The Great Experiment: The spring semester ended. Now what?

  • Hampshire College President Edward Wingenbach agreed to have his picture taken for the Gazette even though it was raining Thursday morning, April 9, 2020, in Amherst. Here, on the Thornton Quad, he waits for a ready signal from the photographer before tossing his umbrella out of the frame. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst junior Rongbing Shen practices “The Hounds of Spring,” by Alfred Reed, in the common area of her dorm on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Shen is pursuing a degree in music education and clarinet performance; with the campus effectively closed after the switch to online learning this spring, she practiced most evenings in her dorm. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mount Holyoke College student Juniper Glass-Klaiber. It has been around two months since Juniper, the student government president at Mount Holyoke for this past academic year, returned to her home in New Concord, Ohio. Her classes have finished, and her junior year came to end on May 15.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Abdullah Kawish, 21, who is a rising third-year student at Hampshire College studying film, theater and media studies, sits outside the Jerome Liebling Center at the college, Thursday, April 16, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Christina Royal, shown Nov. 2, 2017 on campus, is the first female president at Holyoke Community College. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Bennett Fagan and friends in face masks. From left: Brandon Wang, Sean Mebust, Bennett Fagan, Noah Jacobs and Jack Fergus. SUBMITTED PHOTO

This is the third and final narrative report in a special series produced by Professor Kathy Roberts Forde’s “Longform Narrative” class in the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They have been following several students from the Five Colleges and Holyoke Community College — as well as profiling select administrators, faculty and staff throughout the spring semester, as they acclimate to the new normal and question what comes next. Here are a few of those stories. 

Bennett

By RACHEL LAMPERT and LUCIE SOARES

Time was running out as Bennett Fagan waited for the Skype app to download on what he called “middle of the forest WiFi.” He and his friends from Amherst College have been struggling to use the internet for schoolwork at the Maine vacation home where they have lived since mid-March. It was 7:59 a.m. and Bennett had an interview at 8. The download still had 40 minutes left.

When we caught up with them, Bennett and his friends were in the middle of finals week. For Bennett, the week wasn’t anything like he expected. The workload was much lighter. “I have one final paper that my teacher said he will be exceedingly generous on and one open-note exam,” he said. 

Maine has warmed up these first few weeks of May, and “the boys,” as Bennett calls his friends, have been making the most of it. When they arrived in March, they didn’t spend much time outside. Now they often sit on the outdoor porch that overlooks a lake. The water had been iced over, but as the landscape springs to life, the lake now offers a beautiful view for the boys to enjoy their last few weeks together. 

One night, they had just finished dinner when Bennett noticed a big, black animal lurking in the woods as darkness settled around them. “We could see these two eyes just looking at us, and it was pretty scary,” Bennett said. He and his friends ran inside, not sure exactly what they had just seen, but they knew to stay away.

Bennett and his quarantine buddies have many funny stories from their weeks of isolation in the wilderness. A few days after the “bear scare,” a toad found its way into the house.  “We left a door open while hanging outside and a toad ended up running around the house. It was in our shared pair of Crocs, and we had to make sure to get it out of here, fast,” Bennett said.

Bennett plans to head back home to Virginia in early June, a few weeks after his classes, finals and virtual graduation celebrations have ended. He is currently unemployed but excited to return home to his family. Bennett will keep applying for jobs over the summer in hopes that, when the pandemic subsides, he can start a new chapter of his life.

But until then, Bennett and the boys will stay in Maine. They have kept busy, having jam sessions with two guitars and a saxophone they have on hand. One guitar has a broken string they aren’t able to fix due to the lockdown, but for these friends, the music plays on. 

Juniper

By MIRANDA DEBRUYN and PARKER PETERS

“It has to be successful, you know, or this is the doom of higher education,” said Juniper Glass-Klaiber when asked about the future of remote learning at Mount Holyoke College (MHC). 

As college semesters across the country come to a close, students and faculty are looking toward the future. It is too early to know what the upcoming fall semester has in store for those who return, but no matter what happens, it will be different.

