Well, at least there’s plenty of parking. Pulling up behind Vance Garage at Central Connecticut State University and finding a spot so close to central campus is rare, especially on a grey, rainy spring day. But it isn’t during these pandemic-days. I began my tour of the seemingly empty campus by heading toward Willard-DiLoreto Hall, one of the newer buildings on campus and a hotspot for writers and people looking for a good space to work. As I passed through the garage, not a single car tried to fly past me as I crossed the walkways into James Lot. The rock garden stood abandoned, its stone benches empty, the hammocks missing from the gazebo—its gravel undisturbed—along with the mini golf course.
Finally arriving at Willard-DiLoreto, the cool light of the front atrium, home to the registrar and financial aid office, bled on to the pavement. At the southern corner of the second floor the warm light from the office of Robert Wolff, dean of the college of arts and sciences, is welcoming on such a brooding day. Dean Wolff has been working overtime since the campus was closed.
“We were confronted with the immediate challenge of how to pivot the college from a primarily on ground endeavor to being entirely online in the span of a week. I think we were all aware that could happen, but it was all quite sudden.”
2020 was quite the year for higher education. The pandemic forced one of the most highly communicative generations to isolate in their homes. Workers abandoned their cubicles, and families waved to their loved ones over Zoom.
“I would say, it changed everything and it changed nothing. It changed everything in the sense that, all of a sudden, conversations took on entirely new meanings. We were confronted with the immediate challenge of how to pivot the college from a primarily on ground endeavor to being entirely online in the span of a week. I think we were all aware that could happen, but it was all quite sudden.”
Turning away from Wolff’s office, I walk toward Bassett Hall, a major site of construction for the past few months, finally close to completion; the young un-trampled grass being watered regularly. Despite the lack of students, the bustle of construction is heard from everywhere. Continuing down toward the center of campus, I am greeted with a pleasant surprise: the Schlock Improv Club happens to be meeting in the small amphitheater located just in front of Welte Hall. Club President Sam Pappas and games facilitator Sergio Rodriguez are at the center of it.
“When the first pandemic semester started, there was barely anyone left,” Pappas says. “We had to build the club back up from nothing, and only had our first live show a few weeks ago. We used to draw crowds of over a hundred people, but our last show had less than twenty.”
The club is now a solid group of eleven people who enjoy their time enacting short plays and ad-libbing with one another, in hope that the club will return to its former glory.
I stop in for lunch at Devil’s Den, the campus cafeteria in the heart of the student center. A couple Sodexo employees, leaning on the warm glass, I recognize as friends I once worked with. I’m greeted with the sad truth that over half of the employees I worked with have been laid off or had their hours cut. With the closing of Hilltop Cafeteria and the lack of students on campus, it isn’t necessary to employ so many people. Regardless, they continue their work diligently, despite the sudden changes.
It’s over a year later, and the campus has experienced more transformations than we could ever have imagined: the distance we keep from one another, the way we attend classes, or even the frequency that we see our friends and family. But we have adapted and have steadily pressed forward, albeit with hiccups along the way.
“At some point everyone will realize, not just at Central but everywhere, if you had asked people in January ‘Hey, what do you think about transitioning to a full online university? Let’s do it in a week’ no one would have gone for that,” Dean Wolff told me as we laughed about all the things that we’ve been through over a video chat.
The once busy Devil’s Den is now limited to no more than twenty people, in stark comparison to the endless lines of the pre-pandemic past. I continued on my little trip of nostalgia through campus heading toward the big hill, now split down the middle.
Walking from the Student Center to the top of the hill and the dorms, Thomas Gallaudet, Robert Vance, Sam May and Robert Sheridan, where once, loads of people waited for their turn on the basketball courts, I found backboards with no nets and a dumpster. But some students aren’t even able to attend classes anymore, never mind playing basketball on campus, some forced to withdraw from classes.
