Ten UT Austin students share their thoughts on a college experience they never saw coming.
By Danielle Lopez
There’s no telling how we’re going to feel looking back at 2020 — or if we’ll even remember the day in, day out all that well in the distant future. In April, Vice ran a story that addressed how for people who’ve spent the pandemic isolating at home, with little to break up the monotony, most of this will be a blur. For health care workers and anyone else on the front lines, this pandemic might be a point of trauma.
But as much as it seems like the world as we knew it is standing still, and may even be unrecognizable by the time this is over, it has been a year saddled with emotion. As the pandemic claims more lives and the second civil rights movement comes knocking on every state’s door, it has been a time of grief, confusion, frustration, anger, and fear. Alongside it all, life — and the smaller moments within it that bring us joy — carries on. Families are celebrating graduations, engagements, and babies over their computer screens; strangers are finding ways to fall in love; neighbors, eager for new hobbies, are leaving freshly baked loaves of sourdough at each other’s doors.
For students, it has been a time of momentous unknowing. This year has been about adapting to online education, navigating being back home with families, and processing national political unrest. Many are wary of returning to campus while COVID-19 still looms and can’t fully envision what their fall semester will look like. All they can do is hope for the best.
To capture this feeling in time, the Alcalde asked 10 students what it feels like to be heading into the fall semester of 2020.
Senior; Health and Society Honors, Government
The uncertainty of this year is nothing new to Jamie Turcios-Villalta. She’s a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — her future and status in the U.S. is always up for debate. On June 18, Dreamers like Turcios-Villalta and their families let out a collective sigh of relief when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of DACA, preventing the program’s immediate end. It was a decision Turcios-Villalta had been waiting on since the Trump administration first proposed dismantling DACA in 2017. For just a moment, DACA recipients could feel sure that they would be able to stay home and Turcios-Villalta could revel in an instance of clarity.
“How do you plan after graduation or prepare for the rest of your life when you really don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few months? Everything shutting down and the anticipation of the DACA decision was a lot of stress. Being an undocumented student has been really difficult, just navigating policies that change throughout my whole entire four years. I’m taking the DACA decision as a win for now and just moving forward.”
PhD Student; Biochemistry
Despite spending months working toward a cure for COVID-19, life in the pandemic isn’t much different than usual for Daniel Wrapp. As a PhD student, his world was already just lab, eat, sleep, repeat. But now the stakes are higher. Wrapp is a researcher on UT professor Jason McLellan’s team, which has been working on coronaviruses for the last five years. Along with about eight other researchers, they’ve been working nonstop to find a treatment for COVID-19.
“I’ll be interested a few years from now to look back and reflect. For us in the lab, it’s pretty much been business as usual, but the whole world changed. If there wasn’t an active corona outbreak, we would still be doing this work. Now we’re just doing it with a really heightened sense of urgency. If we have the ability to develop a cure, we’re going to work our hardest to accomplish that.”
Senior; Government, Public Relations
Caroline Graves was supposed to be working as an intern at Google in Ann Arbor, Michigan, this summer — not working from her grandmother’s kitchen in Austin. But the pandemic altered everyone’s plans this year. She’s eager for some sense of normalcy to return this fall semester when she is back on campus in her single dorm.
“This has definitely been a time of upheaval. The only constant is change. I just hope other Longhorns in our community understand the risks that are posed to other students. I have a disability, and I’m a little immunocompromised, and I have reservations about returning. A virtual environment has been more equitable in many ways. It’s easier to contact your teachers if you’re feeling pretty tired because of a chronic illness or something. Now you can just log into Zoom and there’s your class, you know? There have definitely been some positives in a weird, twisted way. But obviously there have been drawbacks. Everybody wants to see their friends and do in-person activities. It’s been very hard for me, but I think that if we respect each other, we can all get through this together.”
Freshman; Business Honors
Daija Esparza is one of almost 9,000 incoming freshmen whose first year at UT Austin is going to be unlike any other. A recipient of the Madison Charitable Foundation Forty Acres Scholarship, the first-generation student from San Juan, Texas, was looking forward to moving north and living on her own for the first time. Now, one socially distant high school graduation and virtual UT orientation later, it looks like another year at home.
“I was definitely looking forward to leaving the Valley.
I love where I grew up, but I got so excited to move into a new environment — to meet new people and be exposed to things I’ve never been exposed to before. It’s just crazy to feel like I’m going to be a freshman twice. I’m being introduced to the curriculum, but then how will I be introduced to the school itself? Being a freshman is exciting. It’s finally time to take initiative of what we want to do with our lives. But at the same time, right now, it’s terrifying. We’re stepping into adulthood in the middle of a pandemic and a lot of things are uncertain. But we’ve just got to focus on right now, take it day by day, and hope for the best.”
Earl Potts Jr.