It has been around two months since Juniper, the student government president at Mount Holyoke for this past academic year,  returned to her home in New Concord, Ohio. Her classes have finished, and her junior year came to end on May 15. 

Juniper had various forms of finals, including an exam, papers and presentations. Her professor reduced the amount of material covered on her exam, and her presentations were prerecorded to be watched by the class online rather than in-person during class. 

“I think that it’s easier for life to get in the way with remote learning,” said Juniper, who’s been helping out with her younger siblings at home. “Because even though I am a college student and I’m going through finals, I’m also being asked by my mom to help out in the garden or to, you know, take a child here or there.”

“Part of the experience of living on campus is just all of those other responsibilities are second to being this college student because you’re there physically and mentally. That is just your one priority, or, hopefully, top priority,” said Juniper. 

Juniper is no longer student government president — someone new is in the role — but she will continue her position on the administration’s Financial Review Group throughout the summer. The group will send updates to the student body biweekly, Juniper said.

“We’re talking about how the COVID-19 crisis has been affecting our college financially, which extends to a lot of different areas from staffing, faculty, curriculum and certainly student life in general,” Juniper said.

In her downtime, Juniper has been gardening with her mother. New Concord has a community garden that her mother started with her friends a few years ago. 

“Instead of trying to put effort into our own garden this year, we’re going to go back and put more effort into the community garden,” she said.

When she and her mother checked out the community garden recently, Juniper said, an animal had started digging things up, and little radishes were sprouting. Most of the produce will be donated to a food pantry at a local church.

Ginger, Juniper’s little sister, is going to help her make a new sign for the garden because Ginger likes art more than gardening. 

“We definitely spend a lot of time outside,” Juniper said. “Our town had a trash cleanup last weekend, and I think our family together had something like five bags of trash collected. My brother is really into that.” 

President Christina Royal

By MAX DUTZIK HENRICKS

Twice during our interview, her phone rings.

“Another typical day,” said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, from her home office, where she has worked since the campus closed in mid-March. 

Constant meetings have kept Royal swamped. For the first several weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, Royal spoke with the presidents of the other 14 Massachusetts community colleges daily during the week and occasionally on the weekends, she said. Combined with cabinet meetings seven days a week and frequent conversations with local four-year institutions, it’s no wonder Royal has had little free time in her schedule.

As a leader, both of the college and the community, Royal has a responsibility to see the college through the transition to remote learning, she said. She was one of the last people to leave the campus grounds. Royal watched as the “energy and essence that makes us not only a college but a community college” drained from the campus. But, she added, life had only physically left the campus. The soul of the college remained strong.

COVID-19 may have separated community members, Royal said, but the administration has “been able to reconnect them by doing trivia nights and playing Pictionary and movie nights and some of these social things that allow people to bond in different ways.”

Still, times have been hard for many students at the college. 

“We have a lot of students that are food insecure and housing insecure and have transportation issues and child care issues,” she said. “All those things that exist pre-COVID times are exacerbated during COVID-19.”

For Royal, helping students means not only providing them with equipment and wireless access, but also stocking the school’s food pantry and even purchasing a desk for a student who didn’t have a place to work.

Once her students had acclimated to virtual learning, Royal began to plan for a variety of future financial scenarios; some anticipated fewer students enrolling in the summer and fall semesters. Royal said that the fear of losing jobs or facing reductions in work hours could keep some students from coming or returning to HCC.

Other possible scenarios theorized that the school could see an increase in enrollment because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Royal said that some students may wish to remain in the area and continue their academic career while they decide on another college to attend.

Most of all, Royal said she sees the forced transition to online learning as an opportunity to step back and reflect on the purpose of higher education. Royal had a passion for digital learning long before she began at HCC, having worked as the associate vice president of e-learning at Cuyahoga Community College for seven years. Now that most Americans grow up in a highly digitized environment, Royal believes education must evolve to better serve a technologically-minded generation. 

Addressing the ongoing pandemic meant “thinking creatively” to adapt academic disciplines that some previously considered impossible to offer online, Royal said. She could not have completed the transition to remote learning on her own, she noted, praising the HCC community of faculty, staff and students. Their flexibility and resiliency “made all of this possible,” she said.

