Zenani Johnson – University of West Florida

For many college seniors, we are often asked, “what’s next for you?” Now more than ever it is an overwhelming and loaded question. Not having an exact plan can be both scary and frustrating. This question that makes students feel anxious and alone is now a shared one. A question many are asking themselves around the world, as they find themselves without jobs, possibly displaced, and trying to adjust to what we pray is not the new normal.

As we think about those impacted during this pandemic, we know that some populations are impacted more significantly than others. College students are not only adjusting to the new “abnormal” of life, but are still working towards earning their degrees. Some will have the opportunity to return to college and readjust to life as they once knew it. However, for others like myself, we left for spring break not realizing that it was our last day at our universities.

For us, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic were alerts asking students to leave campus immediately, being asked not to return to campus after spring break, and for some students, being stranded on campus without a home. Not homeless because of the pandemic, but because they had no homes, no family. College was the place we called home, and for others, their university is their only home. As universities across the nation worked towards fundraising and providing resources for students in need, faculty learned to teach online classes overnight and students attempted to overcome mental health challenges and complete school—all while helping family back at home. We knew instantly this would not be the easiest transition.

This pandemic provides a clear view of the obstacles college students face while earning their degrees. We found that some students’ only access to technology was the library, which was now closed. We discovered that students don’t always have disposable income to buy a plane ticket or rent a car to get home. We also realized that college campuses serve as the only source of employment for some students. With universities closed, students not only lost their connections with friends and their senior year memories, but also their sources of income, homes, and access to resources for books and technology.

For seniors like me, the final memories of college have ended, along with the chance of walking across the stage with our fellow graduates. Commission ceremonies for students going into the armed forces may not happen, and internship and employment opportunities being rescinded. This causes more angst, in addition to the unexpected ending to our college careers. However, my peers and I are hopeful and optimistic for the future. We’re finding ways to celebrate the joys in the little things. This pandemic demonstrated our resiliency and our work never stopped, even though we are no longer on campus.

Our universities are at the forefront working to assist not only our students, but our community during this unprecedented time. Institutions within Florida’s SUS are developing and donating PPEs for our healthcare workers, working at testing sites, and volunteering as online tutors for high school students as they too adjust to this new world of online education. Once again, higher education is moving society forward and reaffirming the importance of investing in our educational system, from elementary through university.