Erika Storvick (‘18) has been attending Columbia University in New York City through the dual-degree engineering program at William Jewell College. Storvick recounts a chaotic two weeks as the city was overcome by cases of COVID-19 and her final semester was cut short.
We don’t receive many emails from President Bollinger. I found that out when I was searching through emails to remember the timeline of events that has happened over these past few weeks.
The first email we received was March 8th with a subject line “Time Sensitive Update on COVID-19.” This was the first day we were informed someone in our own community was exposed to the virus. Classes were then suspended for a few days while the university prepared to shift to remote classes for the remainder of the week – up until spring break.
After that first email things began to escalate very quickly. Within two days we had another email that the student in quarantine tested negative but virtual classes would continue until March 30th. We slowly began receiving emails that all events of over 25 people were canceled. Professors started to panic about the difficulty of moving classes online. As an engineering student, online classes sounded dreadful. Most of my courses were hands-on, and the possibility of them being conducted completely remotely brought chaos to our whole department.
That evening a few friends and I walked down to the Trader Joes on 96th street. We thought we better stock up on some food, very unaware of how quickly chaos was going to unfold. The shelves of Trader Joes were nearly empty, the line spiraled around the entire store, weaving through each isle. Some people looked panicked, while others we overheard talking about how big of an overreaction this was. After deciding not to wait two hours in line, we left the store. Once outside, we saw that a line two blocks long had formed to even get inside. Trader Joes had reached max capacity. I had never seen anything like it, and I wondered if those people were even going to be able to find the things they needed once they were inside.
By March 12th, the day before spring break, we were informed all classes would be online for the remainder of the semester and those who could should move out of residence halls. However, this email didn’t seem too urgent. Things in NYC were stirring, streets were quiet, no one knew what to believe and no one could see what was going to happen. In two days I was supposed to be on a flight to Miami. Rumors of city-wide quarantines and domestic travel restrictions began to spread, and so taking precaution, we cancelled our final spring break trip.
The following day, March 13th, a few friends and I took the advice of getting away from campus and the city for spring break and went to Cape Cod. Just two days after we got settled and comfortable being away from the city and focusing on self-quarantining, we received the latest Bollinger update. Everyone was to be moved out of their dorms by Tuesday, March 17th. We had two days to figure out a plan, get back to the city and execute that plan.
We left that evening, the 15th, and headed for the city. The car was quiet and emotions were running high. Spring break had just taken a dark twist as we realized our senior year and our time in New York City was coming to a premature close. At this point we were just awaiting the next daunting email. We knew the bad news was far from over. When we rolled into the city, it was chaotic. It had been rumored that two individuals on my floor in my building had tested positive for COVID-19. Nervous, but equally excited to be back in my favorite city, we grabbed our liter bottle of Purell and gloves and headed to pack all of our belongings. By the next morning we were out of there and on our way to Cape Cod for the second time in a matter of days.
I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have time to make a plan. I just had to move in whatever direction was available at the time. I’m so lucky to have a friend that was willing to open his house up to those of us not from the east coast until we could figure out a long-term plan. We quarantined ourselves for the suggested 14 days before thinking about other arrangements.
As you can imagine, the bad news didn’t end there. Within a few days we received the email that changed all that we had left of our senior year. On March 21st, we woke up to receive the final announcement from President Bollinger. He wrote to us “with three purposes”. Classes had been postponed once again (woohoo for 3 weeks of spring break I guess), all classes had been moved to pass/fail with no opportunity to uncover grades, and finally, we would not be going forward with commencement in May.
Looking back on this sequence of events, I remember all the emotions I was feeling as it was happening – stress, anger, helplessness and awe. The somber emotions set in later because I was too frazzled to feel them as it was all happening. I feel the grief now though. I feel it for the seniors who never had the chance to walk across a stage in their caps and gowns. As a dual-degree engineering student, I was lucky enough to have this opportunity at Jewell two years earlier. However, commencement this May was supposed to be a celebration of the completion of two degrees and six years of hard work. The abrupt ending to life on campus as we knew it meant cutting off growing friendships prematurely and being forced to leave behind projects that we will never get the chance to see through, yet having to muster up the strength to finish classes remotely. Now, we will always be known as the COVID-19 Class of 2020. I imagine future interviewers asking about “a time you had to overcome a major challenge,” and oh boy do I have a story for you.