Rongbing

By BENJAMIN ZI-HAO TAN

In late April, Rongbing Shen, a junior at UMass, and her friend arrived at a row of red brick townhouses along North East Street in Amherst. They had been invited to view a unit for lease.

Coming from Shenzhen, China, Rongbing relied on housing accommodations provided by the university during the school year. But when the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled her summer plans, she needed to find off-campus housing.

The university offers summer housing to international students, but Rongbing wanted somewhere more affordable and with more space so she wouldn’t disturb her neighbors when she practices her clarinet. She majors in music education and performance.

Space was her primary concern. Each unit has two rooms and a covered garage across a private driveway — an ideal setup.

Rongbing planned to use one room as a bedroom and the other as her practice studio. Having her own studio would be a significant upgrade from her dorm’s common room, which she converts into a practice space most evenings.

“It was perfect,” Rongbing said. “It even had a garden in the backyard to stretch out and get some air.”

But two days after viewing the townhouse, another potential tenant outbid her. 

Like college students across the United States, Rongbing could never have anticipated the disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She originally had planned to spend the summer attending music festivals, including the International Clarinet Festival in Reno, Nevada. At the festival, she intended to perform “Capriccio for Saxophone, Clarinet, and Piano,” a work by John Heins for mixed ensemble. She enlisted the help of two friends: Zoe Stinson, a saxophonist, and Liat Shapiro, a pianist, from UMass Amherst’s Department of Music and Dance. 

But the International Clarinet Festival was canceled in late March, leaving her once-packed summer schedule with empty stretches.

Though disappointed by the loss of the performance and networking opportunities offered at these summer festivals, Rongbing is determined to press forward and make the most of her summer.

She recently learned that the Henri Selmer Paris International Summer Academy, a festival tailored for clarinetists, moved its program online, presenting an opportunity to participate virtually. This year’s faculty includes seven prominent clarinetists from universities and orchestras in the United States and Italy.

As an auditor, Rongbing can listen to master classes and concerts. She had the option to participate as a performer, but considering her struggles with virtual learning, she decided against it.

Rongbing worries about virtual learning. The sudden shift to remote classes this spring semester exposed a mismatch between her learning style and remote course delivery. She’s eager for in-person classes to resume this fall.

If the fall semester is held online, some classes she registered for will not proceed. In addition, she will miss out on the classes she could not finish in the spring. These include conducting classes, music education classes and studio classes that professors cannot easily teach online. They are crucial to her career, Rongbing feels, because they provide the necessary training and experience to be an effective music educator.

Above all, Rongbing hopes to return to normal soon because, she said, “I really miss making music with all my friends and professors.”

Abdullah

By OWEN BAILEY and JULIA GIZZI

It was May 2018, and the night air was warm as spring turned to summer in Pakistan. Abdullah Kawish sat in a chair on the flat roof of his family home in Islamabad, watching the stars. Sometimes, when Abdullah and his friends stayed out on the roof too late, a neighbor would yell at them to go to bed. But not this night of the holy month.

During Ramadan, practicing Muslims fast during the day for the span of a complete lunar cycle, about 29 days. Islamabad’s population is largely Muslim, and the city, roofs included, is lively at night. Nobody is bothered by a star-gazing teenager.

That fall, Abdullah would leave his home for the United States to attend Hampshire College. It is now May 2020, and Ramadan has rolled around again. It is Abdullah’s first time observing the fast while away from home.

Abdullah misses the carefree celebrations in Islamabad, where his parents handled household responsibilities. Abdullah says the fatigue of having to cook, clean and maintain his coursework while fasting has helped him understand the quiet and reflective demeanor of his parents during Ramadan in Pakistan.

Abdullah and his mod mate are two of three Muslim students still remaining on Hampshire’s campus. Most days during the holy month, they are awake around 3 a.m. and prepare for the fast using groceries delivered by Hampshire’s intercultural spiritual advisor, Syma Sheikh.