Junior; Computer Science, Black Studies
In a time when everyone is stuck inside their homes, Earl Potts Jr. has garnered much more public attention than he ever anticipated. As Black Lives Matter marches flooded
Austin streets, Potts wanted to do his part. He developed Keep Austin Black, an app that highlights Black-owned businesses in Austin. Currently, around 200 are listed across 15 different categories.
“Everything was crazy at first, but I guess I’m pretty quick to accept things. I couldn’t go out and protest how I wanted to but I’m pretty passionate about student activism. I wanted to find a way to contribute so I decided to pour my time and frustrations into making the app. It’s a whole other beast having to deal with politics right now and fighting for civil rights during the pandemic. Hopefully things will get right by the time we’re in spring.”
When campus shut down in March, Kiswa Mahar, an international student from Pakistan, was studying abroad in the United Kingdom. Instead of coming back to the U.S., she stayed with her family back home for a few months. But in anticipation of borders closing, she returned early to Austin.
Five days after she was back in her apartment, she was one of the nearly 5,000 Longhorns who ICE threatened to deport in July. Mahar and the Planet Longhorns, a UT Austin group of foreign students, created a petition that garnered more than 18,000 signatures calling for the university’s help in finding a way to keep them in the U.S. Just two days after speaking with Mahar, the Trump administration rescinded the policy after numerous universities and states filed lawsuits. For now, Mahar’s status is safe, but she’ll never forget the feeling of being unwanted by the country she resides in.
“I love it here. I love Austin. I love the campus and student life. I’d be so sad if I got deported. It felt nice to be international at UT. Everyone wanted to learn about where we were from and it felt special. We’ve always been welcome at UT but now it feels like we’re not welcome in America. I was happy but now it’s just stressful. I’m hoping that no more announcements like the one from ICE happen.”
Sophomore; Plan II Honors, Business Honors
While the virus has brought many parts of life to a halt, for Andrew Zhang and his peers at The Daily Texan, their worlds have yet to slow down. Directly from his childhood bedroom in College Station, Zhang has been part of the team keeping the student body informed as a general news reporter — from publishing stories on the Cabo-49 students who contracted the virus at the start of the state’s shutdown to Black Lives Matter protests in Austin to Interim President Jay Hartzell’s plan for opening campus in the fall.
“Coming home for me wasn’t too difficult. I felt like I was pretty fortunate compared to some of my peers who may have not necessarily had a stable housing or economic situation. The word I’d use to describe how it feels to be a student right now is ‘confusing.’ I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. For a lot of us, we were finally figuring out how we fit in at UT and what organizations we wanted to be a part of and what we wanted to pursue academically. And then we were just abruptly separated from campus. It was definitely challenging.”
It’s a strange time to be a student-athlete, especially for a swimmer like Austin Katz. He and his teammates on the Texas Men’s swimming and diving team are still training in Austin. But facilities on campus are closed, so the athletes have been displaced and are practicing in private recreational pools around the city. Still, Katz welcomes the semblance of routine keeping him tethered during this time. He is unsure of what comes after school ends next year, especially right now that Olympic trials, for which he was a contender, have been postponed indefinitely. But he says he’s ready to roll with the punches.
“This isn’t what I thought my senior year was going to look like. I had to re-center myself. I don’t really know what the future looks like, especially being interested in the film industry. It’s weird to be heading out into a landscape that’s changing rapidly. I’m looking forward to it, but there’s definitely some nerves.”
As the director of operations for Afrikan American Affairs, a student agency within the Multicultural Engagement Center, Amel Weaver was one of the many students who helped develop the “8 Demands for Transformative Change” issued to the UT administration calling for a more equitable campus. Though the pandemic sent her back home to Dallas for a few months, her concerns rest more with how campus is going change for the betterment of its Black students.
“There’s so much uncertainty and different things that a person could be bothered by during this time. It’s just stressful to have to go to school and worry about, you know, ‘I could wake up sick tomorrow.’ And there’s a lot of trauma going on in the Black community right now. I want to see more support for Black students and make sure that UT is an inclusive environment.”
This wasn’t the student body presidency Anagha Kikkeri expected. Within a week of her being named SBP, the coronavirus shut down the state and sent her packing back to Dallas. She never thought she’d be spending her last year at UT stuck inside her home, or leading the Longhorn community through her computer screen. Her days have been consumed meeting with student organizations and administration, crafting a list of actions calling for the university to be a more equitable place, and getting through schoolwork.
“We ran on the platform of having diversity inclusion, equity infused into everything that we do. And corona is not going to stop us from doing anything. I have no plans to abandon any of our initiatives. We’re just going to alter them to be corona-friendly this year. This is one of the most critical periods I can think of since I’ve been alive. We truly have given so much weight to everything that is happening right now.
It’s all very heavy. It’s a historical time to be a student. And honestly, our student body is going to be really durable because we have been through so much. It’s hard to see this right now, but I really hope and feel like we’re going to come out of this stronger.”