For years, Monica Lopez looked forward to May 15, the day she would graduate from Texas A&M University-San Antonio, crossing the stage after a journey of almost 20 years to complete her bachelor’s degree.

Now in her 40s, Lopez entered the University of Texas at San Antonio right after she graduated from high school. She completed her first year, but financial challenges forced her to drop out. She went on to marry and have four children.

When her oldest daughter graduated from high school and applied to college, Lopez decided to complete her own studies. Lopez enrolled at Palo Alto College and then TAMU-SA to pursue a communications degree.

Jessica Lann, who envisioned a career in production or television news after graduation from TAMU-SA, pictured herself crossing the stage to collect her four-year degree. She even skipped her associate degree graduation ceremony because she thought getting her bachelor’s was what really mattered.

Both students looked forward to their scheduled graduation date until TAMU-SA President Cynthia Teniente-Matson announced the postponement of the commencement ceremony in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The university still plans to celebrate graduates in some way in May but will delay the commencement ceremony until fall, the president said.

“I’ve been really excited about the whole class of 2020 and finally graduating and finally getting my degree,” Lopez said. “It’s been a very big disappointment and it hurts a lot.”

For Lann, graduation represents a milestone capping six years of studies in higher education.

“I’m still going to have my degree at the end of the day, but it’s just not going to be that same celebration,” she said.

TAMU-SA’s student publication, The Mesquite, published commentaries from three seniors who discussed their sense of loss, feelings shared by countless college students who had their spring semester upended by coronavirus. San Antonio’s college campuses announced a switch to remote learning for the foreseeable future and most said they would close campuses for the remainder of the spring semester. Announcements have not been made about coronavirus’ impact on summer courses.

For students, these changes meant not only the upheaval of the traditional college experience but a loss of housing and crucial elements of instruction.

Little notice for dorm move-outs

UTSA junior Savannah Dill was one of many who were unsure of how to handle housing changes imposed without much notice. Dill lives in a privately owned dorm on campus and relies on her housing for basic needs, including internet, laundry, and on-campus meals. Dill was in the foster care system and said there are many students like her who depend on on-campus housing.

“Some people live on campus due to either family or financial problems,” Dill said. “So it’s more of a security, like being near to your resources. A lot of people are stressed about their mental health because they are now at home.”

When UTSA announced campus would close for the rest of the semester, Dill worried about what she should do next. As of Thursday, she still didn’t have a clear answer on whether the operator of her dorm would let residents out of their leases. No move-out instructions had been issued, she said, leaving Dill in limbo.

Trinity University student Mai Vo, whose parents live in Cambodia, faced similar questions. When the school announced dorms would close, the piano performance major needed access to a piano for her now-remote classes. Vo’s parents don’t have a piano, so she decided to stay put in the United States.

She turned to a friend and the only other piano performance major at Trinity, Ethan Jones, for help with housing. The two are now completing their studies at Jones’ family’s home in Fort Worth and finding that it can be a challenge to translate piano performance curriculum to online classes.

“[Our piano teacher] said she spent all day [Saturday] trying to figure out the different angles around the piano and how she could set up a video,” Jones said. “It’s such a physical act to be able to teach someone and … figure out how to perform acts of playing the piano, so it is really hard when you don’t have that in-person contact.”

No substitute for hands-on learning

TAMU-SA senior and communications student Alejandro Diaz experienced similar frustrations with his own switch to remote learning. He is enrolled in a TV news class and produced a news show out of Univision’s studios.

“That’s my favorite class and we don’t get to do it anymore,” Diaz said. “[Another] class that I’m taking is an internship at Univision and I don’t get to be there anymore to show my skills and show what I know.”

Diaz and Lann, also using the Univision internship for class credit, said they depended on the internship for hands-on learning. Both students expressed dismay that their learning opportunity had been cut short.

Diaz hopes the disruptions caused by coronavirus will be over by the fall semester and he can retake the courses. He hoped to graduate in December, but might be delayed until May 2021 if he has to retake the internship.

UTSA students are also worried about how online learning might affect their grades. Close to 4,500 people have signed a petition to make UTSA’s grading system pass/fail for the semester.

“With all these imminent changes happening during midterm season, I don’t think any university grading system is advanced enough to properly assess whether a student deserves an A. B, C, D or F in any course,” wrote the petition’s author, Ugo Abakwue.

Gabriella Miles signed the petition and remarked that she was struggling with her statistics class and could no longer get on-campus tutoring.

Provost Kimberly Andrews Espy directed UTSA’s faculty senate to develop a recommendation on the matter no later than April 3, spokesman Joe Izbrand said.

Questions about grading is just one impact of many college students are likely to feel for months to come.

When UTSA President Taylor Eighmy notified students of instructional changes on March 17, he acknowledged that the coronavirus had created an unprecedented situation on college campuses, requiring “tough calls on a daily basis.”

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.