Landon+Webb%2C+a+senior+commercial+photography+major%2C+poses+for+a+portrait+in+Durham+Park.

Evan Bates

Landon Webb, a senior commercial photography major, poses for a portrait in Durham Park.

From masks to degrees: App State’s COVID cohort

The class of 2023 reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic and how it shaped their college experiences.

May 3, 2023

Leaving campus for spring break can be exciting, as adventures or relaxation usually awaits— beach trips with friends, traveling and attending parties, or just the thought of seeing family for the first time in months. However, the adventures were put on a quick pause, the traveling and parties were strictly prohibited and the week-long relaxation with family turned into months. 

Classes will continue as scheduled,” read a university email from March 9, 2020. Within 48 hours, another email was sent: “Effective immediately, Appalachian State University is extending Spring Break until 8am on March 23.”

The spring graduating class of 2023 were freshmen when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., causing the country to shut down in March of 2020. This class went to their hometowns for spring break expecting to come back to Boone in one week. One week turned into two, and two turned into months; but many, including the university, did not anticipate the second half of that sentence.

Pullquote Photo

I was very slow to accept it as a life-changing thing,

— Amelia Rhodes

Now seniors, App State’s COVID cohort reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic and how it shaped their college experiences.

Amelia Rhodes, a senior healthcare management major, said before leaving for spring break freshman year, she had heard rumors of the virus not thinking “it was going to be that serious.” Once the university emails came out, it became a “very slow understanding of, like, ‘Okay we’re not coming back.’”

“I was very slow to accept it as a life-changing thing,” Rhodes said. “I wanted to think it was just going to be like another week.”

Amelia Rhodes, a senior healthcare management major, poses for a portrait in Plemmons Student Union. (Evan Bates)

Soon, people living in dorms were told to pack up and move out. Rhodes said moving out of the dorms felt “awful.”

Savannah Fields, a senior elementary education major, described the changes the pandemic brought as “a movie.”

“In a day’s time, like, the whole world just changed,” Fields said.

Being a freshman is a time for many learning experiences. Freshmen have to learn to adapt to college life and living away from home, and Fields said the suddenness of the pandemic felt like “one more new thing” she had “to get used to.”

Freshmen also have to figure out a major to stick with for the next four years. Rhodes said she was exploring her major as a freshman, but COVID-19 made it “very hard to do that.”

Although the university offered major-specific classes via Zoom to help with reaching that decision, students valued the in-person learning and experiences the pandemic took away. For hands-on majors such as photography, this was an especially big challenge.

Landon Webb, a senior commercial photography major, said he started his first photography classes when everyone was sent home. He said it was “really weird,” “funny” and “difficult” learning photography online because “photography is just, like, a lot of hands-on stuff.”

“I still don’t feel, like, as comfortable as I would have been if I was able to take it, you know, like fully in person like everyone else does,” said Portia West, another senior commercial photography major who had to take Studio Photography online.

West and Webb said Zoom presented other challenges such as paying attention, staying on top of work, staying motivated and building relationships with professors.

Landon Webb, second on the left, on Sanford Mall in August of his freshman year, 2020. (Courtesy of Landon Webb)

It’s hard to, like, get up and go on a Zoom when you know, you could probably just skip it or, like, join it and then turn your camera off and then go to sleep,” Webb said. 

For Fields, an elementary education major, presenting lessons and projects to classrooms over Zoom was difficult because of the possibility of students not listening to her.

Outside of academics, however, the pandemic prevented other things from happening or fully developing. Adventures such as study abroad opportunities were quickly postponed or canceled, game days and university events were not happening and college expectations as a freshman were tarnished.

“College was basically the place I, like, started to hate the most,” Rhodes said. 

One expectation Rhodes had was that college was the time to meet people, but due to safety restrictions, “college started to feel a lot more like jail than something enjoyable” because there was an “encouragement of not socializing.” 

“That’s the opposite of what I heard before COVID,” Rhodes said. “It’s, like, you need to make as many friends as possible, do ‘X’ number of things, then all of the sudden it was, like, ‘Don’t do those things,’” Rhodes said.