For graduating seniors in 2020 and 2021 the pain has been real. Our final year on campus that was supposed to be the highlight of our college career was all but stripped from us, including our spring break. But it isn’t all bad: where we once would have partied, we now spend time with our families—albeit sometimes too much time—but time well spent, nonetheless.
Our campus exile began at the drop of a hat; the moment the first case of Covid was confirmed within the campus gates; yet, to some extent, it changed nothing.
“One of the standard sayings of education, from over 100 years ago, is that you have to meet students where they are. That’s the essence of good teaching, you meet the students where they are. Not where you might hope they are,” Dean Wolff said. “Not where you might wish they were. And so the approach in pandemic was ‘Okay my students are no longer where I thought they were’, so then it becomes how do you adapt?”
Where our professor’s used to spend time worrying about what a student may need to accomplish, they now worry about how the student is as a whole, and how the challenges of the past year have affected, both outside of school and in their coursework. This additional workload that professors have been tasked with is burdensome. Even when a professor is doing incredibly well, outside factors beyond the control of the classroom affect their teaching, from the day to day troubles of life to a power outage.
Dean Wolff said, “In terms of the university, I think that the real change at the university, it’s forced us to really think about what really matters in the student experience. We need to focus more on the student at a holistic level. The tendency at the moment is to say ‘okay i have this student, how can i help them today’ but you don’t think about the broader issues the student might confront. I think that this might change that because for the first time, faculty and some administrators are starting to see this much bigger picture. So, helping them succeed in a history course may be partly about helping them figure out how to have broadband access or how to figure out and navigate an internship.”
“A lot of time and thoughtful effort was put into making the campus safe, as safe as it could be, so as long as people continue to follow those rules we’re fine.”
While managing to flip the world on its head, this pandemic changed so many things about the college experience, from job recruiting and internships, to study abroad programs, and even academic research. Dean Wolff knows this wasn’t easy. “A lot of time and thoughtful effort was put into making the campus safe, as safe as it could be, so as long as people continue to follow those rules we’re fine. Is everybody perfect? No. But nearly everybody is.” The literary festivals and sports clubs, the theater kids and art students, and so many other programs press forward with their endeavors: enacting plays, winning awards, and holding events. The march of time stops for no man and, most certainly, not for a pandemic.
The world is changing once again, and with this passing of the guard, so many things have been brought to light, from the surfacing of activism and progressive ideas to fundamental humanistic movements like Black Lives Matter. And this social and political change may affect what students study in the future. “I’m a historian as you know. Historic events tend to change what people focus on,” Dean Wolff said. “My guess is we will have a lot of students interested in what we might loosely define as helping professions. Things like health care and social work.” The spreading of information never stops and the ability to motivate people even during a pandemic is incredible.
While many people spent their time in isolation, those unable to do so continued working and putting their best effort forward, even while risking life threatening illness. We have lost so many this year; professors, family members, loved ones. But the losses of 2020-2021 will not stop us, nor anyone who has set their sights on their goal. CCSU will adapt and go forward. Dean Wolff told me, “In terms of the university, I think that the real change at the university, it’s forced us to think about what really matters in the student experience. We need to focus more on the student at a holistic level. The tendency at the moment is to say ‘okay I have this student, how can I help them today’ but you don’t think about the broader issues the student might confront. I think that this might change that because for the first time, faculty and some administrators are starting to see this much bigger picture.”
As I walked back down the hill toward the back of Vance Garage I couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief knowing that Central Connecticut State University, despite significant challenges, managed to push onward. There are still people on campus; students in classrooms, teachers in offices, and workers behind their posts. There are still clubs that make the campus look alive and bring back the dream of what the lives of students on campus used to be, but just a little different. And as I slide into the driver’s seat, a boatload of pictures on my phone and all the stories of people in my head, I already know I’ll be back again: there are too many stories left here to talk about.
Drew Pothanszky is a staff writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Drew Pothanszky