen. He said he also misses all of the spaces that provide for spontaneous interaction with his fellow students. 

“I’m ready to be graduating and done with online school in December,” he wrote. 

Following graduation, Myers is planning to work with the CCC crew his partner is a part of in exchange for room and board and a small educational stipend through Americorps. He’s also going to look for a part-time job to supplement that income. Though he’s comfortable with working in a grocery store or restaurant — “I feel OK working in more of a public place because I am not living or interacting with anyone older than 30 right now,” he wrote — Myers said he’d ideally like to find an opportunity that allows him to be outside. 

As for the future more broadly, Myers wrote that being around his partner’s CCC crew has “cemented for me that I want to work outside, and work outside with other people.” 

“I’ve also really thought a lot about appreciating the little things in life, taking each day one moment at a time, and really truly cherishing the moments we have with friends and family,” he said. 

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