As the UW-Madison community attempts to return to normalcy under the auspices of its “Smart Restart” plan and a hybrid model of teaching instruction, some of its students will be absent from campus.
For various reasons, including health, logistical and financial concerns, a number of students have chosen to spend their semester from their permanent residences.
Three students spoke with the Cardinal about their decision to stay off campus this semester.
Protecting his family
In March — during the early stages of the pandemic — Niko Konstantopolous received a phone call from his mother. She was diagnosed in September 2019 with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, however, she was recently selected for an experimental treatment.
“I was sitting in the Memorial Union. She said ‘Niko, I beat cancer’,” Konstantopolous said. “I started breaking out crying. I was so happy.”
Konstantopolous’ celebration, however, met its end shortly thereafter.
The next day, UW-Madison students received a message from Chancellor Rebecca Blank that informed all students living in university housing would be sent home due to COVID-19.
When he returned to his permanent residence in downtown Chicago, Konstantopoulos debated his return to Madison. Despite being cancer free, the doctors told Konstantopolous’ mother her weakened immune system would make her more susceptible to the sometimes fatal effects of the coronavirus.
With his mother’s best interests at heart, and fearing he would spread the virus into his household if he went back to college, Konstantopolous made the decision to spend his sophomore year at home.
“My mom had literally just beat cancer about two weeks before COVID hit. I remember all the joy I had from that,” Konstantopolous said. “God forbid if I were to go to Wisconsin, go have fun and be somewhat selfish and something were to happen, I’d never forgive myself. It became the right thing to do.”
At the same time, Konstantopolous is looking out for himself and his father. Konstantopolous developed asthma during his freshman year and his father suffers from diabetes. Their pre-existing health conditions also put them at greater risk of suffering from complications from the coronavirus.
“I just don’t really want to take the chance,” Konstantopolous said. “I don’t want to risk my life, my mom’s life, my dad’s life.”
In trying to find a silver-lining of his situation, Konstantopolous said his grades significantly improved when he, along with all UW students, transitioned to remote learning in the spring.
Konstantopolous has found staying home to be mentally trying, in not being able to see his friends and participate in his fraternity’s events. However, preserving his family’s house takes precedence over all.
“People don’t think about it. Obviously you can’t go to your frat house parties. But other people can’t even see other people because they are scared that their mom might lose her life” Konstantopolous said.
A more cost-effective approach
Like Konstantopolous, Bryce Neels also benefited from virtual class. As his grades steadily improved from his permanent residence in San Diego, Calif., the Junior economics major decided to complete his semester from home.
“I had a big discussion with my parents about this,” Neels, who also plays on the university’s Club Baseball team and is a member of a fraternity, said. “I started doing a little bit better in school and I realized that maybe the only reason for going up to Madison when school came around again would be to be social and be around people, which obviously wouldn't be the best decision given the current times.”
In the meantime, Neels will also continue his summer job at Target where he will receive better benefits after five months of working there. Neels also emphasized the importance of routine with remote learning.
“It's mostly about self discipline because not as often will I have to put on my best outfit or focus on combing my hair,” Neels said. “I’m focusing on the future, keeping good habits, and self discipline.”
When reflecting on what he will miss the most about Madison, Neels listed reuniting with friends at the top. It was difficult, he said, to tell each of his friends he would not be returning to campus. As COVID-19 rates remain high in California, Neels noted that “things might be a little bit slow moving in San Diego” with just his family this fall.
However, in the interest of health and his future endeavors, Neels found that limiting distractions would be the smartest choice.
“If the one thing that I really loved about being in Madison was being around my friends and being social,” Neels said. “If that's taken away from me, it's best to try and limit distractions.”
Working in two time zones
All the way from Mumbai, India, UW sophomore Gautam Agarwal has been confined to his house since March 21, maintaining a unique work schedule.
The Computer and Data Science major said he chose to stay home because he worried about not being able to travel home due to potential travel bans. He also emphasized his concern of contracting the coronavirus in the U.S., where he has no relatives or family to take care of him.
Other factors that influenced Gautam’s decision included examining COVID-19 infection rates and recovery statistics. With a higher population, higher recovery rates and less cases than the United States, Gautam decided that spending the semester in India would be the safest option. Another silver lining of not returning to Madison was being able to spend more time with his family as he typically spends the entire year in the U.S..
Because he stayed home, he missed out on two on-campus jobs that required him to be in the United States, which would have been “real resume boosters.”
At the same time, Agarwal’s current internship at CamfyVision Innovations in India coupled with his studies in the United States has forced him to accommodate two time zones into his schedule— which have ended up being over 10 hours apart.
Agarwal wakes up at noon, and spends all day studying and working until he goes to bed at sunrise.
In addition, by not being responsible for housing, travel costs and insurance among others, Agarwal said he will save approximately $9000 from living at his permanent residence, in a country he said has fewer cases of the virus with higher recovery rates.
However, Agarwal’s college experience will not be the same — for the time being.
“I’ll miss the Madison culture, the vibe of campus, and seeing my friends, [and participating in] the Pokemon Go Raid Hour when I play with 100 people outside Porter Boathouse,” Agarwal said.