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UW-Madison graduates reflect on the pandemic, their college experience

For many recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates, the 2022-23 academic year was considered the only “normal” year of their college journey. Following the commencement ceremony on May 13, recent graduates reflected on how COVID-19 impacted their college experience.

COVID protocols began on March 11, 2020, when then-Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced the suspension of spring 2020 study abroad programming. The following day, Gov. Tony Evers declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19. From then on, UW-Madison responded to the pandemic by suspending in-person instruction on March 23, 2020, and implementing various protocols for students and faculty.

Recent UW-Madison graduate Carissa Ackermann explained how the pandemic’s impact began while she was living in Witte Residence Hall.

“I remember [in] late February, -early March, COVID being a joke — until it wasn’t,” Ackermann said. “We were hearing on the news that the virus was spreading, but it didn’t feel like it would really affect our college life until the day [The] Ohio State University got sent home for an ‘extended spring break.’ I remember thinking, ‘Uh oh, this is really real now.’”

Kaden Buck started the pandemic living off-campus after transferring from UW-Milwaukee. He explained how he returned to his hometown after the start of COVID-19, where he was grateful to have a family to support him.

“I was living by myself when I came to Madison because I didn’t know anyone here when I transferred here, and I think my experience was very similar to everyone else where there was a lot of uncertainty,” Buck said. “Going home didn’t feel real at that time, and I’m grateful that I had a really supportive family.”

Travis Cooke explained his initial reaction to COVID-19 as a freshman living in Sellery Residence Hall.

“I was pretty excited that I got extra time off of school,” Cooke said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. It was up in the air.”

Emily Pessefall felt greater anxiety during the rise of COVID-19. 

“I remember being pretty anxious about it because my mom is a Type 1 diabetic,” Pessefall said. “If I got sick, then she would get sick because I was living with her after we moved out of the dorms.”

The following academic year, Chancellor Blank released a statement updating students on COVID protocols where she explained the mode of class instruction, testing procedures and her goal of normalcy for students. 

But for students returning to a campus filled with strict testing protocols, near-ubiquitous virtual classes and empty buildings, the year still felt isolating.

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Megan Cantor was living in her sorority house that year, where she experienced various protocols to minimize the spread of the virus.

“If a girl tested positive for COVID, the whole house would quarantine,” Cantor said. “If another person tested positive, the quarantine restarted. While masks were required, we rarely were able to leave.”

Ackermann also lived in a sorority house and experienced similar protocols. She explained similar difficulties she faced during this time.

“Classes were all online, obviously, and campus buildings were pretty shut down with the exception of making reservations to go sit at some of the bigger ones,” Ackermann said. “As someone who really struggles to get work done at home, this was a really difficult year for me.”

During the next 2021-22 academic year, Malik Staude explained how a sense of normalcy re-emerged after he transferred from UW-Milwaukee to UW-Madison. 

“Everyone was definitely still going to class in masks and things like that, and that was a bit newer because the year prior I had only done basically online,” Staude said. “Going back to class for the first time since March of my freshman year was a little bit jarring.”

Buck also noted how he noticed COVID-19 changed the operations of the university and the attitudes of students.

“A lot of professors or instructors I had would choose to do Zoom classes,” Buck said. “Some still had concerns about the pandemic while others just found it more convenient. I think that left a lot of students disengaged, just as a result of the pandemic.”

Cooke explained how his final year at UW-Madison felt like his only “normal” year.

“We didn’t finish freshman year, sophomore year wasn’t normal, junior year wasn’t normal,” Cooke said. “Senior year was basically back to normal — where I was the first semester of my freshman year.”

Ackerman, despite grievances with some university policies throughout the pandemic, felt the university did the best it could given the situation. 

“There was nothing to model this plan of action off, and though I might not agree with every small detail of the situation, most students were given the option to be in Madison for the majority of their college experience,” Ackermann said. “For that, I am very grateful to UW because that was not possible everywhere.”

Staude had a similar outlook on how the pandemic was handled by the university.

“They did what they could do,” Staude said. “No one was really trained for this, they had no idea what to do, and, I think in terms of going to Zoom and things like that, the professors handled it pretty well for how much they know about technology and how novel this situation was.”

The graduates had various opinions on how the pandemic impacted their overall college experience.

“You go to college not only to get a degree and an education, but there is a huge social aspect of college,” Cooke said. “They say it's ‘the best four years of your life,’ but realistically two and a half [years] were stripped from me.”

Cantor explained her frustrations with how the pandemic impacted her as a student.

“I think COVID made it harder to connect with classmates and professors,” Cantor said. “I also think it didn’t give people a chance to meet new people. Virtual school made me stir-crazy, and I don't think I actually learned a thing due to lack of motivation.”

Ackermann noted that although the pandemic brought various hardships throughout her college career, she was still able to make the best of the situation.

“I would say that though COVID definitely had its effects, it was all part of the journey,”
Ackermann said. “I still made life-long friends, [and] had formative experiences and created memories that might not have happened the same way in a ‘normal’ college experience.”

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Ellie Bourdo

Ellie Bourdo is the features editor for The Daily Cardinal. Ellie previously served as associate news editor, where she specialized in breaking news and University of Wisconsin-System news reporting. She also works at WisPolitics. Follow Ellie on Twitter at @elliebourdo.


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