Before the threat of COVID-19 led Hampshire to transition to online teaching, Abdullah knew Sheikh as the leader of his Friday prayer meeting. Now, she buys frozen naan bread and vegetable pakora for him as part of the college’s efforts to support those still living on campus. 

The groceries have helped Abdullah so far, but the deliveries will stop, and he will have to move out of his mod when the spring semester ends. Abdullah looked for plane tickets home early in April, but they were prohibitively expensive. Due to the coronavirus, prices had risen from the usual $1,000 to well over $10,000. 

For a time, Abdullah was doubtful he would be able to go home for the summer. He was doing homework and chatting with his parents over FaceTime when his mother told him, “Coronavirus or not, you are coming home.”

For the rest of April, Abdullah spent his spare time scouring the web for deals on Qatar Airways tickets. By May, prices had begun to drop, but the majority of incoming air travel to Pakistan had been suspended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The evening of May 5, Abdullah’s mother sent him a text. Stranded Pakistanis do not have to worry, she told him. The embassy in New York was arranging flights from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Pakistan, part of the Pakistani government’s effort to help citizens abroad affected by the global pandemic. 

Abdullah sent his information to the Pakistani embassy in New York that week and on May 11 viewed a schedule of potential return flights. He has booked his flight for early June, but until then, he has received special permission to remain at Hampshire, which closed for the summer May 19. When he is back home in Islamabad, he will have to quarantine for five days, he said.

The campus Abdullah is leaving does not resemble the campus he once knew. Before coronavirus, Abdullah would walk past twirling dancers in the windows of Hampshire’s Arts Barn on his way to and from class. On May 6, the windows of the Arts Barn were dark and empty when he submitted his last final and concluded his spring semester. 

“I miss the people,” Abdullah said. “It’s the people that make Hampshire … Hampshire.” 

President Edward Wingenbach

By MAX DUTZIK HENRICKS

It’s 10:30 in the morning, and Edward (Ed) Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College, has been in his attic office at home for hours. He had a meeting right before our interview and will speak to the Hampshire College student community in his weekly town hall right after. He says that social distancing has upped the intensity of the meetings, since information can no longer be casually exchanged in the hallway or around the proverbial water cooler. 

Of the nearly 700 students who attend Hampshire, around 160 stayed on campus this spring after the college moved to online learning. Wingenbach credited this small student body with partially reducing the financial impact of COVID-19 on the college. Hampshire expects to see a $1.2 million loss this fiscal year. 

Hampshire shuttered its admissions office last spring when it decided not to accept a full class (it ultimately accepted a class of 13 students who applied early or took a gap year before enrolling). After agreeing on a five-year sustainability plan with the New England Commission of Higher Education, the college rebuilt the office from scratch. The school has accepted 650 students for the fall of 2020, but the question of how many will attend in the era of COVID-19 remains.

Hampshire launched a campaign to raise $60 million by 2024. As of April 2020, Wingenbach said, it has raised $13.4 million, $9.5 million of which has already arrived in cash. He doesn’t expect to see a decline in contributions as a result of COVID-19, though he said that some donors may delay their payments for the moment, opting instead to increase their pledges in the future. Wingenbach said that some people have even accelerated their giving and that Hampshire has already seen hundreds of thousands of dollars pour in from concerned donors.

The feedback from prospective students seems promising, according to Wingenbach. Hampshire’s learning model differs from many other colleges, in that students don’t have majors but pursue independent projects in their field of concentration. As a result, Wingenbach said, applicants tend to be more “sticky,” as they seek a type of education only offered by Hampshire.

Wingenbach attributed the school’s quick adaptation to virtual teaching and learning to its unique learning model. For one, Wingenbach said that faculty have experience experimenting with teaching styles and have previously needed to change quickly in the middle of the semester, something foreign to some professors at mainstream institutions.

Hampshire advisers have stepped back and asked students a series of questions, Wingenbach said. For example: “What was your goal? What were you trying to demonstrate that you’re learning here? How do we make that work in a new, different and creative way, in this environment?” 

Wingenbach said that the students’ quick adaptation to this massive “creative disruption” showcases the “innovative and creative” graduates Hampshire seeks to produce.




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