She said because of the lack of socialization during the pandemic, there were not a lot of opportunities to develop social skills. When sophomore year rolled around and classes started to go back to in-person, Rhodes did not feel prepared to “go back to normal.”

Rhodes described this as: “Feeling like you’re 19 when you’re 22 constantly because you feel like you didn’t have that time to grow up.”

Portia West, a senior commercial photography major, poses for a portrait in Durham Park. (Evan Bates)

West said she missed out on gaining friendships within her department. She said they started making friends their second semester of freshman year after finally being settled in Boone, and then “right as I was, like, building strong friendships, we all got sent home.”

“I had, like, so many potential friendships that were just completely lost because, like, everything got thrown online and I never saw half of those people ever again,” West said.

Although students had the option to go to in-person classes their sophomore year, West said they still missed out on almost two-years of building relationships.

“I wish that, you know, the friends I’m making this year are people that could have been in my life for the past three years, for the past four years,” West said.

Rhodes said because of the quarantine, she attempted to keep relationships through FaceTime but did not feel “as strong of a sense of community as I would have if I hadn’t gone through the COVID experience.”

The university has gone back to its normal operations, and as a result, these seniors have had the opportunity to experience what they missed out on with their remaining years. However, some wish they had more time.

“It’s super fun and I like it, but I’m, like, I’m also at the age where I’m supposed to be finding a job soon and, like, becoming a real adult,” Rhodes said. “I wish I had, like, two more years of just figuring myself out more.”

Although the first large wave of the pandemic was a time of many hardships, some then-freshmen made the most out of the quarantine period and how it shaped their college experience.

Savannah Fields, a senior elementary education major. (Courtesy of Savannah Fields)

Fields said she took advantage of the online classes by taking her classes wherever she went, such as outside or to work. As a result, she was able to work more hours compared to when she had to go to classes in person.

She also said the pandemic “opened up a new window” for her and how she hung out with friends. Instead of going to the mall or shopping, she and her friends would meet at parks or the lake and she had the opportunity to rekindle old friendships from high school more because everyone was home.

Similarly, Rhodes reached out to people more, such as family and friends.

Despite the challenges COVID-19 presented, these seniors overcame the pandemic and now college.

“I hear a lot more stories, especially these days of people that ended up dropping out because of COVID and then not coming back,” West said. “I’m, like, kind of glad that I pushed through because I feel like it made me a stronger person in some ways.”

 Four years later, these seniors and the rest of the COVID cohort are now graduating college across a stage surrounded by all their families and friends, something some didn’t expect to happen.

“I’m really grateful for that because you know, we didn’t know for a while what was gonna happen,” Rhodes said.” So, I just feel very grateful that I get to graduate like that because I know so many people didn’t, so I’m very grateful to have, like, that closure.”

Based on their experiences, these graduates said they have gained takeaways that they will use going forward.

Rhodes said one takeaway she gained from the pandemic is time management. She said she will be using her newfound skills in whatever she ends up doing post college. Another takeaway she has is “enjoying the little things in life” because of how things can just be gone within a second.”

After graduation, Fields said she will be a third grade teacher in August. She said COVID-19 taught her the importance of sanitization, and will ensure her future classroom is clean so her students do not get sick. 

Webb, who will be staying in Boone after graduation, said COVID-19 taught him the importance of managing one’s mental health and not taking things for granted. He said he is thankful for having a graduation and said he will be relaxing and taking a break after school.

West said one of their biggest takeaways from the pandemic is having patience.

“Some things are gonna seem really rough at first, but then they’ll, you know, they’ll work out in the end,” West said.

West is planning on moving to Raleigh after graduation and hopes to continue her work in photography, but will be patient and “fill in the space and time” with other jobs.

West also said they gained a lot of respect for other people.

“We all went through it together, you know, we’re all still alive, still kicking, pushing through,” West said.

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  • R

    Ruben GuzmanMay 5, 2023 at 12:30 am

    Very well written story. So happy for all of them.

    Reply
  • C

    CynthiaMay 3, 2023 at 6:44 pm

    Great story!
    Congratulations to all seniors who never gave up and will now graduate!

    Reply
2