Testing their resilience: Area college students reflect on time in pandemic

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  • University of Massachusetts Amherst freshman biology major Christopher Hernan outside the Integrated Learning Center earlier this month. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst College senior Julia Ralph, photographed on College Street on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire College senior Meekie Inman, photographed outside the Harold F. Johnson Library on Monday in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mount Holyoke College first-year Maddy Sewell photographed on Park Street in South Hadley on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College senior Maria Bermudez on Green Street in Northampton on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Community College sophomore Caitlyn Paul of Holyoke outside the HCC Campus Center on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 3/24/2021 7:15:47 PM

Editor’s note: This story is part of a weeklong series marking the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this series of vignettes, the Gazette caught up with a handful of college students in the Valley and asked for their reflections on how they’ve navigated an unusual year.

Takes nothing for granted

Chris Hernan, a freshman biology student at UMass Amherst, has seen the effects of the pandemic on front-line workers up close and personal throughout the last year.

“My mom is a nurse, so she works right on the (COVID) floor. She comes home really, really stressed every day,” the 19-year-old Scituate resident said. “My dad, he’s a paramedic so he sees some cases. At least they’re not losing their jobs but still, they have to work at the front lines … so he’s working extra on top of all of the overtime he works.”

In living through the struggles of the last year, Hernan said that he has learned to enjoy the little things.

“Don’t take anything for granted,” Hernan said. “I was just so excited for college to come up and visiting (UMass Amherst) pre-COVID with my friends, everything was sunshine and rainbows. I’m more grateful for what I have and I’m trying to complain less.”

Stayed optimistic while isolated

Julia Ralph, a senior Spanish and pre-med student at Amherst College, was studying abroad in Sevilla, Spain when the pandemic began last year. The 21-year-old San Diego resident was quickly whisked back home and isolated from her friends and the college experience.

“I was there (in San Diego) for about six months without seeing any of my college friends, which was tough,” said Ralph.

Last fall, Ralph’s soccer season was canceled at Amherst College due to pandemic concerns.

“I definitely had to be pretty adaptable and motivated to find other things I was interested in,” she noted.

Ralph said that it was important for her to remember that good things were coming. “Staying optimistic was definitely beneficial to get me through the time alone,” she said.

Ready to be outside again

Meekie Inman, a senior human development student at Hampshire College, has struggled with the isolation and stress that has come with living at home with her 93-year-old grandmother and moving from New York City to the locked-down residential community of Amherst.

“Being in a small school meant there were already fewer opportunities for me to (be around) people but now everybody’s huddled up in their houses which I respect because we’re all here to be safe … but I do miss people,” Inman, 20, said. “I am ready to be outside and see people again my own age.”

Inman said that she has tried to find little tasks to keep herself occupied and that the last year has reminded her of all the ways she entertained herself when she was younger as an only child. In addition, she has been trying to find ways to celebrate her last year as an undergraduate in the pandemic.

“I’m trying to figure out how to enjoy my last year without breaking safety guidelines and also without making myself or others uncomfortable but also remembering to celebrate myself,” she said.

Pushing through the challenges 

Maddy Sewell, a freshman biochemistry student at Mount Holyoke College, is thankful that things are starting to reopen as she has grappled with making college connections in quarantine.

“It’s been good being back on campus. I really enjoy being here and there are opportunities that are opening up as everything starts to reopen a little bit,” Sewell, 19, said. “I’m just happy to say that I’m starting to make a lot more friends now because when you’re on Zoom it’s really hard to make those initial connections.”

A native of Scottsdale, Arizona, Sewell was a senior in high school when the pandemic struck leading to the cancellation of her prom and a socially distanced graduation.

“It was definitely really, really hard at first trying to transfer everything over (to online),” she said. “In the end, it’s OK. We’re just trying to stick together and do this together.”

Back in Scottsdale, Sewell and her mother, a hospital worker, volunteered to help give vaccines to first responders.

“It was really emotional because a lot of the doctors themselves were crying when they were getting the vaccines,” said Sewell.

She noted that within the last year she has come to realize how truly resilient she is by pushing through the challenges to keep up and stay focused with school and work.

Learned how to be alone

Maria Bermudez, a senior biological science student at Smith College, said that this year has been exceedingly stressful as she has had to juggle time zones and classes from her home in Madrid, Spain.

“I’m just grateful to be back on campus, to be honest,” Bermudez, 21, said. “I had to do last semester online from home, which meant a six-hour time difference, which was very inconvenient.”

Bermudez also experienced isolation like many others within the last year but with the added detriment of being thousands of miles away.

“I (learned) how to spend time with myself and figuring out how to feel comfortable being alone which is very hard,” she said. “Just learning how to be alone and manage my time … and with less people around to support you.”

Staying motivated in pandemic

Caitlyn Paul, a 20-year-old sophomore at Holyoke Community College, has worked as an emergency room technician at Baystate Medical Center on the front lines of the pandemic. As a biology pre-med student and a medical worker, Paul has experienced lots of stress within the last year trying to juggle her many responsibilities and her exposure risk.

“The pandemic really put me in a place where I had to reevaluate myself and how I go about school and life in general,” said Paul, a Holyoke resident. “Trying to tackle school and work has been a real struggle.”

Paul noted that although this year has been challenging, she has been able to reflect and learn things about herself.

“I learned how truly motivated I am to put myself through school and achieve my goals,” said Paul. “I’m tired as of right now, but I know when I look back at this in a few years I know I’ll be proud of myself.”

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