College seniors shortchanged as virus upends campus life

Susan Snyder
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – For many college seniors, the spring before graduation serves as a “last hurrah,” as one Temple University student called it.

It’s a time to congregate and savor accomplishments with classmates, cherish final lessons with beloved professors, and prepare to celebrate an achievement with family members.

Not this year.

The coronavirus has ruined that for thousands of college seniors across the country. And frankly, students are sick about it.

“I wish I were a junior,” said Villanova senior Oliver Sperans, 22, of Rosemont. “I want this thing to pass. I want to enjoy college the way it’s meant to be. It’s devastating.”

Almost all colleges in the region have moved to online learning for at least the next few weeks. Many, including the University of Pennsylvania and Temple, West Chester, Rowan, and Lehigh Universities, are among those that have gone even further, taking the unprecedented step of ending in-person instruction for the rest of the semester.

Worse yet, colleges might not be able to hold commencement in May, which typically brings thousands of students, family members, and college staff together.

“That’s honestly the biggest thing. That’s making me very anxious,” said Francesca Furey, 21, a Temple University senior from Rockland County, N.Y. “I worked so hard over the last four years. … My grandmother is 85, and I really wanted her to see me get my diploma. And now, I don’t even know if that is happening anymore.”

Furey, a journalism and history major, was preparing to attend her last in-person classes Thursday. Temple will move to remote instruction Monday.

“It’s kind of surreal, just not knowing when I will see my professors that I love so much next,” said Furey, who intends to remain in her off-campus apartment, “or when I’ll see some friends that I know are graduating.”

Sperans, the Villanova senior, also lives near campus. He agrees with Villanova’s decision to move classes online through April 16 and thinks the school actually should have done so sooner and been more forthcoming with information.

“Everyone was confused and scared,” said Sperans, a political science major.

Mia Fowler, 22, a Yale University senior, is sad, too, that her final year at the Ivy League school has been interrupted. Yale will shift education online after spring break. The university on Saturday said that someone in the Yale community tested positive for the virus on a preliminary test.

“Everything that is exciting about senior year doesn’t happen until after break,” she said, noting that students are focused on midterms and papers before. “The last month is the time we spend together.”

There’s senior week, beach week, and senior traditions she said she’s probably not even aware of.

But she also has kept her personal loss in perspective.

“All these things are a very big deal personally,” said Fowler, a graduate of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, “but you know, there are much more serious things going on, and I’m obviously aware of that.”

Joel Chacko, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, also acknowledged the university was responding to a time of crisis.

“Some things do have to disappear,” said Chacko, 21, of Philadelphia.

But, like Sperans, he would have liked more information from the university, more quickly. A material science and engineering major, he still worries that the online courses Penn shifts to won’t be rigorous enough for him to get enough credit for graduation, though the engineering department assured him they would.

He said he used to spend five to six hours in a lab a week; now, professors will record experiments and send them to students, he said.

He’ll also miss the week between the end of classes and graduation, when seniors can savor their four years of hard work and what it has led to.

Victoria Gilstrap, 21, of Voorhees, a senior business supply chain major at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., tried to remain optimistic that her classmates would be able to return to campus to “end with a bang.”

“We’re just all hoping that we will be back to enjoy our senior year on campus,” Gilstrap said.

Many schools haven’t figured out yet how they will handle commencement.

West Chester University president Christopher Fiorentino left no doubt.

He said he feels awful that the school has had to end all in-person instruction through the end of the semester, and is determined to do what he can to ease that disappointment for seniors. The university will have a commencement, he said, but may have to delay it until a safer time.

“We can’t fix everything,” he said, “but we can certainly make sure their college career ends with the kind of celebration and dignity that they deserve.”